In Memoriam: August Wilson: 1945-2005

Article excerpt

In 10 plays, nine set in Pittsburgh's "Hill District," August Wilson, more than any writer of his generation, chronicled the lives of the "ordinary" Black folks. He documented in a poet's voice the history, culture, vision, pain, psychology, fighting spirit, struggles, aspirations and hopes of his people--Black people. It is a remarkable journey; he took our bones and crafted a memory.

Memory can be elusive and selective for most poets who often choose that which is less painful. However, it was Wilson's way to take us deeply into the cultural and historical reservoir of Black people and render a meaning, a significance that dared and encouraged us to take hold and grow as African people in America. It was clear to him, and most Black writers, that one of the critical problems facing Black people's development is one of cultural/historical ignorance. Yet, this deficiency cannot be solved with a didactic sledgehammer. It would take the art of the poet/playwright, using the language of his community, as an on-sight storyteller, to place us magically into the field of play on the regional and national stages of America and abroad. This is a part of August Wilson's legacy.

He, like Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, Ted Ward, Lorraine Hansberry, Ron Milner, Ernest Gaines, Toni Morrison and many others, told our stories in a way that gave us a national and international presence. He put the world and us on notice that there are new stories to be told. Of the 10 plays to become known as The Pittsburgh Cycle, only "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," did not take place in the neighborhood in which Wilson grew up. Wilson intended to produce a play for each decade of the 20th century; a goal he accomplished. "Gem of the Ocean," took place in 1904; "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," in 1911; "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," in 1927; "The Piano Lesson," in 1936; "Seven Guitars," in 1948; "Fences," in 1957-58 and 1963; "Two Trains Running," in 1969; "Jitney," in 1977; "King Hedley II," in 1985 and "Radio Golf," in 1997.

Wilson's plays gave new life to Broadway. In fact, 1987's "Fences" won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award (the second for the playwright), a Pulitzer Prize and grossed more than $11 million in its first year, setting a record in ticket sales for a non-musical. Few contemporary playwrights could match Wilson's output and not one came close to his awards. …

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