"When I was 22 years old, each day had to be continually negotiated," remembers playwright August Wilson. "It was rough. And I honestly did not see how I was going to make it to 23. One day I happened to look up and see a guy walking down the street who must have been 67 years old. And I thought, 'How did you do that?' And I followed him."

Wilson sits in the balcony at Arena's Kreeger Theater, while below technicians hammer energetically away on the set of his "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," which opens Wednesday. Shy and soft-spoken, his smoke-cured voice a rumbling whisper, he retraces those early steps that led him to writing plays such as "Fences" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" -- plays that have earned him sobriquets like "the bard of black America."

"All these old guys congregated at this place called Pat's Cigar Store. So I thought if I went down there and just hung around with them I would find out how they managed to live as long as they did, and what their lives were like. And I wanted to know because I knew I had to go the same path.

"And those guys would talk, tell stories, argue. I listened then without realizing that I was listening or that I would be able to put this to some use. They called me 'Youngblood,' and they would on occasion ask me questions. I remember one argument was how far away the moon was. 'Ask that boy over there -- hey, Youngblood. He's carrying all those books and things, he ought to know. Tell this man -- ain't the moon a million miles away?' And I said, 'Well, I think it's about 200 ... ' 'Ah, that boy don't know ... '

"Everybody who walked into the cigar store would get hit with that question while they argued it out. So that's where the listening and the speeches come from. Now I just open up my heart and my head and it all happens again."

Although he's 42 now, Wilson is still that Pittsburgh youngblood, listening to the compelling clamor of voices in his memory and setting it all down in his plays. He's only been at it for ten years, and his has been one of the most remarkable arrivals in recent memory. His collaboration with noted director Lloyd Richards has resulted in a swift succession of successes, beginning with "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," produced on Broadway in 1985 (and at Washington's Studio Theatre), and followed by "Fences," which won this year's Pulitzer Prize and four Tony Awards. Coming up: Arena's production of "Joe Turner," and Wilson's latest play, "The Piano Lesson," due to open on Broadway in November. And he has recently finished the book for a Broadway-bound musical about Jelly Roll Morton.

But though the honors have meant a tide of invitations (and enough money to buy a word processor), Wilson says he's not the sort of fellow to start hanging out with the literary pack -- he doesn't even go to the theater much. He says he's just glad that more people, particularly black audiences, will see the plays. And that thought makes him want to work even harder.

Wilson dropped out of Gladstone High School at age 15, after a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a history paper, and spent a few years hanging out -- listening -- in his Hill district neighborhood. At 21 he married Brenda Burton; now divorced, they have a 17-year-old daughter, Sakina Ansari (which means "peace and quiet" in Arabic). Wilson married Judy Oliver in 1978 and moved to St. Paul, Minn., where he began fusing his poetry, which he had been writing and publishing since his early twenties, with drama. "I think the whole thing comes from being a poet," he says. "I think that's my greatest asset as a playwright."

The turning point came in 1984, when Wilson met Richards, dean of the Yale School of Drama, artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater and director of such landmarks of black theater as "A Raisin in the Sun." "I had not been aware of his reputation," Wilson says. "I had been submitting scripts to the O'Neill {Theater Center, site of the National Playwrights Conference} and it had 'Lloyd Richards' on the letterhead, but I didn't know who he was. I guess if I had known, I would have moved faster to embrace it."

As if on cue, Richards silently materializes and settles himself into a seat a row above Wilson. Richards has a subtly magisterial presence, and Wilson seems to defer to him.

"August first came to my attention when he submitted his plays to the National Playwrights Conference," Richards says. "We'd rejected him for three years." They both laugh. "That material ultimately became 'Ma Rainey' -- it was really two short plays which he was trying to fuse together. It had all of the earmarks of what ought to be rejected, but my second thought was that all the characters were vital, alive, and I knew them all -- mostly from the barbershop I used to go to when I was a young kid. On Saturdays the barbershop was always full, and you spent a lot of time there and had a chance to listen to wonderful stories. And August had caught that sense of language, the poetry of a small vocabulary. So I met August whenever I did, but I knew him all my life -- I knew him as I'd known the characters."

All of Wilson's major works have had their premieres at the Yale Rep under Richards' direction, but Richards insists that he is interested in developing playwrights for the theater, not for himself. Still, he can't resist referring to Wilson and South African activist Athol Fugard as "his playwrights."

"When Athol gets an idea, he'll give me a call and say, 'Let's have a cup of coffee,' " Richards says. "And he'll pick out a restaurant with paper napkins -- an old coffee shop -- and he tells me the story of the play and he tells me the title. And I'll say, 'I can do this on this date,' and he writes the date on a paper napkin, and that's our contract. The lawyers go crazy."

"We forgo the napkins," Wilson says, laughing.

"I work in bars and restaurants," Wilson says. "This is a long habit from when I was 20 years old and writing poetry and grabbing my pad and going out into the street and discovering life. Something may or may not happen. If not, then I go to another place.

