The Man Who Transformed American Theater

When August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson opened at the Huntington Theatre in Boston in 1988, my mother, her friend Renée, and I sat in the audience, captivated by the struggles of a brother and sister at odds about the fate of a family heirloom, a piano on which their enslaved ancestor had made African carvings. The vernacular dialogue, the ghosts, and the humor—as a teenager a couple of years earlier, I’d been stunned by a similar mix in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the same theater (and had spotted Wilson pacing in the lobby). Still, the new play felt unlike anything we’d ever seen. After the performance, we headed to Slade’s, a historic restaurant and bar (once owned by the Celtics legend Bill Russell) in the predominantly Black enclave of Roxbury. The lights were low and the music was loud, and I might not have noticed the cast members in the crowd if they hadn’t just held me in thrall for three hours. I didn’t see Wilson at Slade’s that night, but if he was there, I imagine he was in a corner spinning “big lies,” a Black English term for storytelling banter. I remember thinking that of course these actors would find their way to a joint in the hood. Slade’s could easily have been described in Wilson’s stage directions as a location for some postshow unwinding.

Critics consider the 1980s and ’90s a renaissance of African American cultural production. In literature, Black women—Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, and others—took their place among the most important writers in American history. Many of the stories they told resurrected the lives of earlier generations of women who had been largely neglected in art and society. Hip-hop, an insurgent art form with roots in postindustrial cities in the aftermath of the civil-rights movement, was thriving. Mainly male, with some notable exceptions, its creators and performers were brash and defiant—and enjoying a golden age of creativity, achieving feats of lyrical dexterity and figurative language. Critics were hailing hip-hop as a form of popular literature, akin to the blues in the early 20th century.

August Wilson, born in 1945 and raised in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, is best known for his 10-play cycle evoking 20th-century Black life, set almost entirely in that city. His work—which, taken together, tells the story of Jim Crow, incarceration, migration, and the civil-rights era, conveying the beauty and pathos, the resilience and heartbreak of Black people—did not fit neatly into either the literary or the musical renaissance. His art reflected a blend, and his impact on American theater, which has extended well beyond his death, in 2005, is related to both.

The critic Patti Hartigan’s August Wilson: A Life traces the larger context of his achievement as thoroughly as it does his distinctive vision. Wilson embarked on playwriting during the Black Arts movement of 1965–75, when poetic performance art emerged as a signature form of expression, an important precursor to hip-hop. He joined in the vision of community-based art espoused by Amiri Baraka, Hoyt Fuller, and others. Baraka’s dramatic work stirred his interest in mythic symbolism, and in theater and its power. Wilson’s own poetry, though, was mocked for its lack of revolutionary rage, and he felt on the periphery of the movement. Like many of the women novelists, he was interested in the interior lives of earlier generations that had withstood the humiliations of slavery and Jim Crow, and sustained themselves with folk traditions and spirituality. His plays were woven of Black language and songs (sometimes drawing, as with “Old Dog Blue” in Fences, on stories and characters from songs), and they invoked Black rituals of worship and the rhythms of labor too. Wilson’s vision conjoined hoodoo and history in completely singular ways. Against the odds, he arrived at the apex of American theater.

Frederick August Kittel Jr., Wilson’s given name, was the fourth child born to Daisy Wilson, who had migrated to Pittsburgh from North Carolina in 1937. His father was largely absent from the family’s life and provided little in the way of financial support. Frederick Kittel, a German immigrant, was already married to a Polish woman, and his relationship with Daisy, 24 years younger, was “tempestuous,” Hartigan writes. A struggling single mother, Daisy took particular pride in Freddy, who was an early and avid reader. He was also an excellent student—and something of a loner, a boy with a stutter (and, when provoked, a temper). When he earned a place at the elite and predominantly white Central Catholic High School, Daisy became even more invested in his future greatness. But after growing up in what Hartigan calls the “melting pot” of the Hill District, he was routinely harassed with racist slurs and threats, and he left just before turning 15. He went back to public school (briefly a vocational one), where he didn’t last long either. A 10th-grade teacher accused him of plagiarizing a paper on Napoleon—20 typed pages, with footnotes that reflected his deep curiosity and wide reading. That was the end of his high-school experience.

