The Cycle of August Wilson's Life

The prize-winning playwright had a gift for authentic characters and dialogue.
The prize-winning playwright had a gift for authentic characters and dialogue. (By Ted S. Warren -- Associated Press)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 4, 2005

The death of August Wilson does not simply leave a hole in the American theater, but a huge, yawning wound, one that will have to wait to be stitched closed by some expansive, poetic dramatist yet to emerge.

To say that Wilson was the greatest African American playwright the nation has produced -- as some inevitably do -- is to limit the scope of his significance as a contributor to the country's dramatic heritage. Wilson wrote scathingly about racism, yes, in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," and the indelible scars of slavery, in "The Piano Lesson" and "Gem of the Ocean." He also wrote about the Oedipal conflict of fathers and sons ("Fences") and the universal quest for the easy score ("Two Trains Running"). His concerns were as multifaceted as the hard-pressed people he wrote about.

Over the past 20 years, Wilson had staked a legitimate claim to the title of nation's most important dramatist. During that time he won two Pulitzers and a Tony, and among his plays he polished off at least three that will rank among the classics: "Ma Rainey," "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" and "The Piano Lesson," along with what will perhaps endure as his favorite with audiences: "Fences," the story of an embittered former baseball prospect, played on Broadway by James Earl Jones.

All this may not have meant as much as it did in the days when playwriting giants roamed the countryside, when a new play by Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill had the power to galvanize public discourse, and even land an actor on the cover of a national magazine. We've moved away, sad to say, from the era of the stage as a truly vital pulpit. In the commercial realm, Wilson's plays were usually not moneymakers. But the fact that he could consistently count on clicking the "send" button and having a play end up in the in box of Broadway -- even in this lean and inhospitable time for serious drama -- stamps him as a theater man of nothing but consequence.

Wilson died ludicrously young on Sunday, at the age of 60 in his adoptive home town of Seattle, where he wrote plays, big, garrulous, angry, lyrical, ponderous, often beautiful plays, in an office in his basement. He went public with his terminal liver cancer a little more than a month ago and when he did, he came forward with a breathtaking serenity. He pronounced himself prepared for what was coming. "I've lived a blessed life," he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the paper of the city of his birth, the metropolis that served as backdrop for many of his major plays. "I'm ready."

He cannot, of course, have been content to leave his family, especially his 8-year-old daughter, Azula, whom he proudly told me last December was writing her own plays. Work-wise, however, he may have been expressing a measure of relief, in that he had satisfied the exacting requirements of the towering assignment he had given himself: a cycle of 10 plays, one set in each decade of the 20th century. ("Radio Golf," the last one, has yet to reach New York; its regional debut comes at Center Stage in Baltimore in March.)

Not that he was exactly through with writing. In an interview over breakfast at a diner in the Edison, the modest Times Square tourist hotel that was his longtime New York base, he revealed that he was working on a comedy whose milieu now seems heartbreakingly prescient: Pittsburgh coffin makers.

His dramas are connected by a palpable sense of geography, usually, a rambunctious district of Pittsburgh; by the mordant humor of characters who spit at hardship; by an eye that seemed to see a story taking shape in every soul. They also reveal the acumen of Wilson's ear in the cross currents of language that flow from his characters as if pouring out of deep, lustrous, meandering canals.

He wrote for authentic-sounding stage creatures, and yet his dialogue might have found a place in novels. "Now I'm gonna show you how this goes, where you just a leftover from history," Toledo, the piano player, tells the other black musicians in dialect in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." The play, set in the 1920s, was the first of Wilson's to make it to Broadway. It was an auspicious coming out. Wilson, wrote drama critic Frank Rich in the New York Times at the play's 1984 opening, "sends the entire history of black America down upon our heads."

Wilson returned again and again to the idea of black America's unique historical inheritance, to reminders of how the South's peculiar institution was not at all a dead memory but a living shadow. As many other characters would in the Wilson pantheon, Toledo offers in "Ma Rainey" his own homespun history lesson about the African diaspora:

"Everybody come from different places in Africa, right? Come from different tribes and things. Soonawhile they began to make one big stew. You had the carrots, the peas, and potatoes and whatnot over here. And over there, you had the meat, the nuts, the okra, corn . . . and then you mix it up and let it cook right through to get the flavors flowing together. Then you got one thing. You got a stew."

Wilson's own favorite playwright was Chekhov, and you can see how their theatrical stews might simmer well together. Wilson was a conjurer of characters, not an accomplished spinner of plot or master of compression. He was, in fact, legendary for writing one overlong draft after another, and working with a director -- most successfully Lloyd Richards, head for many years of the Yale School of Drama -- who could help him pare it down. A script was by no means complete once rehearsals began, he told me. He even liked to seek out actors and ask them what else they needed from him.

He had a reputation for feistiness and a certain amount of ego. The talk of the theater world in 1997 was his Manhattan debate with Robert Brustein, the director, critic and founder of Harvard's American Repertory Theatre, over their disagreement about whether a theater exclusively devoted to black experience is desirable. Wilson was a passionate advocate of black theater, and the evening at Town Hall stands as the last occasion on which a philosophical theater argument grabbed headlines.

When I sat down with him late last year, Wilson seemed anything but combative. He was in a pleasant frame of mind, as a playwright might be with the work of grinding out a play completed. The play was "Gem of the Ocean," set in 1904, which as a result became the prologue of the cycle he'd been writing for much of his professional life.

As it happens, the first in the chain was the last he'd ever get to see on Broadway. The chain he'd long promised, and true to his word, the chain he delivered.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company