Completing the Cycle: August Wilson (1945-2005)

David Swerdlick

August Wilson rejected a trend toward 'colorblind' casting, believing that it made no sense to have Black actors play roles conceived and written within a White cultural framework.

Money can't buy what that piano cost.
-- Berniece, from The Piano Lesson

In the summer of 1990, my father was able to get tickets for us to see August Wilson's The Piano Lesson at the Walter Kerr Theater in New York. At the time, I had the appropriate amount of collegiate enthusiasm about seeing a well known play with well known actors on Broadway. But it wasn't until years later that I realized the significance of the experience. My father understood then that it was a singular opportunity to witness and absorb history -- literary history, Black history, American history.

Like Romare Bearden, Sarah Vaughan, Hank Aaron, and Barbara Jordan, August Wilson was a giant not only in Black culture but in American culture at large. He was lauded by the literary and theatrical establishment at the same time that he endeavored to maintain the orthodoxy of all-Black theater. With regard to his significance and duality, Princeton University English professor Daphne A. Brooks tells PopMatters: "He spoke to his own generation and to all generations about the way in which Black culture is interwoven with American culture, and the way in which American society has at times stifled and fragmented black lives."

* * *

August Wilson, the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, died 2 October, at age 60, of liver cancer at a Seattle hospital. His death came only a few months after the stage debut of Radio Golf, the last installment of the celebrated 10-play cycle that he wrote and helped to produce over the last 25 years. The plays include his first Broadway production, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Joe Turner's Come and Gone (considered by many to be his masterwork), the commercial hit Fences, and The Piano Lesson, produced for television by Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1995. Each takes place during a different decade of the 20th century and is a dramatic snapshot of Black life during the last 100 years in America's cities. Later this month, the Virginia Theater will be renamed the August Wilson Theater -- the first Broadway theater named for an African American.

Born Frederick August Kittel on 27 April 1945 to a German immigrant father and a Black mother in Pittsburgh, Wilson took his mother's maiden name as his own after his father died in 1965. His family moved to the mostly White Pittsburgh suburb of Hazelwood, where he was the only Black student at Central Catholic High School. He faced threats from his classmates and eventually left high school after a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a term paper. He finished his formal education by reading on his own at the public library.

During the '60s and '70s, Wilson served a brief stint in the military and worked various odd jobs. He began to write poetry and plays, and co-founded the Black Horizon Theater in Pittsburgh. He moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1978 to work for the Science Museum of Minnesota, scripting Native American folk tales into children's plays. He earned a fellowship at the Minneapolis Playwrights Center in 1980. In 1982 the National Playwrights Conference at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut accepted Ma Rainey for production; at Yale University, Wilson began his long and fruitful collaboration with Lloyd Richards, the Director of the Yale Repertory Theater. Richards has directed all the Broadway productions of Wilson's plays.

Nine of the 10 plays in August Wilson's opus are set in Pittsburgh, his hometown. The inspiration and imagery for his plays -- people, language, and circumstances -- come from Pittsburgh's predominantly Black Hill District. He found his identity as a writer here; its people and stories would be the bouillabaisse for the work that he would later bring to the stage. In his plays the Hill District becomes a representative of the 20th-century African American experience throughout many of the big cities in the Northeast: New York, Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore.

At times, Wilson clashed with the theatre establishment. He rejected a trend toward "colorblind" casting, believing that it made no sense to have Black actors play roles conceived and written within a White cultural framework. He supported the Black Theater movement, his expression of such views resulting in a public debate during the '90s with critic Robert Brustein. When Fences was adapted as a screenplay, he publicly insisted the film version be made by an African American director, telling Spin magazine, "White directors are not qualified for the job. The job requires someone who shares the specifics of the culture of Black Americans." The film was never made.

Productions of Wilson's plays created opportunities for Black actors, including S. Epatha Merkerson, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Laurence Fishburne, Delroy Lindo, Charles S. Dutton, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, and Keith David. His work also influenced portrayals of Blacks in popular culture during the last 20 years. His vivid and perfectly distressed presentation of the day-to-day life, love, struggle, and triumph of Black migrants to the urban North directly impacted shows like Frank's Place, and in particular, Roc (several principal cast members performed in the Broadway production of The Piano Lesson).

Wilson's plays first reached stages in the early '80s, in the wake of a decade of Blaxploitation films and one-dimensional TV portrayals of working class Blacks like Sanford and Son and What's Happening!!. His characters, by contrast, were not only sanitation workers, musicians, and cab drivers. They are also ambitious, courageous, perceptive, fearful, pious, and outraged. As Wilson was reaching his critical and commercial peak, The Cosby Show became a hit, generating demand for more nuanced images of Blacks on TV and in film. His continued influence is evident in shows like Soul Food and The Wire, the films of Spike Lee, John Singleton, and others -- featuring a range of textured, multi-dimensional portraits of the Black urban experience.

* * *

The libretto of The Piano Lesson is centered on a family in the Hill District in 1936. A prodigal brother comes home, trying to convince his sister to let him sell the family piano -- scratched and stained, but an heirloom nonetheless -- so that he can use the money to buy land down South. The sister refuses to let go of the piano, a symbol of their family history, and the source of music that she considers her birthright. The "lesson," of course, is a cautionary musing on the ever present dilemma for Blacks in American society -- whether or not to sacrifice culture for socioeconomic advancement.

In the same way that the piano was a perfect symbol of black culture and history passed from one generation to another, August Wilson's 10-play cycle is a landmark encapsulation of the Black Odyssey in this country for the past 100 years. And like the piano, his work will be passed from one generation to another.





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