August Wilson was born and raised in Pittsburgh. If you don’t know that, you’ve never seen one of his plays, virtually all of which take place there. If you’ve never seen one of his plays, you’ve missed the chance to be in contact with one of the great cultural achievements of our time. Almost alone in the American theater of the past three decades, August Wilson was an artist who thought on a grand scale, who set himself an epic ambition and achieved it. Even with the tragic news of his untimely death this week, of liver cancer, at the harrowingly young age of 60, his is a success story. That destiny gave him only a few bare months in which to look back and relish his success raises his story to the level of myth.
Soft-spoken, easygoing, and modest, August was the least grandiose and least arrogant artist imaginable to achieve something so big. You might expect the man who could envision and create a 10-play cycle illustrating African American life in the 10 decades of the 20th century to be haughty, self-demonstrating, full of pronouncements about the high meanings of his work. That was not August’s way. I served as his dramaturg twice, on the O’Neill Playwrights Conference staged readings of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and The Piano Lesson. In between the two experiences, he had become a world-famous writer, a Broadway success, a Pulitzer Prize, Tony , and Drama Critics Circle award winner. It did not change August. Like all dedicated artists, he was a worker and a learner, anxious to see things come right, anxious to test out any way he could help them do so. And like all the best artists, under his amiability he was a deep believer in his own sense of what was right. You could suggest any amount of revisions to him, and he would listen and reflect on them deeply. But in the end it was always vision, not revision, that counted for August. He would cut and he would reshape, but if he felt that even the smallest word was essential to a play, that word could not be moved.
This mixture of modesty and absolute self-confidence was the key to August’s success: His is an epic of people, in which the grand historical movements of the larger world are not preached upon but reflected through the lives of distinct, graspable individuals, usually in an enclosed space: a boardinghouse parlor, a recording studio, a modest front yard, a corner diner. The world is vast and beyond our control, but the humans in it live for individual needs, within a constantly evolving cultural pattern. This dynamic tension between history and the individual is reflected in the plays’ aesthetic tension, for though each of them has the superficial look of a traditional well-made play, each of them is really a free-flowing river of poetic impressions and musings, a point often lost on those who mistake August for (or would have liked him to be) a conventional Broadway realist. What he was really about was what all great tragic poets are about: the transfiguration of reality. This explains the mythic power of his plays to grip. Everything in a Wilson play is both recognizably real and yet larger than life, the quintessence of the paradox being the figure of Aunt Ester, whom we meet in the cycle’s first play and whose death casts a shadow over its ninth. A healer whose practices belong to pre-Christian African religions, Aunt Ester is literally older than America: In
Gem of the Ocean, she produces, as if displaying her credentials, a colonial bill of sale for herself.
The devastating quiet dignity with which Phylicia Rashad played that unforgettable moment on Broadway last year underscores another important aspect of August’s work: Though rarely about artists (Ma Rainey, as in other ways, is the significant exception), his plays are a medium for African American art, a source of opportunity and a celebration of creativity. The speeches that distend his “well-made play” structures, jazzing them the way a great trumpet or sax player jazzes a popular tune, are unexampled occasions for great acting to cast a spell on the theater. To think of the great characters and scenes in August’s plays is to think of an epic parade of great African American actors who have seized their moment to make theater history: James Earl Jones and Mary Alice in Fences, Charles S. Dutton in Ma Rainey and The Piano Lesson, S. Epatha Merkerson confronting him in the latter, Roscoe Lee Browne sagely ironic in Two Trains Running, Stephen McKinley Henderson oozing malice in Jitney, Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Lisa Gay Hamilton glaring a skyful of weaponry at each other in Gem of the Ocean. The list is long, and will get longer. There may be no new August Wilson plays (though New York has yet to see the cycle’s final play, Radio Golf), but the ones we have will be back time and again.
