August Wilson: An Interview
Sheppard, Vera, National Forum
Vera Sheppard: "Congratulations on your second Pulitzer Prize, this time for your latest play on Broadway- The Piano Lesson. When you were young, did you ever dream of becoming famous, or are you surprised that your work has become so respected and admired?"
August Wilson: "Well, I don't think one starts off with that idea. I have been writing since 1965, and I always assumed that by the time I was forty I would be a better writer than I was when I was twenty. Fame and that sort of thing never entered into my mind. It was a question of enjoying the work for the work's sake."
VS: "You have been quoted as saying that you don't do any research for your plays, yet I get the impression that you know a lot about African-American history. Do your incidents showing the treatment of Blacks simply grow out of a general feeling you have for the past?"
AW: "Well, of course I have read some of the history of Africans in America. I think where I get most of my information from is all of these walking history books, the people themselves who have gone through various experiences. In Pittsburgh, there is a place called Pat's Place. I was reading Home to Harlem, and Claude McKay had mentioned that their railroad porters would stop in Pat's Place, a place where he hung out. And I thought, well, I know where that's at. I went to Pat's Place and, sure enough, there were these elders of the community standing around, and at that time I was twenty-three years old and it was a time when life had to be continually negotiated. I was really curious as to how they had lived as long as they did. So I stood around in Pat's Place and listened to them. They talked philosophy, history; they discussed whatever the topic of the day was-the newspapers, the politics of the city, the baseball games, and invariably they would talk about themselves and their lives when they were young men. And so a lot of what I know of the history of Blacks in a very personal sense I picked up standing there in Pat's Place."
VS: "That's probably why you include so much storytelling in your plays. I was going to ask you where this device comes from. You have answered it; it grows partly out of your youth."
AW: "It is certainly a part of the culture also. As I got older, I discovered that the stories are all designed for a purpose, and that is to reveal ways of conduct which the community has put sanctions on. When you hear a story, you learn what is expected of you as a man, say, in the Black community. I can remember when I arrived at twenty years old on the avenue where all the young men hung out, for instance, there was a story about this lawyer named Al Lichtenstein. These were undoubtedly tall tales about what a fantastic lawyer this guy was. But what they were telling you was that the chances are that, as a young Black male, you were at some time going to need a lawyer. I said well, okay, if I ever get in any trouble, I know what I will do-I will get Al Lichtenstein, and the judge will just throw the case right out because he will see that I have Al Lichtenstein as my lawyer."
VS: "Each of the plays so far has been set in a different decade. You have indicated that your future works will cover the remaining years, but that this was not your original intention. How and when did the idea of creating a cycle of plays occur to you?"
AW: "I did not start out with that idea in mind. I wrote a play called Jitney that was set in 1971, and then I wrote a play called Fullerton Street that was set in 1941, and then I wrote Ma Rainey's Black Bottom which was set in 1927. And I said, well, I have written plays set in three different decades; why don't I continue to do that. It gave me an agenda, a focus, something to hone in on, so that I never had to worry about what the next play would be about. I could always pick a decade and work on that."
VS: "And Ma Rainey was the first play that was a great hit. …