Arts & Theater

PBS film examines the genius of playwright August Wilson

August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was produced at the Yale Repertory Theatre.
August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was produced at the Yale Repertory Theatre. Yale Repertory Theatre

The late playwright August Wilson (1945-2005) was as much a poet as a dramatist. His plays flow and overflow with great rushing rivers of language and imagery transporting audiences into his fictional but very visceral world.

Wilson wrote 16 plays; 10 of them form the American Century Cycle, one of the most ambitious and significant artistic undertakings of the 20th century. All but one of the Cycle plays, including the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fences” and Pulitzer-winning “The Piano Lesson,” are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, each in a different decade of the century. All deal with working-class African American life.

“No one except perhaps Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams has aimed so high and achieved so much in the American theater.” wrote John Lahr, senior theater critic for The New Yorker. Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Angels in America” has written, “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.”

On Feb. 20 at 9 p.m., PBS premieres “August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand,” a 90-minute American Masters documentary on the playwright. Locally KVIE will broadcast the film a few days later, on Feb. 22 at noon. After the PBS broadcast, the film will stream at and be available on DVD on Feb. 24 from PBS Distribution.

The documentary directed by the Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning Sam Pollard features clips from plays, rare Wilson interviews and new dramatic readings. Tracing Wilson’s life in largely chronological order, we follow him from his scruffy childhood in Pittsburgh through an unlikely hard-won ascendancy as one of the foremost playwrights of the 1900s. There are also observations about Wilson and his work from artists including Viola Davis, Charles Dutton, Laurence Fishburne, James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad and Wilson’s wife, costume designer Constanza Romero.

Romero, who was raised in Fresno and lives in Seattle, was heavily involved in the documentary and has also collaborated on other projects involving her husband’s work. She said the collected box set of Wilson’s Cycle plays was of particular interest to him. It was published a year after he died.

“He was very much looking forward to that,” Romero said.

“Just holding them all together – it’s a heavy box – to have the American Century Cycle complete was something that was very important to him. He worked really hard while he was sick to complete that last play, ‘Radio Golf.’”

A major element of the Runyonesque Wilson mythology has always been that he was largely self-educated after dropping out of high school when a teacher questioned his authorship of a research paper on Napoleon Bonaparte. Rather than tell his mother he had quit school, Wilson left the house every morning and went to the local library where he read his way through the stacks of books over the next couple of years.

“I think he was really proud that he was going to have this box set of plays and they would be in lots and lots of libraries across the country,” Romero said.

Reading was a constant in Wilson’s life, and though he didn’t specifically “research” material, he was constantly gathering information.

“There was really no rhyme or reason to what he read,” Romero said. “He would pick up a book and read maybe 20 pages of that and put it down and go about his business and then pick up another book and read 50 pages of that.”

She said he would write dialogue and scenes in much the same way.

“He could not work in a beginning-to-end kind of way,” Romero said. “He didn’t start out having a plot in mind. The plot came out of the hearing the characters speak. It all came up to the surface organically.”

Eventually Wilson would start pasting scenes together as if making a collage in the fashion of his great inspiration, the African American artist Romare Bearden.

Two of Wilson greatest plays are directly inspired by Bearden’s work, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” derived from “Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket” and “The Piano Lesson” by the collage of the same name.

Ultimately, the documentary shows, the greatness of Wilson’s art was his gift for translating the intimate lives of uncelebrated working-class African Americans and making them universal narratives. “It’s not writing about Martin Luther King in the ’60s, or it’s not taking the textbook vision of the 20th century,” Romero said. “It was about regular people, making those people be heroes in their own lives.”

Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.