Is August Wilson America's Greatest Playwright?

By Whitaker, Charles | Ebony, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Is August Wilson America's Greatest Playwright?

Whitaker, Charles, Ebony

STANDING behind a lectern on a makeshift stage at Chicago's Printer's Row Bookfair--an annual celebration of literature and authors housed in what once was the city's old bookbinding district--playwright August Wilson, one of the featured speakers of the day, morphs into a cast of characters culled from his native Pittsburgh, the city that inspires and influences so much of his work. As the occasionally scatological dialogue spills from Wilson's mouth, the listeners are transported to a Black pool hall, a lunch counter or a barber shop, where wisdom and wisecracks mix in equal measure. In fact, the mini-drama Wilson plays out is so dead-on accurate, so true to the rhyme and ring of Black talk in Anywhere, USA, that it feels as though a tape recorder lodged in Wilson's brain has just been activated, issuing the jumble of voices.

To a certain extent, the voices and emotions Wilson conjures up are practically embedded on a reel in his head. They are the voices and conversations he collected and mentally codified more than 20 years ago, when he was but a writer-in-the-making, gathering the material that he ultimately would fashion into compelling, critically acclaimed plays.

It is the rich authenticity of those voices--telling the tale of Black folks in 20th century America--that has brought Wilson both wealth and plaudits, including two Pulitzer Prizes, seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, and Broadway's top honor, the Tony Award. His impressive body of work--eight plays in 16 years --places him among the greatest theater craftsmen of the latter half of the 20th century.

He is one of the most produced of America's living playwrights, as much of a mainstay in theaters across the country as Arthur Miller or Neil Simon. Go to any city and you're likely to find some theater troupe--professional or amateur --offering an interpretation of some Wilson work (especially the 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner Fences). In a financially enriching arrangement that demonstrates his power and prestige as a theatrical icon, the 56-year-old Wilson serves as co-producer of his plays, which enables him to reap both a writer's and producer's share of the profit derived from his work.

Yet it is neither money nor prizes that compel Wilson to spin those voices echoing in his head into stage productions. No, what feeds and drives this notoriously intense man is a burning desire to portray the truth of the Black experience as he knows and sees it.

"I write, like any artist, for an audience of one," he says, "basically, to satisfy myself. But I'm also trying to make an aesthetic statement. What I am trying to do is put Black culture on stage and demonstrate to the world--not to White folks, not to Black folks, but to the world -- that it exists and that it is capable of sustaining you. I want to show the world that there is no idea or concept in the human experience that cannot be examined through Black life and culture."

And so, with unwavering honesty, Wilson has set about defining the human experience in decidedly, some might say defiantly, Black terms, using the medium of theater to amplify the voices of Black folks. His writing is an exercise in self-exploration and self-definition, with each character in each play standing as a monument to the strength, perseverance, complexity and, most importantly, the humanity of Black Americans.

"I find that White audiences are surprised to discover the humanity," he says. "They don't see us that way. They look at Black America in a glancing manner."

But there is no glancing at an August Wilson play. From Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, his first commercial success, produced on Broadway in 1984, to King Hedley II, his latest effort, which just completed a surprisingly brief, 12-week run on Broadway, he has forced audiences to stare without blinking into the depths of the Black American experience, its joys and its pains. Each of the eight plays he has produced to date is set in a different decade of the 20th century, a device that has enabled Wilson to explore, often in very subtle ways, the myriad and mutating forms of the legacy of slavery. …

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