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Death of America’s pre-eminent playwright

by Open-Publishing - Tuesday 11 October 2005

Theatre-Dance Discriminations-Minorit. Books-Literature USA

by Brenda Payton writes for ANG newspapers.

IT was probably predictable that the obituaries of August Wilson would describe him as the preeminent African-American playwright. It’s not that it’s an incorrect description, it just isn’t broad enough. Given the scope of his body of work and the remarkable accomplishments of his career, he is arguably the preeminent American playwright.

Paradoxically, one of his major themes was addressing that discrepancy, making the point eloquently that the African-American story is an American story. Indeed, in terms of the pursuit of the country’s promise of freedom and justice for all, it is the quintessential American story. You might say the history of African Americans, from slavery through Jim Crow to equal rights, made the American story.

Making the point eloquently. His vision was epic. He wrote 10 plays covering each decade of the 20th century. His language was rich and poetic. Majestic really. Most of his characters are simple people, farmers, factory workers, boarding house owners, but they speak with beauty and depth. One theater scholar said the rhythm of Wilson’s language lends it power to pull the audience into the world he has created. In an interview, Wilson said when he discovered the blues, he started listening to the way everyday people spoke in his Pittsburgh neighborhood.

That was one of his artistic sleights of hand. Audience members thought they recognized the characters from their speech. Paraphrasing Charles Dutton, one of the actors who appeared in several Wilson plays: I’ve been black all my life and I’ve never heard anyone talk like that.

Wilson took the characters who were recognizable, by their jobs, experiences and actions - washing greens, feeding chickens - and gave them language that transformed them. He matched the dignity of a real life cleaning woman with poetic speech.

His characters and language were his double whammy. If the characters often communicated in monologues, they were monologues you didn’t want to end. The people populating his plays were usually searching for their song, inspired by the blues, spoken in poetic rhythm, a powerful metaphor for the American story.

He didn’t write many white characters, although the actions and attitudes of white people often determined what happened to his African-American characters. The oppression of slavery, segregation, poverty were not the points of his stories, they were the backdrop. The point of his stories was


how people survived and flourished in these conditions.

He didn’t write an autobiographical play - maybe he would have gotten around to it - but his own life has the elements of one of his plays. His mother was African American, his father a German immigrant. His father left the family. When his father died, Wilson changed his name from Frederick August Kittel to August Wilson, taking his mother’s last name.

(Perhaps the ubiquitous search for one’s song reflected his own sorting out of his identity, growing up when being biracial was not common.)

Ironically, he discovered he had terminal liver cancer and died soon after completing the last play of the 10-play cycle. Now his prolific, driven pace makes sense. He was writing against an ultimate deadline. It was his life’s work. His mission. You could see him writing that fate for one of the characters of his plays.

I went back a couple of times to correct the tense of "his characters were" and "his characters spoke." They are and they speak. Decades from now, they will live on stage. That is Wilson’s incredible gift to theater audiences. That is the gift of the writer. His own life is overshadowed by his oeuvre. And his was such a great accomplishment, we might not miss the man.

Except for those plays he would have written. Once he’d completed his 10-play epic, where would his imagination have taken us? He told one interviewer he wanted to write a novel and a comic play. You can only wonder how his language would have become even more beautiful, more fine-tuned. How the lessons he’d learned after years of writing would have taken him places we can’t fathom.

Or maybe he would have struggled to find a vehicle that would sustain and engage his artistry the way the 10 plays did. We won’t know.

August Wilson, the preeminent American playwright, left a canon that tells the American story and will serve as a foundation of the modern theater for decades to come. He was only 60 when he died.