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- May 13, 1996
- Vol. 45
- No. 19
Hearing Voices Makes Playwright August Wilson the Talent He Is
Fortunately for the American theater and African-American culture, Wilson, 51, quit school but didn't quit writing. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, the playwright—whose latest Broadway hit, Seven Guitars, centers on the murder of a musician—has set himself the task of re-creating the black experience in each decade of the 20th century. His emotional touchstone is the blues. "All the ideas and attitudes of my characters come straight out of the blues," says Wilson. "I look behind the lyrics. When someone sings, 'I'm leaving in the morning. I'm going to start walking and take a chance I may ride,' I say, 'What's driving him? Why is he leaving?' I take a step back and smell the air at 5:30 a.m. Then I just start walking down the road with him, and every step is hard."
His own road began in Pittsburgh's black Hill District—the setting for most of his six plays to date—where he was born Frederick August Kittel. Wilson, who eventually took his mother's maiden name, was named for his father, a white baker from Germany who drifted in and out of the family and died in 1965. "I remember little about him," says Wilson. "When he'd visit, he'd bring a big bag of doughnuts and Danish rolls." Daisy, August's mother, supported her six kids by working as a janitor. Money was scarce; the pittance Wilson made delivering newspapers helped buy bread and milk.
After quitting over the Napoleon paper, August came back to school the next day and played basketball under the principal's window, hoping he would come out and ask why Wilson wasn't in class. But he never did. Wilson spent the rest of the year getting up as if to go to school but heading, instead, to the library. Later, after finally mustering the nerve to tell his mother he had quit school, he began working at a series of odd jobs. "My mother was terribly disappointed that the child she thought had the most potential dropped out of school and wasn't motivated to do anything," he says.
After a stint in the Army in his late teens, Wilson, who once sent love poems to his junior high school crushes, decided to become a professional poet. Marinating in the writings of such poets as John Berryman and Dylan Thomas, he also hung out on street corners to soak up the atmosphere that would later permeate his plays. At 20, he discovered the blues when he bought a stack of old 78s, including Bessie Smith's "Nobody in Town Can Make This Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine." Says Wilson: "I put that on the turntable, and the universe stuttered. Everything fell to a new place. I lived in a rooming house in Pittsburgh at the time with this odd assortment of people. I had never connected them to anything of value. I began to look at these people differently, and at myself differently. I realized that I had history and connection—the everyday poetry of the people I'd grown up with."
In 1968, Wilson and his friend Rob Penny founded the Black Horizons Theater Company in Pittsburgh. "It was part of the black power movement," says Wilson, who kept himself afloat by working as a cook, an elevator operator and an occasional mower of lawns. But it was not until the early '80s that Wilson, living in St. Paul and doing scripts for the Science Museum of Minnesota, seriously began writing plays. "I started writing plays," he says, "but not the kind I'm writing now. Back then I didn't value and respect the way blacks talked—the everyday poetry of the people I'd grown up with."
Then Wilson made a crucial trip back to his old Pittsburgh neighborhood. When he returned to St. Paul, he says, he was still hearing the rhythms and rhetoric of the street, and for the first time he began working them into his writing. About this time, he attended the Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Conn., and felt that he'd found his calling. "I'd never been in a room with 16 playwrights," he says. "I figured I must be one too."
He was—the proof was Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, a play about the exploitation of a 1920s blues singer by white producers. Directed by Lloyd Richards in 1984, Ma Rainey became Wilson's first Broadway hit.
"After reading his play," says Richards, artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater from 1979 to 1991, "I thought, here was an author who captured the people I knew. I'd encountered his characters in the barbershop where I used to go on Saturdays when I was a kid, talking about philosophy, religion, music." Wilson's next play, Fences, starring James Earl Jones, was about a Negro League baseball player turned garbageman. It won a Pulitzer in 1987, and Wilson was on his way to chronicling a century of the black experience.
Since 1990, Wilson has been living in Seattle, where two years ago he married Constanza Romero, now 38, a costume designer who worked on his second Pulitzer winner, 1990's The Piano Lesson, about divisions in a black family. (Married twice before, Wilson has a daughter, Sakina Ansari, 26, a social worker in Baltimore.) Yet much of his life is spent elsewhere—in the past, and in the teeming country of his imagination. The play he is currently writing is set in 1984. "I'm trying to look at what caused the breakdown in the black family to the point where kids started shooting one another," he says. Typically, Wilson auditions characters in his head before committing them to paper. Lately he has been talking to a man with an ugly scar on his face who boasts of cutting another man so he could have one too. Wilson doesn't know why the man with the scar did this—not yet, anyway. "At one point, I'm going to find out," says Wilson earnestly. "But for now, I'm too scared to ask him."
TOBY KAHN in New York City
- Toby Kahn.
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