by Captain Future
Mon Oct 3rd, 2005 at 05:43:10 PM EST
August Wilson, one of the great playwrights in American theatre history, died on Sunday. He had been diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer in late summer, and began telling friends that he'd been told to expect only a few months left of life. He died in his home city of Seattle, surrounded by family.
By his example and by his insistent voice, August Wilson did more to bring African American culture into the precincts dominated by ruling class and upper middle class white culture than anyone else in the past 30 years, and more than any other playwright in the 20th century.
And of course he provided wonderful moments of drama, laughter and song for those of us who experienced those plays, mostly as audience in the theatre, but also as readers.
He worked with the rich rhythms of speech, capturing the cadence of black American talk and infusing it with a magical lyricism. He transformed the emphatic repetitions and insistences of people who had to use every device to be heard into incantations with the power of memory, tragedy and soaring spirit.
His achievement is historic. No other American playwright set out to accomplish such an ambitious cycle of plays, and kept those creative energies working until it was done. To combine an acute understand of history and culture with great drama and dialogue is simply unprecedented.
Though the earlier plays in the cycle are better known ("Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "Fences," "The Piano Lesson," "Joe Turner Come and Gone") the later plays establish connections with each other and with these earlier plays, so the ten are a true cycle. Even in the sense that the location of the play set in the first decade is the location of the play set in the tenth.
Even before he was diagnosed, August Wilson's thoughts had turned to death. In a wonderful interview in 2004 with Christopher Rawson, the drama critic of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Wilson admitted that turning 60 was affecting him, and that he thought about death every day, and felt he had to expect its possibility.
But even though he saw the end coming, and at that time was literally seeing the end coming for his cycle of 10 plays about the black experience in America in the 20th century (one play set in each decade), he was still full of ideas and plans. He had several plays planned beyond this cycle, which he described to Rawson. It was something he loved to do. I sat one dinner time at the O'Neill Center summer playwright's conference with one or two others and listened mesmerized as he told the story of his next play, doing the voices and the dialogue.
His creative energies were unabated, and his work seemed to be changing with his final play, "Radio Golf," set in the 1990s. He'd written and performed a one-man show, and one of his planned plays sounded wildly comic. He told Rawson it would make a great movie. He'd also expressed the desire to write a novel, and he always wrote poetry.
The loss of the work he would have done is a loss to us all, and for those of us who knew him, even briefly or in a series of brief experiences, we've lost the chance to encounter again all that warmth and vitality, that dangerous fire and that amazing generosity.
But we do have the ten plays, an unprecedented achievement in American drama. And he had the satisfaction of knowing it. "Yeah, man," he told Rawson, with a big smile, "I did it!"
His sixty years---and especially the last twenty or so---were full and fulfilling. He loved his children, and his last marriage in particular seemed to make him happy. He had the good fortune to find terrific people to work with, and the good sense to stick with them. He was very loyal, and people were loyal to him. I don't know of any writer who had a better life in the theatre, even in recent years when financing for serious plays got difficult, even by a multiple Pulitzer Prize winner.
He often started his plays at the O'Neill, where he reveled in the participation of actors and everyone in the summer community, gathered from all over the country. He saw and heard his play begin to come to life there, and began rewriting---honing, adding, subtracting--a process that continued in the parade of productions (at Yale, the Huntington in Boston, etc.) that took him to the official premiere.
He took such pleasure in this process. (It's easy to understand---words and characters that had been only in his head, only written down on pads of paper in coffee shops--walked and talked in front of him!) Everything became part of the process. An actor's suggestion might become an immortal line. When he saw the costume sketches for several characters in his 1990s play, Radio Golf, he said, "so that's what they look like!" and this gave him more ideas for changes in the play. It was a magical exchange---the writer and the people who brought his words and dreams to life, all of them grateful for each other.
There is mourning among theatre people all over America tonight, and already there is a Broadway theatre to be named after August Wilson. Even more than to his achievement, it is a testament to to his personality, poetry and vitality that Pittsburgh (where he grew up) and St. Paul( where he lived for over a decade) and Seattle (where he lived most recently) will all be claiming him, as will the O'Neill, and Yale, and the Huntington and all the theatres where his work will continue to be seen. We wish he could have lived longer, but he lived fully while he was here, and we must be grateful for all that he gave.
The news of his death was a shock to me, for I'd missed the news of his illness. If I still lived in Pittsburgh, I would have seen it in the newspaper there. Chris Rawson, the Post-Gazette drama critic, was one of the first people August told.
I can call him August because I knew him a little. I met him at the Eugene O'Neill Center in Connecticut during the summer playwrights festival, where he had developed his first commercially produced play, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," and where he returned several times afterwards with new plays.
He was there that summer as a dramaturg, and I was writing a story for Smithsonian magazine. I interviewed him for an hour or so, and we soon got to just talking. We had a surprising amount in common, especially having grown up in western Pennsylvania at around the same time.
The O'Neill program lasts a month, and I was there for two weeks of it that summer. So for half of July, I saw a lot of August. We had us a time or two. Even though I wasn't there as a playwright or actor (many came up from New York---real pros who you see on New York TV dramas like "Law and Order" but who care most deeply about theatre), I got a taste of the O'Neill bonding. So when I would run into August after that, always in Pittsburgh where I lived then, we always picked up where we left off.
I saw him after the world premiere of "Jitney," his early play that he rewrote to be part of the grand cycle, which of course we all called the Pittsburgh Plays (all but one are set in Pittsburgh.) In fact, the locations are so real that the actual neon sign of the bar in this play was borrowed from the real bar in another part of the city.
The last time I saw him was in downtown Pittsburgh, just after a dinner at which he'd gotten one of his many awards. I drove down there just to say hello. Even though he was always surrounded by important people in those settings, he never failed to talk to me. That night he told me proudly that he'd quit smoking. This was an O'Neill thing---everyone there had pledged two goals: to get Lloyd Richards and August both to quit smoking. As it turns out, August didn't really quit. Chris Rawson reported that in 2004 he was "down to two packs a day." But he knew it would make me happy to hear it.
He mentioned one or two people we knew in common from the O'Neill, and said he'd lost track of others. "They write me letters, and when I don't write back, they stop," he said sadly, with a touch of proper Catholic-school guilt. (Something else we had in common.) So now I feel bad that I never went to see him in Seattle, and though I think I did write to him once from here in California, I may not have actually mailed that letter.
As he became more famous, August travelled more, but he wasn't adventurous that way. This is a very Pittsburgh trait---the worry that you won't be able to get what you need in unfamiliar places, partly because you're uncomfortable asking---you don't want to seem dumb. I don't know if he ever got to Africa but he did admit he'd turned down several invitations.
I'll close with some of Wilson's words, from his play "Seven Guitars." I don't think August had any musical skills but he had the instincts, and they show up in his writing. It wouldn't be inaccurate to call them all songs:
"CANEWELL: Having a nice guitar don't make you play no better.
FLOYD: Not if you don't know how to play. But if you already know how to play good, a nice guitar will make you feel better about yourself. If you feel better about yourself, quite naturally you be able to play better. People see you with a nice guitar they know you put the music first...it will work its way to the front. I know. I tried it many a time. I say, 'Let me put this music down and leave it alone.' Then one day you be walking along and the music jump on you. It just grab hold of you and hang on. Ain't too much you can do then."