Black History Month: August Wilson

august-wilson-1.jpgAugust Wilson (1945 to 2005), playwright.

It’s hard to find enough superlatives to described what Wilson has added to American theater with his 10 plays chronicling the black experience in the 20th century:
* 1900s – Gem of the Ocean (2003)
* 1910s – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984)
* 1920s – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982) – set in Chicago
* 1930s – The Piano Lesson (1989) – Pulitzer Prize
* 1940s – Seven Guitars (1995)
* 1950s – Fences (1985) – Pulitzer Prize
* 1960s – Two Trains Running (1990)
* 1970s – Jitney (1982)
* 1980s – King Hedley II (2001)
* 1990s – Radio Golf (2005)

Of note, lists a new hardcover set of all ten plays to go on sale in April (list price is $200):

Series introduction by John Lahr with individual volumes introduced by Laurence Fishburne, Tony Kushner, Romulus Linney, Marion McClinton, Toni Morrison, Suzan-Lori Parks, Phylicia Rashad, Ishmael Reed, and Frank Rich.

The last play I saw was the Broadway revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, with Charles S. Dutton as Levee. Though the play begins in a Chicago recording studio, the mood and tenor of the piece — based on Levee’s thwarted ambitions and the complexities of his relationships with his fellow musicians and the record company owners — pack an emotional wallop that elevate the play into the realm of great drama, connecting the experience of these musicians in the 1920s with the timelessness of all human experience.

The Village Voice obituary for Wilson, who suffered from liver cancer, includes the following:

His is an epic of people, in which the grand historical movements of the larger world are not preached upon but reflected through the lives of distinct, graspable individuals, usually in an enclosed space: a boardinghouse parlor, a recording studio, a modest front yard, a corner diner. The world is vast and beyond our control, but the humans in it live for individual needs, within a constantly evolving cultural pattern. This dynamic tension between history and the individual is reflected in the plays’ aesthetic tension, for though each of them has the superficial look of a traditional well-made play, each of them is really a free-flowing river of poetic impressions and musings, a point often lost on those who mistake August for (or would have liked him to be) a conventional Broadway realist. What he was really about was what all great tragic poets are about: the transfiguration of reality.

Here’s a YouTube clip from Gem of the Ocean:

Here are some links:
Paris Review Interview
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Wilson timeline
Post-Gazette’s collection of links
Village Voice obituary

Is there a book, play or essay you think is a vital part of the African-American literary tradition, especially something that has touched you personally? E-mail your idea to me at


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