Monday, October 03, 2005

August Wilson, R. I. P.

On October 17, the Virginia Theater will be renamed in honor of playwright August Wilson, who died yesterday in Seattle. His achievement, a ten-play epic, chronicling a century of African-American life (one play for each decade) is magnificent. Wilson announced his terminal cancer late this summer, the announcement about the theater-naming (Broadway’s first theater named for a black playwright), and the premier this year of his tenth play: this confluence of events means, I hope, that Wilson himself got to hear some of the praise that will continue to pour his way in the weeks to come.

In college, I took a course in African-American literature and we made a field trip down to New York. We walked around Harlem, lunched at Sylvia’s, and then went to see Courtney B. Vance star in “Fences.” My professor had been Vance’s at Harvard (where he’d discouraged Vance from acting) and so we got to meet the actor afterwards. Somewhere, I still have a snapshot of the two of them, surrounded by us, twenty undergraduate women. And I remember the set, tall and intimidating with huge verticals separating the apartment wall from the tiny yard, reminding you at all times of the hemmed-in life of this middle class family. I liked “Fences,” but I also found it very talky and a little depressing. (I was twenty, after all.) The play, about a frustrated man taking his anger out on a gifted son, was hard for me to watch then: one does not want to think that adulthood can be disappointing on the cusp of it. Growing up in Seattle, in a little racial utopia, it was hard to see the real consequences of racism on lives, to see wasted talent. I wanted so badly to believe that the world was hungry for talent, that the world hated to see gifts of any kind go to waste.

In grad school, you could get a great deal on tickets at the Yale Rep: a season for about five dollars a play, so I saw “The Piano Lesson” and “Two Trains Running.” Lloyd Richards, Wilson’s longtime collaborator and the Yale Rep artistic director did a wonderful job on those productions, but my memory of them is imperfect. I remember the set of “Two Trains Running” as gorgeous and I remember rooting for the characters, for their love even as I worried the worst would happen. I knew that we were lucky and it was special to have these things premiering in front of our eyes. Still, snob that I was, I dismissed Wilson’s plays at times as too like Lorraine Hansberry’s. Having seen “A Raisin in the Sun” countless times (including one memorable and terrific performance at Holy Names High School starring my friend Bob Smith), I thought that his plays were just too realistic, too ordinary. Now, I find it hard to imagine a cooler achievement. He set himself a really interesting long-term project; he spent twenty years working on it but did not—at least as far as I can see—force himself to stick to too many rules other than the loose one of a play per decade. If writing “A Raisin in the Sun” is an achievement worthy of a lifetime, what does it mean to have written ten?

May he rest in peace.

The Times obituary is good. And, for those of us who could use the refresher, Newsday helpfully put the cycle in order:

"Gem of the Ocean"
Set in: 1904
Premiere: Goodman Theatre, Chicago, April 2003
Plot: A young man seeks an old seer's counsel about a violent incident, while a former Underground Railroad guide frets over his sister and a black constable tries to enforce the white man's law.

"Joe Turner's Come and Gone"
Set in: 1911
Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, May 1986
Plot: A mysterious man in search of his wife, accompanied by his young daughter, arrives at a boarding house where a neighbor tries to help him rediscover his identity.

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"
Set in: 1927
Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, April 1984
Plot: In a Chicago recording studio, Ma Rainey and her band -- exploited by the white-run music industry -- fall into strife among themselves.

"The Piano Lesson"
Set in: 1936
Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, November 1987
Plot: Boy Willie, a sharecropper from the South, wants to sell his family's ancestral piano. His Pittsburgh sister Berniece insists on keeping it -- the piano has the carved faces of their great-grandfather's wife and daughter, who were sold in exchange for the piano during the days of slavery.

"Seven Guitars"
Set in: 1948
Premiere: Goodman Theatre, Chicago, January 1995
Plot: A group of neighbors in the backyard of a tenement house returns from a funeral, and the play flashes back to the final week of the young singer-songwriter who died.

Set in: 1957
Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, May 1985
Plot: A former Negro League baseball player who was born too soon to make the transition to the major leagues now collects garbage and nurses grudges against his athletic 17-year-old son.

"Two Trains Running"
Set in: 1969
Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, March 1990
Plot: A group of regulars hangs out at a cafe that might be condemned -- or might be bought by the nearby mortuary owner. Romance blossoms between an ex-con and a waitress.

Set in: 1977
Premiere: Allegheny Repertory Theatre, Pittsburgh, 1982
Plot: The owner of an unlicensed cab business faces the threat that his building will be demolished, while his son -- out of prison after 20 years -- seeks a reconciliation.

"King Hedley II"
Set in: 1985
Premiere: Pittsburgh Public Theatre, December 1999
Plot: The title character, just out of jail, is saving money to open a video store but instead becomes a bank robber.

"Radio Golf"
Set in: 1997
Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, April 2005
Plot: While Aunt Ester's house is scheduled for demolition, Harmond Wilkes II wants to teach kids in the neighborhood how to play golf -- and wants to become Pittsburgh's first black mayor. His partner helps a white radio investor take advantage of minority ownership tax breaks.


Jenny Davidson said...

Thanks for this--great post, really thoughtful & thought-provoking.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that's a good, candid appreciation. The perspective of years gives me a greater understanding of August's complexity, determination, and achievement. I am glad to have known him when he was on the cusp of fame. I've never met anyone more
alive. He's still alive, as far as I'm concerned. Not just
because of his literary achievement, but because he was a force of nature and culture in the most incredible blend. One of a kind.