"For 'Fences,' I remember I had this image of a man standing in a yard holding a baby in his arms, which is in the second act of the play. And at that time I had no idea why he was standing there, who he was in fact talking to. I wasn't quite sure what it meant."

"Ma Rainey" emerged from an old 78-rpm blues record Wilson discovered when he was living in a Pittsburgh rooming house. And "Joe Turner" was born from a painting he spotted in a magazine.

"The idea came from a painting by the artist Romare Bearden called 'Mill Hand's Lunch Bucket,' which was the original title of the play. It was a boardinghouse scene, and I began to wonder who one of the figures was, a man sitting at a table with a hat and a coat in this posture that I call abject defeat. He eventually became the character Herald Loomis. I was intrigued, and I started by writing a short story called 'The Matter of Mill Hand's Lunch Bucket,' and 12 pages into the story I thought maybe I should write a play. Then I discovered the song called 'Joe Turner's Come and Gone' that W.C. Handy did about the slave hunter. And the two things came together, the song and the painting, and fueled what I wanted to say about the separation and dispersal of blacks." In the play, Loomis returns after seven years of forced labor in the South and searches the northern cities for his wife.

"Generally I start with something I want to say, some question," Wilson says. "Like in 'Piano Lesson,' I started with the idea: Can one acquire a sense of self worth by denying one's past? So next I had to construct a series of situations or events that will pose the question throughout the play. So I came up with the idea about a piano, and a brother and sister. The sister would be trying to acquire some self worth by denying the past, and the brother was going to visit her from the South and bring the past with him like a tornado sweeping through the house. And then another question arose: What do you do with your legacy and how do you best put it to some use?"

These questions are recurrent themes in all of Wilson's plays to date: the cultural and emotional losses suffered by black people who have tried to protect themselves or their children from their past, escaping painful memories of slavery and other cruel indignities. In "Ma Rainey," the jazz musician Levee struggles between survival and selling out to the white entertainment world. In "Fences," garbageman and former baseball player Troy Maxson grapples with heritage and family responsibility.

"I think that's crucial, and I think it's the strongest part of ourselves," Wilson says. "From what I've seen of blacks in America, we've run away from our African past. You really should know your past, or you don't know who you are, it's as simple as that. And if you don't know who you are, then you don't know what direction to proceed in.

"I don't know if the Jews are proud of their time in slavery, but they certainly keep it alive, it's certainly important to them. They know who they are, they have this force of history behind them, because they have not run from their past. In 'Piano Lesson,' there's a speech in which the brother is telling the mother about the little girl, and the fact that she hasn't told her about the piano." Wilson begins speaking in the voice of his character, Boy Willie. "And he says, 'If you want to tell her anything, tell her about that piano. You got her going around here thinking that ain't no part of the world belongs to her. But remember the day our father brought that piano in the house. Mark it down on your calendar, and every year it comes up, have a celebration in the house, invite everybody.'

"If the audience walks away from the play saying, 'Oh, I see, these are African people and they do things differently,' I will be satisfied," Wilson says. "That's basically all I'm trying to say. And blacks would then see there's nothing wrong with the way we do things, it's different than the way whites do things. And I think part of the problem in this society is we're not allowed our cultural differences. One of the questions after emancipation was: How are we going to participate in society? And white America says, 'Okay, if you drop your African baggage at the door, then we'll allow you to go through and participate.' And there have been people who have been willing to do that, and to me that's a denial of yourself. I say, 'Claim what's yours.' "

Wilson's cycle of plays, when finished, will address the crucial issues of black American life during each decade of this century. He has completed six of the projected 10, but says he never set out with such a grand design.

"I didn't start out to write a cycle. I started with a play called 'Jitney,' set in 1971, and a play called 'Fullerton Street,' which I set in the '40s. And then I wrote 'Ma Rainey,' which was set in the '20s, and 'Fences,' which was the '50s. And I thought, 'Something's happening here.' I probably won't get around to the '80s until the 1990s. We have to get out of this one yet."

Set in 1911, "Joe Turner" arrives at Arena after three years of development, being "shared" by resident regional theaters. "It's part of a whole thing that I have been feeling recently," Richards says. "And that is the coming together and the coming of age, in so many ways and respects, of the regional theater as the national theater of our country. It's not one building or one person somewhere, it's the moving institution of theater."

With "Joe Turner" on its way and "The Piano Lesson" to look forward to, Wilson says all the awards and attention merely "add fuel" to his writing. "I look at the awards and I think, 'They look nice hanging on the wall, but that's there and this is what has to be done now. When I look at a play, the rest of the world disappears. Each play has its own dictate to me -- I sit down and immerse myself in the work, approach it with a fair amount of passion and a measure of respect."

"I like that," says the director. " 'A fair amount of passion and a measure of respect.' Keep that in."