«CHAPTER 1 Understanding August Wilson as an African American Playwright On April 27, 1945, August Wilson, the fourth of six children, was born ...»
Understanding August Wilson as
an African American Playwright
On April 27, 1945, August Wilson, the fourth of six children,
was born Frederick August Kittel on “the Hill” in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania. His father was Frederick Kittel, a German baker,
and his mother was Daisy Wilson, a cleaning woman. Wilson’s
white father never lived with the family, and they relied on welfare for partial support. The estrangement persisted throughout
Kittel’s life until he died in 1965. Years later Wilson’s mother married an ex-convict, David Bedford, who became Wilson’s stepfather. The relationship between Wilson and Bedford was a conﬂicted one and became a source for Wilson’s drama. Denied the emotional and ﬁnancial support of his biological father, Wilson embraced the culture of the mother he admired and loved, adopting his middle name, August, and his mother’s maiden name, Wilson, as his chosen name.
David Bedford is a model for Troy Maxson in Fences, and the tense relationship between Wilson and his stepfather is revisited onstage in the characters Troy and his son Cory. Bedford, a poor but promising high school football star in the 1930s, hoped for a career in medicine but was never offered a scholarship from any Pittsburgh college, which he believed was because of his race. He eventually turned to crime. While robbing a store, Bedford killed a man and spent twenty-three years in prison for the crime. After his release the only job available to Bedford was one in the city’s Sewer Department. Like the ﬁctional Troy Maxson in Fences, Bedford never realized his athletic aspirations, which he then hoped his stepson would achieve.
Wilson failed to meet his stepfather’s expectations, though, when he quit the high school football team. Wilson wanted to be a writer, not an athlete.
2 / Understanding August Wilson In 1960 Wilson dropped out of high school after his ninthgrade teacher falsely accused him of plagiarizing a twenty-page paper on Napoleon Bonaparte. Waiting for an apology from his teacher and principal that never came, Wilson hid his decision to leave school from his mother, anticipating her disappointment.
In 1999, though, Wilson was awarded the ﬁrst high school diploma by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh while being honored during the one hundredth anniversary of the Hill District branch of the library. Earlier, in 1992, he had received an honorary degree from the University of Pittsburgh.
At age sixteen Wilson began working at menial jobs that exposed him to a wide variety of people, some of whom Wilson based his characters on, for example Sam, in The Janitor (1985).
Assuming responsibility for his own education, Wilson routinely went to the Pittsburgh Public Library, where he located the “Negro Section” and read the works of such prominent black
writers as Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin:
“These books were a comfort. Just the idea black people would write books. I wanted my book up there, too. I used to dream about being part of the Harlem Renaissance.”1 Wilson knew he wanted to become a writer. In 1965 he bought his ﬁrst typewriter and moved into a rooming house, a basement apartment in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Outside his mother’s home, Wilson drew material for his plays from his immediate environment, a neighborhood whose inhabitants included ex-convicts and drug addicts. He closely listened to their language, speech patterns, and vernacular and studied their personalities. During that time Wilson was making the transition from poet, his initial artistic vocation, to dramatist. From these stories of the street, Wilson discovered a larger narrative landscape. That landscape expanded when he ﬁrst heard the recordings of blues legend Bessie Smith. The blues, in its narrative capacity, had a profound inﬂuence on the young Wilson; it was a cultural medium that deﬁned himself and his race. The blues eventually became a recurring motif for Wilson to voice the
African American experience in many of his plays:
