A Tribute to August Wilson

By King, Woodie, Jr. | Black Masks, May/June 2006 | Go to article overview

A Tribute to August Wilson


King, Woodie, Jr., Black Masks


The untimely death of August Wilson at the age of sixty is a tragic loss to the American theatre. While no one can fully share the sorrow of the family that the death of a loved one brings, August Wilson is sorely missed by Black artists everywhere. There should also be some measure of consolation to the family, as well as to the theatre community, in knowing that he met death pridefully and manfully.

August Wilson burst into the American theatre in 1983 with his brilliant play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Yet, many Blacks who worked in Black theatre had heard of August Wilson's talent long before the American theatre community at large. His partnership with the late poet/playwright Rob Penny (who introduced Wilson to theatre) was well known in Pittsburgh. Both men ran the Black Horizons Theatre and Pittsburgh's Kuntu Writer's Workshop. At Black Horizons Theatre August brilliantly directed works by Amiri Baraka and Ed Bullins, and at the Kuntu Workshop he penned eloquent poetry that embraced the Black aesthetic.

Within a few years after the New York premiere of Ma Rainey 's Black Bottom in 1984, his conceit, announced without fanfare, was to write ten plays about the Black experience-one for each decade of the 20th century. In his subsequent plays, especially Fences, Joe Turner s Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson, his language is like a series of tropes, rooted in the Black aesthetic, moving each play and its people to the beginning of the 21 st century. Radio Golf, the final play in his cycle, premiered in May 2005 at Yale Repertory Theatre, directed by Timothy Douglass; and again with substantial rewrites, directed by Kenny Leon in August 2005 at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum.

An outspoken proponent of the Black arts and a "race man," Wilson gave a blistering speech titled, "The Ground On Which I Stand" at the Biennial Theatre Communications Group Conference held at Princeton University in 1996. In his speech, later published by TCG, he stated, "There are and have always been two distinct and parallel traditions in [BJlack art: that is, art that is conceived and designed to entertain [W]hite society, and art that feeds the spirit and celebrates the life of [B] lack America by designing its strategies for survival and prosperity" ( 18). In January 1997 director Robert Brustein challenged August Wilson about his TCG Conference speech, and the two men debated in a highly publicized face-off at New York's Town Hall.

The plays in Wilson's cycle are award-winners, including Jitney, which won an Olivier Award for its London production. In total, his ten plays, including Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, King Medley II and Gem of the Ocean have collectively garnered a Tony Award, two Pulitzer Prizes, and seven New York Drama Critic Circle Awards. His dramas and tragedies are framed and rooted within a context deeply embedded in the blues and in the history of Black people from the slave ships, the middle passage, and through every decade of the last century.

At the Edward Albee Last Frontier Playwriting Conference in 2002 in Valdez, Alaska, Wilson spoke about the characters he created. …

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