Thinking about a great playwright, and his century-long account of what life was like for millions of Americans.
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Last week I quoted a remark by American playwright August Wilson about the way the blues ties people together. Wilson’s work does that as well.
He was born in 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In his early 20s, knowing he wanted to be a writer, he began writing in bars and cafes, listening to the way people spoke and taking notes, often on napkins because he said it was more inconspicuous. When he finally got up to leave, he’d stuff all the napkins into his pockets and go home and type up his notes. In 1968, he and a friend started the Black Horizon Theater in the Hill District of Pittsburgh where he lived and where he would set many of his plays. He was greatly influenced by the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and 70s which was in many ways like a successor movement to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Over the next few years his plays garnered more attention and gradually began being staged at larger, more professional theaters. Two of his plays won Tony Awards and he won the Pulitzer Prize for drama twice. He died in October, 2005 at age 60. His masterpiece is made up of a series of ten plays known as the “Pittsburgh Cycle,” each set in a different decade of the 20th century, tracing the African American experience as it evolved through the years. Of his work and his tendency to set his plays in very specific times and settings, he said that “you can be specific as to a time and place and culture and still have the work resonate with the universal themes of love, honor, duty, betrayal, etc.” This is what makes it great art—when it can be rooted but at the same time universal. My first exposure to Wilson’s work came when I saw the film version of his play Fences. It came out in 2016 and started Viola Davis and Denzel Washington. It’s the installment in the cycle that’s set in the 1950s. I tell people who haven’t seen it to watch it tonight. Start your journey into August Wilson there. After I saw it, I decided to read his entire cycle, starting with one entitled Gem of the Ocean set in 1904 when memories of the Civil War, slavery, and the failed attempt at reconstruction still loomed large. I’m not exactly binge reading because I still haven’t yet worked my way through all of them. It’s a more long-term project. I’d like to assign one or two to a history class but I’m not sure I will get around to that. What I’m getting out of his work is a serious perspective on history of the sort that I’ve never had before, and from someone else’s shoes. Which is all just to say that August Wilson was a great artist.