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August Wilson
Playwright August Wilson is seen in this May 30, 2003 file photo. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

August Wilson is America’s most Undefeated playwright

Denzel Washington’s ‘Fences’ shows today’s audiences the power of black life across generations

This essay has been written as the introduction to the published edition of August Wilson’s screenplay for Fences, which is being issued with release of the film adaptation directed by Denzel Washington.

In the waning days of October 1941, the last of several hundred stone carvers finished their work in a remote corner of South Dakota. After 14 years of talent and risk and toil, they had hewn the faces of four presidents from the primordial granite of Mt. Rushmore.

Those massive busts of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt were plainly intended to be a pantheon of deities for the civil religion of American democracy. And in a nation just emerging from the depredations of the Great Depression and headed into existential war against fascism, the monument served as palpable reminder of purpose, heritage, and exceptionalism.

Within a decade of Mt. Rushmore’s conclusion, a metaphorical equivalent was being assembled in American theater. During those years, Eugene O’Neill, already honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote his two masterpieces, The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. A generation younger, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller stormed onto Broadway with what would prove to be their most enduring works — The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman.

For the remainder of the 20th Century, O’Neill, Williams, and Miller populated the virtual Mt. Rushmore of American drama. They occupied its edifice so long and so unapproachably that for decades it seemed that, unlike the iconic presidents, there would never be a fourth peer in their company. And the composition of that pantheon implicitly reinforced a damning message from a nation tainted by its original sin of slavery: great art could only be made by, for, and about whites.

All the certitude and statis and superiority were challenged on the evening in April 1984 when August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom had its world premiere at the Yale Repertory Theater. By the time Wilson died of cancer at the tragically young age of 60 in 2005, having produced an unprecedented series of plays about the African American experience, he had undeniably won his place among American theater’s gods. Even put in a global context, Wilson stands alongside only a handful of dramatic geniuses: George Bernard Shaw, Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Athol Fugard.

“”Heroic is not a word one uses often without embarrassment to describe a writer or playwright,” Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angels in America, observed after Wilson’s death. “But the diligence and ferocity of effort behind the creation of his body of work is really an epic story.”

Wilson’s epic is called the “American Century Cycle,” for it consists of 10 dramas about the African American experience, with one set in each decade of the 20th Century. In that span, Wilson traversed from the traumatic aftermath of slavery (Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone) to the Great Migration from the rural South to the urban North (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson) to the political and economic turmoil of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights years (Two Trains Running, Jitney) to the desiccation visited upon black neighborhoods during the crack epidemic (King Hedley II). In his perspicacity, Wilson ended the cycle, in Radio Golf, by portraying the coming of gentrification, which he saw as the ultimate eradication of black American history.

No play in the cycle surpassed the impact and accessibility of Fences, which premiered in 1985. A family drama set in 1950s, Fences ran for 525 performances on Broadway, the longest residence there for any of Wilson’s plays, and collected the trifecta of playwriting honors: Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, New York Drama Critics’ Circle award. A 2010 revival on Broadway, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, took the Tony awards for best revival, for Davis as best actress in a play, and for Washington as best actor in a play. Now, of course, Fences will become the first of Wilson’s plays to be made into a feature film, directed by Washington and starring him and Davis.

Quite simply, Wilson’s achievement has no parallel in the annals of the American theater. O’Neill conceived of writing a cycle of 11 plays about one family’s history, but as he battled against Parkinson’s disease, he managed to complete only two before dying. Williams and Miller, it must be acknowledged, faltered in the later stages of their careers. If there is an artistic similarity to Wilson’s epic, then it probably falls outside the realm of American literature altogether in the form of the painter Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series.

As a work of lyric history, the American Century Cycle weaves individual lives into the entire African American pageant, from slavery to freedom, from Southern sharecropping to northern slum, from working-class struggle to post-industrial despair. Yet these larger forces, like the white power structure that orchestrates them, hovers almost always offstage. Wilson’s immediate concern lies with the everyday black folks who populate the boarding houses, recording studios, backyards, jitney stations, and lunch counters of his world. Just as William Faulkner made art for the ages out of a “little postage stamp of native soil,” his imagined landscape of Yoknapatawpha County, Wilson transmuted the obscure, ignored cityscape of the Hill into the proscenium for exploring the human condition.

In doing so, Wilson also jolted white America into awareness. On the stage, the characters that sprung from his protean imagination indelibly represented the black people whom this nation had set out to crush through slavery and segregation, to denude of their African heritage, to dehumanize as lesser citizens even after emancipation, and certainly to render unworthy of the dignity that art confers.

