In Memoriam: August Wilson: 1945-2005
By Haki R. Madhubuti
In 10 plays, nine set in Pittsburgh’s “Hill District,” August Wilson, more than any writer of his generation, chronicled the lives of the “ordinary” Black folks. He documented in a poet’s voice the history, culture, vision, pain, psychology, fighting spirit, struggles, aspirations and hopes of his people — Black people. It is a remarkable journey; he took our bones and crafted a memory. Memory can be elusive and selective for most poets who often choose that which is less painful. However, it was Wilson’s way to take us deeply into the cultural and historical reservoir of Black people and render a meaning, a significance that dared and encouraged us to take hold and grow as African people in America. It was clear to him, and most Black writers, that one of the critical problems facing Black people’s development is one of cultural/historical ignorance. Yet, this deficiency cannot be solved with a didactic sledgehammer. It would take the art of the poet/playwright, using the language of his community, as an on-sight storyteller, to place us magically into the field of play on the regional and national stages of America and abroad. This is a part of August Wilson’s legacy.
He, like Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, Ted Ward, Lorraine Hansberry, Ron Milner, Ernest Gaines, Toni Morrison and many others, told our stories in a way that gave us a national and international presence. He put the world and us on notice that there are new stories to be told. Of the 10 plays to become known as The Pittsburgh Cycle, only “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” did not take place in the neighborhood in which Wilson grew up. Wilson intended to produce a play for each decade of the 20th century; a goal he accomplished. “Gem of the Ocean,” took place in 1904; “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” in 1911; “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” in 1927; “The Piano Lesson,” in 1936; “Seven Guitars,” in 1948; “Fences,” in 1957-58 and 1963; “Two Trains Running,” in 1969; “Jitney,” in 1977; “King Hedley II,” in 1985 and “Radio Golf,” in 1997.
Wilson’s plays gave new life to Broadway. In fact, 1987’s “Fences” won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award (the second for the playwright), a Pulitzer Prize and grossed more than $11 million in its first year, setting a record in ticket sales for a non-musical. Few contemporary playwrights could match Wilson’s output and not one came close to his awards. Over a 21-year stretch, he garnered two Pulitzers, seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, one Tony, Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships, the 2003 Heinz Award in Humanities and Arts, a National Humanities Medal, 24 honorary doctorates and induction in the Black Writers Hall of Fame at Chicago State University.
I don’t remember when or where I first met August Wilson. Before he arrived at the status of America’s premier playwright, our paths crossed at various poetry readings and Black empowerment conferences. On a few of my trips to Seattle, we would bump into each other at the airport or at local coffee shops. He visited Chicago State University twice to keynote the Gwendolyn Brooks Writers Conference.
Wilson adored his children. His eyes burned with passion and integrity. He was a Black man who worked, studied, wrote and fought himself into being a great artist.
In April of 2000 he wrote in the New York Times:
“Before one can become an artist one must first be. It is being in all facets, its many definitions that endows the artist with an immutable sense of himself that is necessary for the accomplishment of his tasks. Simply put, art is beholden to the kiln in which the artist was fired.
Before I am anything, a man or a playwright, I am an African-American. The tributary streams of culture, history and experience have provided me with the materials out of which I make my art. As an African-American playwright, I have many forebears who have pioneered and hacked out of the underbrush an aesthetic that embraced and elevated the cultural values of Black Americans to a level equal to those of their European counterparts.”
There he is, the gem in our ocean, a clean, clear, determined, heartfelt, memory-layered and unforgettable voice. No booty call here, no celebration of our pathologies, no chittlin’ circuit opportunism, no banging of the chest or cheap amens for a people raised in the hellhole of an alien people’s culture. His goal was to free our minds from the mentality of being the property of others. His objective was to show us how to love ourselves, because first — and this is the core of his definition and identity — he loved us.
— Haki R. Madhubuti is a poet and Distinguished University Professor and director of the MFA Program at Chicago State University.
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