Understanding August Wilson / 3 The craft I knew was the craft of poetry and ﬁction. To my mind, they had to connect and intercept with the craft of playwrighting at some point. Fiction was a story told through character and dialogue, and a poem was a distillation of language and images designed to reveal an emotive response to phenomena that brought it into harmony with one’s knowledge and experience. Why couldn’t a play be both? I thought in order to accomplish that I had to look at black life with an anthropological eye, use language, character, and image to reveal its cultural ﬂashpoints and in the process tell the story that further illuminated them. That is what the blues did.2 Learning to become a writer was uppermost in Wilson’s mind, and experiences and inﬂuences of the late 1960s and early 1970s helped shape Wilson’s dramatic vision. In 1965 he helped form Pittsburgh’s Centre Avenue Poets Theatre Workshop, and three years later, in 1968, along with Rob Penney, Wilson cofounded Pittsburgh’s Black Horizon Theater Company, a volunteer troupe that staged the plays of Amiri Baraka, speciﬁcally Four Black Revolutionary Plays. Inﬂuenced by the Black Power movement and the Black Arts movement, Wilson saw Baraka’s incendiary works as addressing the experiences and anger of many black Americans. In Baraka, Wilson found a playwright philosophically like himself. Although Wilson acknowledged Baraka’s impact on him as a writer, he nonetheless realized that imitation would not allow him to discover his own voice. But certain early artistic inﬂuences played a key role in Wilson’s development as a writer: “In terms of inﬂuence on my work, I have what I call my four B’s: Romare Bearden [the painter];
Imamu Amiri Baraka, the writer; Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine short-story writer; and the biggest B of all: the blues.”3 In 1973 Wilson wrote Recycle, a play about a troubled marriage, which mirrored his marriage to Brenda Burton, a Muslim, that had begun in 1969 and ended in 1972. In 1970 Wilson and Burton had had a daughter, Sakina Ansari. Wilson said his marriage to Burton ultimately failed because he could not in good 4 / Understanding August Wilson conscience accept many of her Muslim beliefs. Another marriage also did not last, Wilson’s 1981 marriage to Judy Oliver, a social worker. In 1994 Wilson married for the third time, to Constanza Romero, who was the costume designer for the Piano Lesson, and they had a daughter, Azula Carmen Wilson. Throughout this time of successive marriages, Wilson’s desire to write plays grew, and he continued to develop his craft with the ﬁnancial support of such fellowships and awards as the Jerome (1980), Bush (1982), Rockefeller (1984), McKnight (1985), Guggenheim (1986), and Heinz (2003). In 1999 Wilson was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President William Jefferson Clinton.
Wilson saw Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi Is Dead in 1976. The play is about the South African pass laws—legislation that prohibited blacks without documentation from freely traveling within or out of the country. Wilson was inspired by the play and his conﬁdence in his own ability to write drama grew. In plays such as Fugard’s and Baraka’s, Wilson discovered that playwrights could address political issues in an artistic medium.
That year Wilson wrote The Homecoming, a play that examines the mystery surrounding its protagonist’s death, a character named Blind Willie Johnson, who is based on blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson. The Homecoming was staged for Kuntu Theater, an amateur troupe in Pittsburgh, and was the precursor to Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Two years later Wilson was invited by Claude Purdy to St. Paul, Minnesota, and began to write plays for the director and fellow Pittsburgh native, which were to be staged at Lou Bellamy’s Penumbra Theatre. Among these were Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, a tribute in verse, based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, to the infamous stagecoach robber Black Bart. In need of money, Wilson also became a scriptwriter for the Science Museum of Minnesota.
In the early 1980s Wilson wrote Jitney (1982; revised in
2000) and Fullerton Street (1980). Jitney is about a Pittsburgh cab station and its drivers and is set in 1977. Fullerton Street is set in the 1940s and concerns a marriage doomed by alcoholism and unemployment after the couple relocates from the South to Understanding August Wilson / 5 the North.4 When an early draft of his play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was accepted for production at the O’Neill Workshop in Waterford, Connecticut, in 1982, Wilson’s life as an unknown playwright ended. At the O’Neill, Wilson met Lloyd Richards, dean of the Yale School of Drama, whose professional reputation as a black actor and foremost as a director impressed Wilson. Wilson knew of Richards’s direction of the 1959 production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway.
Richards guided the young playwright and became Wilson’s mentor, honing his dramaturgical skills. Along with the late Benjamin Mordecai—Broadway producer of most of Wilson’s plays, coexecutive with the playwright of Sageworks, and at the time associate dean of the Yale School of Drama—the Yale Repertory Theatre became integral to the development of Wilson’s plays.