Wilson would later say, “I dropped out of school, but I did not drop out of life.” He read his way through a nearby library. When his mother learned that he’d left school, she accused him of squandering his abundant gifts, and insisted that he enlist in the Army. Wilson quit a year in, and after a short detour to Los Angeles, was back in Pittsburgh, now borrowing books from the University of Pittsburgh library (Freud, history, poetry), mingling with local characters in cafés, and imagining a life as a writer. Hartigan’s descriptions of his idiosyncratic, youthful self-creation are a delight. He was wonderfully strange, and that was at least one key to his becoming the sui generis playwright he was:

He worked odd jobs, and he adopted a sartorial style that was more akin to the 1940s than the turbulent 1960s. He bought woolen coats from the St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop, and he always had his shoes shined … He would walk down the street reciting poetry to himself, and more often than not, he had an armful of books … He was cultivating an image of a romantic poet.

Hartigan emphasizes at several points that Wilson identified not as mixed race, but rather as a Black man raised by a Black woman migrant from the South. Given when he was born, this detail isn’t particularly notable. Generations of Black people were fathered by absent white men. For Wilson, though, making the break official was an important turning point; he began going by August with new friends, and he spent the day of his father’s funeral, in April 1965, deciding how to rechristen himself. He dropped Kittel’s first and last name and took his mother’s surname. August Wilson was born.

Wilson’s self-fashioning wasn’t smooth. Navigating the social and political turmoil of the ’60s and ’70s, he was “straddling two worlds,” in Hartigan’s phrase, as he searched for his voice. He was steeped in the Western canon and romantic themes, a poet inclined to grandiloquence, and also a man of his neighborhood. Meanwhile, he had married in 1969. Soon he was tugged away from his wife, Brenda Burton, and their baby daughter by his growing involvement in local artistic collectives that had emerged from the ferment of the Black Power movement: Black Horizons Theatre and the Centre Avenue Poets’ Theater Workshop. His divorce in 1973 devastated him (though he went on to have two more wives and another daughter, and was known for his “serial infidelity,” Hartigan writes). Black Horizons Theatre folded. His first effort at playwriting, in essence a dialogue between a male character given to high-flown rhetoric and a plainspoken woman, was a flop. By the mid-’70s, he had weathered what looked like a run of failures.

In 1978, Wilson headed to St. Paul, Minnesota, to work with the Penumbra Theatre Company, at the invitation of a Pittsburgh friend and fellow director. He’d been working on poems and a play about a Black outlaw figure, which that same friend and others were eager to help him turn into a musical. It did finally get staged in St. Paul, and tanked. His focus on playwriting intensified as he swerved away from the “Americanized Homeric dialogue” that critics had derided. By that time, he had taken up the blues as inspiration—music that he described as having the power to conjure “blood’s memory.”

The newly vernacular Wilson, with the help of his soon-to-be second wife, Judy Oliver, began applying for grants and fellowships (largely in vain). But in 1981, he submitted a long play he was working on, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and was at last awarded a spot at the annual summer conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, in Waterford, Connecticut, known as the “launchpad of the American theater.” Wilson, and American theater along with him, was indeed about to take off in a new direction.

At the O’Neill, he met Lloyd Richards, the Black director who had brought Lorraine Hansberry to Broadway in 1959 and served as the dean of the Yale School of Drama and the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre. Richards presided over the workshop, and, as the other playwrights gathered there in 1982 sensed right away, Wilson was his favorite. The legendary mentor, eager to discover theater’s “Great Black Hope,” spotted a distinctive talent in the early version of Ma Rainey, despite its long monologues and sprawl. Wilson’s play, about a 1927 recording session of the Mother of the Blues and her band, exposes the ordeals of Jim Crow, sexual violence, exploitation, and cruelty—and the meaning of the blues, an art of lamentation as well as pleasure. Hartigan reports that Wilson’s star rose even higher when Frank Rich of The New York Times violated the O’Neill conference’s press protocol (only soft features allowed, no reviews) and singled out his play for a rave. “I was electrified by the sound of this author’s voice,” Rich wrote, declaring it “quite unusual in 1982 to find a playwright who is willing to stake his claim to the stage not with stories or moral platitudes, but with the beauty and meaning of torrents of words.” Two years later, Ma Rainey opened to acclaim at the Yale Rep in the spring, and then on Broadway in the fall.

A long collaborative relationship with Richards had begun. Wilson was protective of his prose and pacing, and exacting with performers—yet also receptive to suggestion, above all from Richards. Twenty-six years older than Wilson, he was the sage, a father figure ready with guidance well tuned to his protégé. That meant helping Wilson find “a through line or a fully realized theme,” as Richards put it, to give coherence to the fascinating characters and the often disjointed scenes and speeches that first propelled Wilson into a play. It also meant encouraging Wilson’s extraordinary gift for potent monologues, evocative symbolism, and scenes of supernatural struggle—hardly familiar fare for mainstream theatergoers.