August’s faith in black America, welded at the heart to his faith in himself, put him at the flashpoint of the paradoxical position that all African Americans find themselves in: They cannot be only “African” or only “American.” All of us, except the Native American tribes, know that we came here from somewhere else, but Africans came by different means, and (until the recent influx of economic and political immigrants) not of their own will. As conscious of this history as he was of his own divided parentage (his father was not only white but a German immigrant), August was driven by two partially conflicting goals: that black American artists occupy a recognized place in the mainstream, and that black America celebrate the culture it had evolved in its own communities. He wanted there to be black theaters, with all-black administrative and artistic staffs, and disdained the idea of black actors appearing in Shakespeare and other “white” European classics; at the same time (as black cultural nationalists often pointed out derisively), he saw his plays produced in the mainstream “white” theaters of the resident-theater movement and Broadway. This dilemma drew him into controversies, such as the one that led to his famous “debate” with Robert Brustein, in which, to my mind, neither side made very convincing arguments (a fact that, as a friend to both men, I found deeply dismaying). I still remember Bob Brustein declaring that every resident theater had black artists on its roster, and August replying, with well-earned rue, “generally in February”—Black History Month being when most nonprofits schedule their “token” African American play.
As with other controversies that marked August’s later years, his need to confront the problem of racism, and his ability to command a large public forum for the confrontation, were the significant elements. Nobody expected him, or Brustein, to offer an instant solution to an affliction that, like Aunt Ester, predates America’s existence. But without August’s willingness to take a contentious stand—the controversy began with a speech he gave at a Theatre Communications Group conference—the question would never have been raised. Something similar happened, with even grimmer results, when he aborted the production of Fences as a feature film, because the producers declined to hire an African American director. This was not a matter of Wilson’s being a racist—he worked willingly and congenially with white artists in every capacity, and was invariably gracious in acknowledging their contribution—but of his affirming, once again, African Americans’ right to a place in the mainstream, and particularly in interpreting works that were products of African American culture. My single greatest regret, apart from the personal ache I feel at his loss, is that we will never see the plays he would have written after the completion of the cycle; I had always expected—hoped?—that they would take place in the world he had experienced in his theater work, a world where black and white mingled and collaborated freely.
It was not for August to imagine a world he had not experienced. His epic is one grounded in reality; his was not the way of the fantasist. That is why he was able to laugh off the accusation that, in focusing on African Americans, his plays were “narrow” in their subject matter. People are people everywhere, but the world you know is the one you write. His models were African American artists: He revered Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka; a major stimulus to his playwriting was his reading, in the 1960s, about the work of Ed Bullins (also the author of an ambitious play cycle) at the New Lafayette Theatre; the images of Romare Bearden wielded great influence. August’s original plan for the cycle was to name each play after a Bearden painting (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone was initially titled Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket). But the closed-off spirit that is the source of racism was nowhere to be found in him: Whatever he felt about black actors playing Shakespeare, he delighted in discovering works by writers, artists, and composers new to him. I once took him to a Kurt Weill concert; he was thrilled by the music, and doubly so when he discovered that the song which had moved him most, “Lonely House,” had words by his beloved Langston Hughes. A big, expansive, life-loving man, August delighted in the variety and surprise of human experience, and his delight is visible in every nuanced turn of his extraordinary speeches.
Not many years ago, I had the honor of interviewing him onstage at the 92nd Street Y. When he retold the now-familiar story of his dropping out of school at 15 and spending his days in the public library, I asked him what he had read there, expecting to hear a familiar litany of African American writers. To my astonishment—the 92nd Street Y’s archive videotape must show me nearly falling off mychair—he answered, “Ruth Benedict,” and after I had caught my breath, we found ourselves discussing the whole panoply of his plays in the context of cultural anthropology. The scientific and systematic aspects of August’s approach became abruptly visible to me: Look at the use of social-science parameters in the opening scene of Fences, or the constant playing on superstition and stereotype in The Piano Lesson. There are many such surprises still to be discovered in August’s plays. In that sense, he will still be here with us, sharing his extraordinary gifts. That he will not be present to witness our joy in the discovery is an inexpressible loss to everyone who knew him, to the theater, and to America.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 27, 2005