August Wilson has verbalized the joys and frustrations of blacks in this country for reverent posterity.Stories of the black experience from every decade in the 20th Century have poured forth from his pen,making the history of a people tangible. His insightful, literate, yet plainspoken voice was silenced last October, when he passed away from liver cancer. In this edition of the Limelight, we begin our profile of this great playwright by going back to his origins to discover what formed the voice that would speak to, and for, so many.
Born into Pittsburgh's predominately black Hill neighborhood on April 27, 1945 to a black mother,Daisy Kittel and a German father, Frederick August Kittel. The younger shared his father's full name, but was left by his namesake soon after he was born.
MEETING OF THE MINDS: August Wilson with Dr. Kwaku
Left to raise six children by herself, Daisy, a cleaning woman, nevertheless found time to teach all of her children the importance of reading. (August started reading at age four and would later change his surname to Wilson as a tribute to his mother.). Wilson recalled, in an interview with lecturer and Film Studies professor Dr. Kwaku Person-Lynn, that he received further positive reinforcement at school:
"My first writing experience was when I was about ten years old in the fifth grade writing stories. I had a wonderful teacher, Sister Mary Christopher. She used
to let me read my stories in front of the class. That was encouraging. Ever since I can remember, I have been writing something."
The atmosphere would change after Daisy married David Bedford, a black man, during August's teenage years.The family was moved to the predominantly white suburb of Hazelwood, where they were victims of intense castigation.
SILENT, BUT STRONG: Many people were disarmed by the fact that, despite having a burly physique, August Wilson was soft-spoken in demeanor.
Furious over charges that a paper he submitted on Napoleon Bonaparte did not consist solely of his own work, a fifteen-year old Wilson dropped out of high school and began what he often refers to as his real education in library. (He would read literature on the black experience, while also studying the black perspective on anthropology and sociology.)
TEACHING THE YOUTH: August Wilson lecturing at Syracuse.
Five years later, in 1965, he would truly begin to put the knowledge he had accrued into practice. He bought his first typewriter, moved in a home with many other black artists, and started writing poetry.
He soon had an experience that would change his outlook forever. A fellow artist bought a recording of a Malcolm X speech and asked Wilson to listen to it. The young artist was transfixed:
"I listened to that record, and that changed my life. There was a point in there where Malcolm was talking about, 'You're afraid to bleed.' There's a voice in the background on that record, when you listen to it,it says, 'We'll bleed.' And Malcolm says, 'You're afraid to bleed. You bled for the white man when you went to Korea.' I said 'alright.' I was that voice in the background. It wasn't me, but I could identify with that voice in the back."
THE MUSE: August Wilson says that listening to a Bessie Smith recording changed his artistic outlook.
'This is mine. This is me here.'"
COMMON, YET DISTINCT: August Wilson says that the work
of artist Romare Bearden taught art could be universal through the specific.
Finally, Wilson found further inspiration not in the oratorical realm, but in the visual arts, through the work of Romare Bearden. In an interview with the Paris Review, Wilson said, "One of the things that impressed me was that it lacked the sentimentality that one might have expected, but it was exciting and rich and fresh and full. When asked about his work, Bearden said, 'I try and explore, in terms of the life I know best, those things which are common to all cultures.' The life I know best is black American life and through Bearden, I realized that you could arrive at the universal through the specific."
Applying Bearden's aesthetic to his own work, Wilson worked from the philosophy that all playwrights,regardless of ethnic background, dealt with the struggles. "When I sat down to write I realized I was sitting in the same chair as Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Henrik Ibsen, Amiri Baraka, and Ed Bullins."
Inspired by the messages found in the themes of pride and self-reliance found in the doctrine of the Nation of Islam, Wilson joined writer and teacher Rob Penny in 1968 and founded the Black Horizon on the Hill Theater in Pittsburgh, which operated for ten years.
WRITING ON THE WALL: Here, August Wilson is backed bythe notes that form his masterpieces.
In this venue, Wilson was able to produce his plays and refine his craft. He honed a style that would be influenced by the work of Amiri Baraka, a playwright whose work he produced at the Black Horizon, but would focus more on the inner turmoil of the black characters. (Wilson's work has been applauded, and maligned, for its emphasis on character introspection over dramatic catharsis (most of the time, pivotal confrontations occur off-stage, with the play's focus on how character's internalize the fallout from said conflict and struggle with which path to take next).
After getting reacquainted with friend Claude Purdy,St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre, Wilson moved to St. Paul Minnesota in 1978. He started off writing plays for
use in conjunctions with the exhibits at the Science Museum of Minnesota and later made contacts at the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis.
Oddly enough, Wilson claims that it was only after he moved away from his native Pittsburgh that he was able to finally put the community of his youth into words. He started to use a method that, as off-kilter as it may seem, has been known to work for many writers: he began to let the characters themselves dictate their own progress.
Wilson found good fortune when Jitney, one of his first plays, was accepted by the Playwrights' Center in 1982 and was well received. The play, set in a run down cab station set for demolition, marks what many people feel to be the beginning of the intensely dramatic style seen in his future works.
In part 2 of this profile, we will examine more of Mr. Wilson's work and its cultural impact.
To read more articles and interesting insights by the cultural analyst known as
Mr. Byron Lee a.k.a. Bleebus please visit his official blog @ http://www.bleebus.blogspot.com