October 6, 2005 – Vol. 41, No. 8

August Wilson: The writer for our century

Kay Bourne

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. Without question.”

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 memory.”

“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 “Fences.”

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 heard.

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.





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