august wilson

A great writer is gone.

August Wilson, one of the great American playwrights, died yesterday at the too-young age of 60. Allan and I saw several of his plays on Broadway; we both loved his work.

Most of Wilson's plays were part of an overall theatrical cycle that chronicled the African American experience. From the New York Times obituary:
Each of the plays in the cycle was set in a different decade of the 20th century, and all but "Ma Rainey" took place in the impoverished but vibrant African-American Hill District of Pittsburgh, where Mr. Wilson was born. In 1978, before he had become a successful writer, Mr. Wilson moved to St. Paul, and in 1994 he settled in Seattle, where he died. But his spiritual home remained the rough streets of the Hill District, where as a young man he sat in thrall to the voices of African-American working men and women. Years later, he would discern in their stories, their jokes and their squabbles the raw material for an art that would celebrate the sustaining richness of the black American experience, bruising as it often was.

In his work, Mr. Wilson depicted the struggles of black Americans with uncommon lyrical richness, theatrical density and emotional heft, in plays that gave vivid voices to people on the frayed margins of life: cabdrivers and maids, garbagemen and side men and petty criminals. In bringing to the popular American stage the gritty specifics of the lives of his poor, trouble-plagued and sometimes powerfully embittered black characters, Mr. Wilson also described universal truths about the struggle for dignity, love, security and happiness in the face of often overwhelming obstacles.

In dialogue that married the complexity of jazz to the emotional power of the blues, he also argued eloquently for the importance of black Americans' honoring the pain and passion in their history, not burying it to smooth the road to assimilation. For Mr. Wilson, it was imperative for black Americans to draw upon the moral and spiritual nobility of their ancestors' struggles to inspire their own ongoing fight against the legacies of white racism.

In an article about his cycle for The Times in 2000, Mr. Wilson wrote, "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."
Although we saw many of Wilson's plays, none would ever affect us as deeply as the first: Fences, which starred James Earl Jones, back when he was still an actor. It was the kind of emotional experience that can leave me in awe of the potential power of theatre.

Here's a little NPR item which talks about the connection between Wilson's plays and the blues. There are links to other stories about him, and audio clips of Bessie Smith, among others.

I was so sad to hear Wilson died so young. I will miss him.

august wilson


Kyle_From_Ottawa said...

Off topic:

Now that you're an "ex-pat", maybe you'll see the U.S. the same as this guy

Kim said...

I appreciated your blog entry about August Wilson. I listen to NPR, but had never heard that piece. Thank you.

I worked with August briefly and wrote a short piece about it today in my blog if you are interested: Belle of the Blog

laura k said...

Kyle: thanks! I'll have to read this more carefully, it looks interesting.

Josephine March (a little woman?): Thanks so much. I inadvertantly got a tiny bit involved in the Robert Brustein / August Wilson war, by writing a letter in Wilson's defence to The New Republic, to which Brustein responded in print. I have felt oddly connected to Wilson ever since, although I never met him! I will stop by to read your post.