August Wilson granted me the following interview while he was in Washington, DC, for the November 1991 premiere of Two Trains Running at the Kennedy Center. Extremely personable and undeniably committed to his art, Wilson carefully outlined his answers to my questions about his growth from poet to playwright, about the cultural and political agendas underlying his plays, and about his role as a black writer.
Shannon: Early in your career you made a gradual shift from writing poetry to writing plays. How has being a poet affected your success as a playwright?
Wilson: It's the bedrock of my playwriting ... not so much in the language as in the approach and the thinking. Thinking as a poet, one thinks differently than one thinks as a playwright. The idea of metaphor is a very large idea in my plays and something that I find lacking in most contemporary plays. I think I write the kinds of plays that I do because I have twenty-six years of writing poetry underneath all of that.
Shannon: I'm fascinated by the combination of memory, history, myth-making, and the blues in your work. Do you perceive your role as an historian, as a prophet, as a healer, or perhaps as something else?
Wilson: Well, I just say playwright. Of course, I use history and the historical perspective. For instance, in The Piano Lesson, you can see the actor, the character going down a road, and given the benefit of a fifty-year historical perspective, we know how all this out. I try to keep all of the elements of the culture alive in my work, and myth is certainly a part of it. Mythology, history, social organizations, economics--all of these things are part of the culture. I make sure that each element is in some way represented--some elements more so than others--in the plays, which I think gives them a fullness and a completeness, creates the impression that this is an entire world.
Shannon: What is your reasoning behind writing a 400-year-old autobiography in ten plays? At what point did you decide upon this strategy?
Wilson: Well, actually, I didn't start out with a grand idea. I wrote a play called Jitney!, set in '71, and a play called Fullerton Street that I set in '41. Then I wrote Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which I set in '27, and it was after I did that that I thought, "I've written three plays in three different decades, so why don't I just continue to do that?"
Also, everyone assumes that any writer's work--it's not just my work--is autobiographical, that you're writing about yourself. None of the events in the plays are events in my life--none of the characters are modeled after me--because I feel that, if you write your autobiography, you don't have anything else to tell. So I thought when people would ask me that, I'd say, "Well you know I've got a 400-year autobiography. That's what I'm writing from. There's a whole bunch of material. You never run out of stories."
Shannon: But you're part of the story
Wilson: Oh, absolutely. I'm definitely a part of the story. I claim all 400 years of it. And I claim the right to tell it in any way I choose because it's, in essence, my autobiography--only it's the story of myself and my ancestors.
Shannon: As you know, I'm in the midst of writing a biocritical study of your work. During my research I've come across quite a few titles and have acquired the scripts of several never-before-published works. For example, you wrote several brief scripts for the Science Museum of Minnesota. The plays that I have read include An Evening with Margaret Mead, How Coyote Got His Special Powers, and Eskimo Song Duel. Could you talk briefly about that experience?
Wilson: Well, it was a good experience. If nothing else, it was the first time that I was paid for writing, and it was good money, as I recall. There wasn't, though, a whole lot of creativity necessary to document a northwest Indian tale for a group to act out on the anthropology floor. …