Arts & Theater

August Wilson: Poetic playwright as historian

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson shown in his Seattle neighborhood in 2003, two years before his death at age 60.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson shown in his Seattle neighborhood in 2003, two years before his death at age 60. AP

The late playwright August Wilson (1945-2005) began his artistic life as a poet. Language always formed the heart of his work, far beyond whatever plot would. More than anything Wilson was a storyteller who consciously worked in African griot and African American blues traditions. The work often has the aura of mysticism and sense of deep-rooted inevitability. He elevated intimate personal stories into narratives that felt like operatic tragedies (“Fences” and “King Hedley II”), timeless mythologies (“Gem of the Ocean” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”), and folk allegories (“The Piano Lesson” and “Two Trains Running”).

Wilson wrote one play set in each decade of the 20th century, telling his version of the African American working-class experience and its evolution in what is known as the American Century Cycle. The ambitious artistic undertaking was highly acclaimed, with “Fences” winning both the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize, and “The Piano Lesson” winning a Pulitzer as well. Though the plays are personal dramas, life-or-death situations often confront characters. All but one of the plays are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District where Wilson grew up, and several characters reappear, though there are no truly connected story lines in the plays.

Wilson also created his own Runyonesque mythology with the two major stories of how he became a writer. The first part was that he educated himself after dropping out of high school when a teacher questioned his authorship of a research paper on Napoleon Bonaparte. Afraid to tell his mother he had quit school, he left the house every morning and went to the library, reading everything he could find about African American culture and history.

Later, after he’d bought a typewriter and decided he would become a writer, he came across the music of the great blues singer Bessie Smith. Wilson said the blues are “the best literature we have.” Listening to Smith put a new, rich perspective on the world for the young writer. “It gave the people in the rooming house where I lived, also my mother, a history I didn’t know they had,” Wilson said.

Wilson took it upon himself to be the caretaker of this history and transferred it to the page and eventually the stage. Wilson turned these stories into Broadway art with the invaluable assistance of the late director Lloyd Richards, who helped develop the raw works. Actors bringing the words to life have included James Earl Jones, Charles Dutton, Laurence Fishburne, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. The latter two reprise their 2010 Broadway roles in Paramount’s “Fences,” which opens Christmas Day.

Wilson followed in the footsteps of Lorraine Hansberry, whose “Raisin in the Sun” first brought to Broadway drama by African American authors – also under Richard’s stewardship. Wilson’s work lines up in the canon of great American dramatists such as Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, but also with African American storytellers across genres, from blues man Robert Johnson to artist Romare Bearden.

Marcus Crowder: 916-321-1120, @marcuscrowder