August Wilson: The writer
for our century
August Wilson smoked heavily and coughed a lot but even so seemed
a permanent fixture. His death on Oct. 3 from inoperable liver cancer
is still difficult to accept with equanimity.
Wilson won theater’s most prestigious awards, yet he was a
man who moved easily among everyday people. Wilson earned two Pulitzers,
an Olivier Award, and numerous Tonys for the plays and the actors
in them. He will also become the first African American to have
his name on a Broadway theater, the former Virginia Theater on 52nd
Street in New York.
His cycle of plays, one for each decade in the 20th century, brought
the African American experience out from the fringes and far from
the weirdness of racist stereotypes and put the truth firmly and
forever center stage in American theater.
A high school dropout, Wilson educated himself by going to public
libraries and reading the works of James Baldwin and Langston Hughes.
He started writing himself after he put together $25 to buy a typewriter.
He would later set many of his plays in the Hill District of his
hometown Pittsburgh that was a destination of black people leaving
the South for better economic opportunity.
In a 1990 interview, Wilson was in Boston to tinker with his latest
play at the time, “Two Trains Running.” He talked about
the importance of music in his plays as we sat at a corner table
at Annie’s, the cafeteria next door to Huntington theater.
“There was always music at the Crawford Grill,” he said
referring to his favorite hangout during his youth in his hometown
of Pittsburgh. “In another era, I’d have been a musician.
His characters sang his opinions without slipping into excessive
moralizing. “White folks don’t understand about the
blues,” said Theresa Merritt during her performance in the
title role of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the
first of Wilson’s plays to find a home on Broadway. “They
don’t understand that it’s a life’s way of talkin’.
You don’t sing to feel better… you sing ‘cause
that’s a way of understanding life…”
Wilson called the blues a part of “the blood’s
“I position myself where I can commune with something larger
than myself, some sort of racial memory that can add or fuel my
writing,” Wilson explained. “The title of ‘Two
Trains Running’ comes from a blues song that has the line,
‘two trains running …neither one going my way…
The idea is to raise the issues for African Americans of cultural
assimilation or cultural separation, or if you don’t buy into
either you must walk or build a new railroad,” he said.
This 1984 production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
was the result of a relationship with director Lloyd Richards who
had spotted Wilson’s talents early on. Richards also had directed
the original 1959 Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s
“Raisin in the Sun.”
Together they honed “Ma Rainey” at the Yale Repertory
Theater where Richards was dean of the graduate school of drama,
and together they would do many more of Wilson’s plays including
The final play in Wilson’s cycle, “Radio Golf”
will have its text printed in the November issue of “American
Theatre” magazine, along with what will be his last extensive
interview which is with Suzan Lori-Parks, an African American and
Pulitzer Prize winner.
During Mr. Wilson’s last visit to Boston, when his play “Gem
of the Ocean” was staged by the Huntington Theater, he spoke
at Roxbury Community College on Sept. 13, 2000.
Wilson delivered the talk in the voices of some of his characters.
During the question-and-answer period, one African American man
was so inspired that he rushed to the microphone to tell that Wilson
that though he hadn’t heard of him before that night, he was
thoroughly impressed and wanted to see all of his plays.
Mr. Wilson’s humility was never more evident. He was not at
all offended by someone not knowing who he was; he was obviously
thrilled at the young man’s embrace of the voices he’d
Wilson was that kind of man. During the conversation we had 14 years
earlier at Annie’s, Wilson quoted off the top of his head
a passage from James Baldwin that Wilson interpreted as “a
profound articulation of the black tradition.”
“Baldwin wrote,” Wilson recalled. “that black
tradition is the field of manners and relevance of intercourse that
can sustain a man once he’s left his father’s house.”
The African American tradition, said Wilson, “is a whole philosophical
system at work that offers ways of responding, totally different
attitudes about pleasure and pain, different eating habits, different
notions of justice.”
A program celebrating the life and work of August Wilson comes to
Roxbury Community College, Sat., Oct. 15 and features scenes from
Wilson’s “Fences,” “Ma Rainey’s Black
Bottom” and a talk by African American theater artists Akiba
Abaka, Jeff Robinson, and Robyn Reese. On the night before, Fri.,
at 8 p.m., the same program will be given at the Cambridge Center
of Adult Education, 42 Brattle St.