Art Works Blog

Remembering August Wilson

Edited by Paulette Beete

Cherise Booth and Russell Hornsby in Signature Theatre's production of August Wilson's King Hedley II. Photo by Carol Rosegg

"I wanted to place this culture onstage in all its richness and fullness and to demonstrate its ability to sustain us in all areas of human life and endeavor and through profound moments of our history in which the larger society has thought less of us than we have thought of ourselves." --- August Wilson

When Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson died in October 2005, he left behind an indelible body of work. Wilson's ten-play cycle, the first of which was produced in the early 1980s, chronicled the African-American experience in the 20th century from the tensions of a racially-charged recording studio in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom to the conflict between gentrification and the eradication of a neighborhood's identity in Radio Golf to the legacy of slavery embodied in a family heirloom in The Piano Lesson. As fellow playwright Tony Kushner described, "[August Wilson] was a giant figure in American theater....Heroic is not a word one uses often without embarrassment to describe a writer or playwright, but the diligence and ferocity of effort behind the creation of his body of work is really an epic story." Below we asked three contributors---the NEA's Rocco Landesman and Ralph Remington, and actor Austene Van who's currently appearing in a production Wilson's Radio Golf---to share their impressions and memories of "theater's poet of Black America."

Rocco Landesman, Chairman, NEA

My company, Jujamcyn Theaters, produced August Wilson’s last six plays on Broadway. This historic run, unique in the history of Broadway, began with The Piano Lesson at the Walter Kerr Theater in 1990 and ended (at the same theater) with Radio Golf in 2005. In between came Two Trains Running (1991), Seven Guitars (1995), King Hedley II (1999), and Gem of the Ocean (2003). I was always an admirer of August’s work---his plays gave the kind of passionate, poetic expression to the black experience in America that Sean O’Casey’s did several generations earlier for the Irish---but the reason Jujamcyn’s horses were hitched to the Wilson wagon for so long was because of my creative associate there, Jack Viertel. If Jack could choose his life after death, it would be in our August Wilson Theater (formerly the Virginia Theater but renamed at Jack’s suggestion after King Hedley II played there) watching an endless loop of the Wilson canon. Perhaps then, from his perch somewhere up in the flyspace, August would finally take pity on him and agree to at least a few of the cuts that we pleaded for over the years. But the long (and never the short!) of it is that the Walter Kerr and August Wilson theaters will be “caught in that music” that poetry, those indelible characters, forever.

Austene Van, actor and Associate Artistic Director of the History Theatre

My first experience with August Wilson was as a performer in 1998 at Penumbra Theatre Company with Seven Guitars, directed by Lou Bellamy.…. I believe Penumbra was the first theater to produce any of his works as he was also a company member there. It was a wonderful experience to be able to experience his words and see them in action and see the beautiful interpretation by Lou Bellamy, and how the cast was able to interpret it and breathe and live it.

I think what’s unique about Wilson’s work is the rich African-American experience and the language. The language---when I think about it---this is how my uncles speak. This is how they express themselves, and it’s beautiful. It’s poetic, but it’s also very grounded. And I think August Wilson gives them, gives us, a lot of different dimensions of the African-American experience so these folks don’t seem stereotypical. It’s always very intelligent writing. I think [there is] validation in the beauty and the rhythms of how we speak, how we walk, how we think, how we relate to one another, our values and our points of views, all that stuff is laid in there.

I think that you’ll hear a lot of producers or directors say at different theaters that August Wilson is like Shakespeare. So I think that he’s noted and received not just as an African-American playwright, but as a wonderful playwright. I think he has helped to shape and change and provoke thought throughout our nation about the African-American aesthetic and about our point-of-view, but it’s also about people stuff. It’s just human people stuff. If you take the locations away, or you take away some of the language that’s specific to the African-American cultural experience, it’s really just people stuff. How you feel as a man, how you’re standing in the world, the challenges that you may be facing. Yes, a lot of those circumstances [in his plays] are unique to the African-American experience but [aren’t they] about how you maintain your humanity in this world? A lot of people deal with that question in different situations.

You have to deal with your voice, your own voice, and what choir your voice is placed in, and how you are heard, and what tools you need to be able to deal with what life gives you. The situations may be different but everybody has got to face those things, everybody has to face those types of challenges, who you are, your identity, and how you’re going to walk through the world. And I think August Wilson addresses that, and I think that’s part of the reason why different theaters through the nations are clamoring to do his work, because you can understand, you get it. Everybody gets it.

Ralph Remington, NEA Director of Theater and Musical Theater

In 1996 I sat in the fifth row of The McCarter Theatre at Princeton, watching August Wilson deliver his now-famous address “The Ground on Which I Stand,” to the Theatre Communications Group Conference. It was powerful. At the time, I was a young producing artistic director at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis. His address was a rebuke of the entire infrastructure of the non-profit theater, which in his opinion, bred “white cultural imperialism.” He issued a challenge to African Americans to start their own theatrical institutions. It was also an acknowledgement that historically white institutions had created a condition of artistic apartheid in the American theater. In a way it was odd, because Wilson had been championed and lauded by white institutions. However, but for August Wilson being produced at black theaters like Penumbra in St. Paul, he may have been permanently relegated to the dustbin of forgotten black playwrights. Yale Rep did, however, eventually produce him, as did the McCarter Theatre and many others. Subsequently he became an award-winning writer. I believe that regional theaters should more aggressively diversify their senior artistic leadership positions, to more accurately reflect their communities and society at large. If we only create more ethnically specific theaters, we further perpetuate the balkanization of the American theater. Wilson and I shared a bourbon after his speech that night and spoke of these very issues. Sadly, conditions in the American theater field haven’t changed very much in 16 years.

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