Wilson beneﬁted as an artist under Richards’s and Mordecai’s tenure at Yale, for they developed a model for professional production. Later Wilson would be a mentor to other future playwrights too, teaching at Dartmouth College in 1998. That same year he assembles a conference on African American theater that established the African Grove Institute of the Arts, whose name was attributed to a theater in New York City founded in 1821 by an African American: West Indies–born William Henry Brown.
In his plays August Wilson gives voice to the disenfranchised and marginalized African Americans who have been promised a place and a stake in the American Dream only to ﬁnd that access to rights and freedoms promised to all Americans is in fact guarded and exclusive. But the problem is greater than simply portraying African Americans and the predicaments of American life, for Wilson also wants to explore the African roots, the atavistic connection, that African Americans have to their ancestors. Wilson simultaneously perpetuates and subverts the tradition of American drama in order to explore the distinct differences between the white American and the African American experience: “There are and have always been two distinct and parallel traditions in black art: that is, art that is conceived and designed to entertain white society, and the art that feeds the spirit and celebrates the life of black America.... The second 6 / Understanding August Wilson tradition occurred when the African in the conﬁnes of the slave quarters sought to invest his spirit with the strength of his ancestors by conceiving his art, in his song and dance, a world in which he was the spiritual center.”5 Wilson knows all too well that white society in America has tended to open the door to opportunity, status, and success to a select few minorities who can in turn offer something that society values. And certainly August Wilson can be counted among their number, having in a very short time garnered much commercial success on Broadway and critical acclaim from literary and theater critics through the New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, the Drama Desk Awards, the Tony Awards, and two Pulitzer Prizes. In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984), Fences (1987), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1988), The Piano Lesson (1990), Two Trains Running (1992), and Seven Guitars (1996), Jitney (2000), King Hedley II (2001), Gem of the Ocean (2004), and Radio Golf (2005), Wilson presents a decade-by-decade portrait of African American life, capturing both the spirit and voice of African Americans. All these plays, with the exception of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, are set in Pittsburgh.6 Wilson has been criticized by some—among them Robert Brustein, long-time drama critic for the New Republic and artistic director of the American Repertory Theater—for both his dramatic topics and themes as well as his deﬁant stance regarding the tradition of white American drama: “Presumably Wilson is prepared to cover... more theatrical decades of white culpability and black martyrdom. This single-minded documentation of American racism is a worthy if familiar social agenda, and no enlightened person would deny its premise, but as an ongoing artistic program it is monotonous, limited, locked in a perception of victimization.”7 Wilson believes that the American theater has not provided enough room on stage for the voices of his race, and he publicly presented his position—what many considered a diatribe—in June 1996 before members of the Theater Communications Group National Conference at Princeton University. In his address, titled “The Ground on Which I Stand,” Wilson expressed his serious concerns about the U.S. theater’s Understanding August Wilson / 7 lack of creative and ﬁnancial support for black artists. According to Wilson, many unknown African American artists are not afforded the opportunity to demonstrate their talent as playwrights, directors, and actors. Unlike Wilson and his dramatic predecessors Ed Bullins and Amiri Baraka, such African American artists have no venue speciﬁcally oriented toward the experiences and voices of African Americans. To prove his case, Wilson cited only one theater company, the Crossroads Theater Company in New Brunswick, New Jersey, which is solely operated by African Americans amid the sixty-six theaters that the League of Resident Theaters comprises.
If Wilson’s strong convictions are redolent of the militant rhetoric of Malcolm X and black nationalism, Robert Brustein, who has taken issue with Wilson’s views, said that Wilson himself was the ﬁrst to admit the philosophical environment of the 1960s is “the kiln in which I was ﬁred” and that “I am what is known, at least among the followers and supporters of Marcus Garvey, as a ‘race man.’”8 Wilson desired to dispel the myth of racial equality and acculturation on the American stage. As a prominent black playwright, Wilson embraced a deﬁant stance against the status quo. The status quo in this circumstance is not the white audience that appreciates his plays, but those who subsidize and those who select which playwright and which play is worthy of recognition.