Not least, Richards took on the challenge of attracting a producer. “Serious plays concerning minorities … are not considered a good risk,” he observed, never mind one like Joe Turner, whose first act is capped by an African juba scene—call-and-response building to a “near frenzy,” as Wilson wrote in the stage directions. Together, Richards and Wilson came up with an unusual strategy, and in the process helped inaugurate a new and closer relationship between commercial and nonprofit theater in America. Work was first staged in regional theaters, which were free of Broadway’s commercial pressures and able to take chances, and Wilson got the kind of “long development process” he knew he needed, revising tirelessly in rehearsals and in reaction to performances. Plays could then tour the country before Broadway runs, Wilson often hovering and still revising. The Black playwright who wants to depict working-class Black life depends on a public comprising tourists and elites, and on critics—an audience very far afield from such a life. That Wilson and Richards found a way to negotiate the terrain and still produce great art is extraordinary.

By the end of the 1980s, even Wilson’s demanding mother (who died in 1983) might have admitted that he had outstripped her expectations. But Hartigan’s account doesn’t hide the frustrations he felt as he juggled multiple plays at once and the toll his labors took on others. Wilson’s most conventionally structured play, the 1987 Pulitzer Prize–winning Fences, about a tragic father-son struggle and the wounds of Jim Crow, was the most financially successful of his life. It was also, he said, his “least favorite.” Hartigan writes that he “knew he had strayed from his spiritual and poetic muse in writing a play to please audiences—and to prove himself to his critics and colleagues.”

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson, both experimental and infused with supernatural hauntings, were his masterpieces. The former—inspired, Wilson wrote, by a man “sitting in this posture of abject defeat” in the center of a Romare Bearden collage—addresses the horrific history of convict-labor leasing and is threaded with references to losing one’s “song,” an opaque yet resonant image for being robbed of one’s spiritual groundedness. When The Piano Lesson earned him a second Pulitzer, in 1990, and then was filmed for television, to be aired in 1995, Wilson was at the center of the theater world. But his relationship with Richards was deteriorating in classic patricidal fashion: As Wilson grew comfortable in his prominence, he chafed at Richards’s guiding role.

Wilson in turn found himself under attack, most scathingly by Robert Brustein, the founder of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard and The New Republic’s theater critic. He dismissed The Piano Lesson as “much ado about a piano,” and denigrated Wilson’s success as a turn toward the “sociological” and away from artistic value. Pointing to his characters who “sit on the edge of the middle class, wearing good suits, inhabiting clean homes,” and who “never come on like menacing street people screaming obscenities or bombarding the audience with such phrases as ‘Black power’s gonna get your mama,’ ” Brustein implied that Wilson’s work in general was calibrated to elicit white guilt without jeopardizing white acceptance. Any Black artist who has acquired a modicum of mainstream acclaim while sustaining a sincere interest in Black life knows this kind of criticism intimately. Wilson’s experience is an aching reminder that no amount of professional stature insulates one from it. In fact, quite the contrary.

Wilson’s second marriage ended in 1990; “I was never there for her,” he said, pulled away constantly by work. In 1997, he was thrilled by the birth of another daughter, with his third wife, Constanza Romero, but was busier than ever, feeling stymied in efforts to support Black theater and facing three more plays to finish his cycle. Once again, he was often disengaged from family life, despite the shame he felt—and pressure from a strong-willed wife: yet another case of male artistic genius accommodated. Wilson was, though, rightly criticized for his failure to paint his women characters with the same depth as the men. Even Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is less about Ma Rainey than about her bandmate Levee, who witnessed white men gang-raping his mother when he was a child, a wound that tragically shapes his adult life.

Wilson’s relationship to the world of Black theater was nurturing, even if distance opened up between him and some early friends in the arts scene as he became by far the most influential Black man in American theater. Many prominent stage and film actors of the late 20th century worked with Wilson at some point. His plays gave Charles S. Dutton, Viola Davis, Rocky Carroll, Angela Bassett, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and others roles that were rare for Black actors, ones in which they could show their range and power. Facilitating the emergence of Black artists working at the highest level was yet another way Wilson transformed Black theater.

His century cycle turned out to be more than an utterly distinctive African American history in theatrical form. Wilson’s endeavor, like his anomalous route into playwriting, marked out new paths in the theater world and reflected a vital aesthetic: With every play, he was viscerally aware that the essence of dramatic art is found in the living, breathing doing of it with a collective cast of participants—actors, directors, producers, mentors, audiences. Reworking isn’t failure. Indeed, Wilson the bluesman rewrote and remixed in real time, improvising and experimenting his way to mastery and historical revelation.

This article appears in the September 2023 print edition with the headline “The Man Who Transformed American Theater.”

By Patti Hartigan

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