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Wednesday, November 29, 2023
Nov. 29, 2023

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August Wilson’s symphony of 20th century Black lives captured in biography


Opening night, 1986. August Wilson’s play “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. Patti Hartigan, a rising young critic and arts writer, took her seat for the pre-Broadway tryout performance, the production one of several regional theater stops for the new play en route to Broadway.

For a lot of reasons, Hartigan will never forget what she saw that night, notably the Act 1 climax: a haunted man’s vision, which consumes him in the middle of a joyous Pittsburgh boardinghouse celebration, of bones walking on water. These are the bones of enslaved Africans lost in the Middle Passage. Wilson’s play takes place in 1911. America’s former slaves are free, on paper, but searching — following the scent of what Wilson calls their “blood memory.”

In her absorbing, richly detailed biography, “August Wilson: A Life,” recently published by Simon & Schuster, Hartigan calls “Joe Turner” Wilson’s greatest achievement. She has plenty of company in that opinion.

For much of the 1980s and ‘90s, Wilson worked like a one-man vaudeville touring act: a man, a typewriter and one more play in his ambitious 10-play cycle of 20th century Black American life and poetic drama. Wilson developed and revised (and cut, and cut) his plays across a far-flung network of nonprofit theaters, including Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. The goal was a commercial debut on Broadway; sometimes that worked out profitably (“Fences,” “The Piano Lesson”), other times not quite (“Joe Turner”) or not even close (“King Hedley II,” “Gem of the Ocean,” “Radio Golf”). Money isn’t everything. The plays are continually up for revival, and reassessment.

In 1982, Wilson was on his second of three marriages, living in St. Paul, Minn., writing at odd hours, working day shifts as a cook at Little Brothers of the Poor. He’d already submitted plays for the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference five times, five different years. His sixth submission, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” did the trick. And then August Wilson slowly, then quickly, became a force.

Conference director Lloyd Richards, the first Black director on Broadway (Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” in 1959), saw something in “Ma Rainey,” even in its shaggy, four-hour nascent state. The bell curve of their subsequent, celebrated 12-year writer-director partnership extended on Broadway from 1984 to 1996. Then it fell apart, though the strain showed as early as “Fences.” The backstage drama on Wilson’s biggest Broadway success comes to vivid life in Hartigan’s book, along with Wilson’s remarkable family history. There’s enough of Wilson, the personality, the difficulty, the setbacks and the success, to flesh out Hartigan’s chronicle of a major American playwright’s many chapters.

Wilson died at the age of 60, of liver cancer, in 2005, five months after he finished his final work, “Radio Golf.” Hartigan’s book tour brings her to Chicago Aug. 22 for a discussion and book signing at the downtown American Writers Museum.

Our interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Your book begins in 2003, two years before Wilson’s death, when he has returned to Pittsburgh for his friend Rob Penny’s funeral. To some of his old Pittsburgh cohorts, as you write, Wilson was “the one who turned his back on the community.” Penny didn’t want Wilson to speak at his funeral, and he didn’t. Can you go into that for us?

I rewrote that prologue probably a hundred times. I wanted to capture a moment of August’s life when he’s at the height of his fame, and he’s back where everything started, in that church in the Pittsburgh Hill District. Success, for someone as important as he was, changed the way many people looked at him. He was empathetic enough to feel that. He was the one who’d really made it — and a lot of people thought someone else would be the one to make it. Nobody really thought August was going to be the one to break through.

I was talking to someone the other day about Angela Duckworth’s book “Grit,” and it made me think of August Wilson. He had grit. He came from nothing. A genius-level IQ but he left high school at 15 (after years of racist taunts at the roughest of the Catholic schools he attended). Grit comes with a price, sometimes. In his heart, I think, August was still the guy hanging out on the hill with Gabriel (a character in “Fences”) and Hambone (“Two Trains Running”), yet there he was, in city after city, at the galas. The guest of honor who’d rather be talking with the waitstaff.

Can you talk about the digging you did for the book’s prologue, which takes us back to Wilson’s mother’s family in Spear, N.C.?

August always told people his mother was born on a mountain in Spear, and that was true. He never went there himself, and his mother and her siblings never went back, the same way my grandparents never went back to Ireland after they got out, after the civil war. I was interested in that. August’s cousin, Renee Wilson, had been looking into their family history for years, and she shared some of the things he learned. The two of us went down to Spark and climbed the mountain with a local man who had run around those mountains (of Southern Appalachia). He guided us to the homestead of Sarah “Eller” Cutler, August’s great-grandmother. (Theirs was the sole Black family on the mountain, as Hartigan writes in the chapter titled “The Blood’s Memory.”) Cutler had been involved with Willard Justice, a white farmer who lived near there. Their story is fascinating, and nearly 100 years later the homestead was still there! The hearth was still there. To see that, with August’s cousin, was just astonishing.

There’s a great vignette in the book where Wilson, as a teenager, gets to know a librarian at the University of Pittsburgh library —

Thank you for saying that! I know you knew August, as I did. Doesn’t that just capture his personality? The idea of him befriending the woman at the library, someone who can get him all the books he wants, and then they end up trading “word of the day” each time they see each other? It’s a fabulous insight into the young August Wilson.

In your book, you write a lot about the key father/son relationship in Wilson’s life, though it’s a metaphoric one: his relationship with director Lloyd Richards, who gave him his start. Wilson’s plays, especially “Fences” and “Jitney,” are full of these harsh father/son depictions. It’s well documented that Richards’ work as director was crucial to the end result of Wilson’s early plays and biggest successes, as script editor and dramaturge. And Wilson grew to resent that relationship.

In the book I say they were both right and they were both wrong. It was like a divorce, but perhaps an inevitable one. Theirs was a symbiotic relationship. They both got a lot out of it. It was tragic that it ended but while it lasted, I mean, it was one of the key relationships in the American theatre, right up there with Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan.

I’m naive, certainly financially, but I didn’t realize how much of their disagreements came down to lawyers fighting over percentages in contracts.

That’s part of it, but it goes to a deeper father/son (clash) as well. Everyone could see August wanted more control. After “Fences,” when he almost lost control of his own play (producer Carole Shorenstein Hays and star James Earl Jones agitated for substantial script changes), he wanted to be more in charge. Of everything. And to partly, at least, make decisions the director ordinarily makes. And you don’t do that with Lloyd Richards.

He was hardly unique in this regard, but the more successful Wilson became, the less time he made for the long haul of getting his plays into shape. I remember interviewing him in Seattle around the time “Two Trains Running” was making its way to New York, by way of San Diego. And more or less out of nowhere, he told me he never really cleared his schedule to give himself a few solid weeks of writing time on that particular play. “I never got my month,” he said.

When you’re that busy, and you’ve made this promise to the theater world, to your mother, to yourself, that you’re going to write this 10-play cycle — that’s a big burden to carry every day. He had to finish those 10 plays, yet he had this grueling, mind-boggling schedule. He was hardly ever home. Everyone wanted a piece of him. And then by 2005, the man is dying, and he’s still got to do his final play, “Radio Golf,” no matter what. That’s an enormous amount of pressure.

But look at what he accomplished. Even his most problematic plays have something in them. You look at “King Hedley II” (which made a pre-Broadway stop at the Goodman in 2000) and that monologue Viola Davis, who played Tonya, had? About why she can’t bring another baby into the world? If that were the only thing in that play, it still deserves a place on every shelf.

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