To characterize Wilson as a black writer is both fitting and lacking. As a product of Black Nationalism in the 1960s, and particularly the Black Arts movement led by such figures as Amiri Baraka, Wilson was emphatically a “race man,” rather than an assimilationist. White characters barely appear in the American Century Cycle; every play but Ma Rainey, which is set in Chicago, takes place in the Hill, the Pittsburgh neighborhood where Wilson grew up. So, yes, “black” as a descriptor suits Wilson in much the same way that “Irish Catholic” suits O’Neill and “Jewish” suits Miller and “Southern” and “gay” suit Williams.

The inspiration for Wilson’s work came from the blues, which he described as the “sacred book” of black Americans. It came from the art of Romare Bearden, which Wilson once said “illuminates black life with a humanity and richness and fullness that I’d never encountered in such a way before.” And it came from Wilson’s extraordinary ear and memory for spoken language, for the street poetry of the people he moved amid in the Hill, where he spent the first 33 years of his life. Paradoxically, those voices only sang to Wilson after he left Pittsburgh to move to the overwhelmingly white confines of St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1978.

“It was like discovering the sound of your own heartbeat,” Wilson’s longtime friend Rob Penny once noted. ”It’s hard to see the art in the things you walk through life with every day.”

Yet, when Wilson was categorized as a “black writer,” he also pushed back. Too often, he heard in that epithet an unspoken assumption of blackness as a secondary or ancillary form of being an American or a writer. To the contrary, Wilson’s body of work attests to the artistic truth that universality arises from specificity. Without making any concession to the dominant white culture of the United States – which was even more oppressively the case so during his formative years – the sheer quality of Wilson’s plays secured their place in the canon.

As much as Wilson plumbed the particulars of black life, he wrote with ambitions far beyond those of the “protest play,” elevating his anger to a more universal plane. As a thinker, if not a stylist, Wilson descended less from the Richard Wright tradition of social protest than from the ontological one of Ralph Ellison. The title character in Ellison’s Invisible Man, like Wilson’s characters, confronts blackness not as a function of pigment but as a condition of the soul. The white man in Wilson’s plays can be finessed, ignored, intimidated; it is the Almighty against whom his characters rail. After a musician in Ma Rainey hears of a white mob forcing a black reverend to dance, he shouts to the rafters, “Where the hell was God when all of this was going on?”

Troy Maxson in Fences, Becker in Jitney, Herald Loomis in Joe Turner – many of Wilson’s characters similarly inveigh against the divine. From Ezekiel’s prophecy in the Bible of the Valley of Dry Bones to the image of Jacob’s ladder to the vision of St. Peter at heaven’s gate, Wilson infused religious imagery into his plays. He did so not to ratify faith, however, but to question whether it had any purpose at all for black Americans, whose prayers went so often unanswered.

As Tony Kushner has pointed out, such confrontations are one measure of world-class art: “Doesn’t all great drama include God in the debate? Don’t all great playwrights grapple with theological questions that thread through human affairs? Eugene O’Neill, the playwright August Wilson most resembles, did that. Even an atheist like Brecht did it. The plays of Wilson’s cycle most emphatically do.”

Astonishingly, Wilson was an almost entirely self-taught dramatist. He dropped out of high school at 14, after a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a term paper – because it was too knowledgeable for a black boy possibly to have written. Wilson proceeded to read his way through three branches of the public library, paying special attention to the section titled “Negro.”

Amid the Black Arts movement of the late 1960s, he began writing poetry and then took his first stabs at playwriting. They were stiff and mannered, and, in an uncharacteristic period of artistic self-doubt, written in an arch, highly white voice. Wilson’s move to St. Paul liberated his muse, and once there he started writing Jitney. In 1982, Wilson submitted his next play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, to the National Playwrights Institute at the O’Neill Theater Center, a legendary venue for developing new plays and playwrights. Once the play was selected by the O’Neill, Wilson was paired with Lloyd Richards, the director who would become his mentor. Ma Rainey received a staged reading that summer, which by O’Neill rules was not open to theater critics, but ecstatic reports of it began to filter back to Broadway.

When Ma Rainey opened at Yale, it was the first major production of any of Wilson’s work, and at the age of 39, he was still a virtually unknown writer. But in a career-launching review, Frank Rich of The New York Times, the most influential and powerful theater critic in the country, saw presciently that the future of American theater had just arrived:

“A poet as well as a playwright, he writes with compassion, raucous humor and penetrating wisdom,” Rich said of Wilson. “His play’s themes are not new to the stage: ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ is about the black American’s search for identity — and it is also about the process by which any American sells his soul for what Arthur Miller calls the salesman’s dream. Mr. Wilson’s style, however, is all his own. If this play owes something to ‘The Iceman Cometh’ and something else to the music of singers like its real-life title character, the total mix is alarmingly fresh.”

Through his title character in Ma Rainey, Wilson also made perhaps his most direct statement ever about what black music meant to his art. “Folks don’t understand the blues,” she says. “They hear it come out, but they don’t understand how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing because that’s a way of understanding life.”

At this early moment in his own public life, Wilson drew comparisons to Lorraine Hansberry, the playwright of A Raisin in the Sun, in part because that play, too, had been directed by Richards. Yet the analogy woefully underestimated Wilson in scope and depth, in brilliance and staying power. By the time Ma Rainey debuted, he had already finished early versions of two other plays, Jitney and Fences, and after Fences premiered to widespread acclaim, he resolved to write the American Century Cycle.

During his lifetime, Wilson received two Pulitzer Prizes, for Fences and The Piano Lesson, and an astonishing eight Best Play awards from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle. (Only King Hedley II and Gem of the Ocean went unrewarded.) All of his works except Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf have received major revivals on or off-Broadway, and his dramas are a staple of institutional non-profit theaters from coast to coast and indeed across the Atlantic, where Britain’s National Theater recently mounted an acclaimed production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It went on to win the Olivier Award, England’s equivalent of the Tony.

Over the years, these productions have introduced and sustained several generations of African American actors, directors, and designers. A very short list would include Viola Davis, Charles S. Dutton, Stephen McKinley Henderson, S. Epatha Merkerson, Mary Alice, Carl Gordon, Kenny Leon, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and Brandon Dirden. Such established stars as Washington, James Earl Jones, and Laurence Fishburne adorned their careers with leading roles in Wilson’s plays. So vital was Wilson’s example to younger African American playwrights that one of the finest, Suzan-Lori Parks, told him, “You are our king.”

Surveying his own career in a speech entitled “The Ground on Which I Stand,” Wilson cited a range on influences that included — but also, pointedly, went beyond — the standard syllabus of landmark dramatic literature. These words amount to his mission statement:

“In one guise, the ground I stand on has been pioneered by the Greek dramatists — by Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles — by William Shakespeare, by Shaw and Ibsen, and by the American dramatists Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. In another guise, the ground that I stand on has been pioneered by my grandfather, by Nat Turner, by Denmark Vesey, by Martin Delaney, Marcus Garvey and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. That is the ground of the affirmation of the value of one being, an affirmation of his worth in the face of society’s urgent and sometimes profound denial. It was this ground as a young man coming into manhood searching for something to which dedicate my life that I discovered the Black Power movement of the ’60s. I felt it a duty and an honor to participate in that historic moment, as the people who had arrived in America chained and malnourished in the hold of a 350-foot Portuguese, Dutch or English sailing ship, were now seeking ways to alter their relationship to the society in which they lived — and, perhaps more important, searching for ways to alter the shared expectations of themselves as a community of people.”

It is particularly appropriate to assess Wilson’s body of work as Wilson’s screenplay of Fences has finally been brought to cinematic fruition. Wilson wrote his initial draft of the screenplay in the late 1980s and continued revising and refining it until his death. With Washington helming the film, Fences also posthumously honors Wilson’s longstanding desire that the screen version be directed by an African American. As widely as Wilson’s plays are seen on stage, as frequently as they are taught in schools, colleges, and conservatories, putting them on film cannot only preserve but codify what should be the definitive performance of each play. To appreciate that kind of cinematic power, one need only consider how the film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, with Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, remains in collective memory the very emblem of Tennessee Williams’s artistry.

Fences stands as the most nearly autobiographical of Wilson’s works. Yet, simultaneously, it also takes some very deliberate departures from factuality in its pursuit of deeper truth. Wilson was born on April 27, 1945, and grew up in the Hill during the years it was sliding from a vibrant working-class neighborhood into a tattered slum. Wilson’s biological father, a baker named Frederick Kittle, was a white man. He was also an absentee parent, an abusive husband, and a bellicose drunk. In a place and time without anything like the current concept of biracial identity – in a racist nation that imposed the “one-drop rule” of racial categorization – Wilson realistically had little choice but to live as a black person. Very tellingly, though, he chose a name to confirm it. Baptized as Frederick Kittle, this white wastrel’s namesake instead rechristened himself with his middle name August and his black mother’s surname. The true father in Wilson’s childhood was David Bedford, a former football star who had been reduced by segregation and a prison term to laboring in the city’s sewer department.

Through the filter of Wilson’s imagination, Bedford and Daisy Wilson evolved into Troy Maxson and his wife Rose. In fictive form, Troy is a former baseball star in the Negro Leagues, for whom Jackie Robinson’s integration of the majors came too late. In his impotent anger, he, like Bedford, committed a violent crime that sent him to prison and stole more years of his life. Now, in embittered middle-age, what he does have are a loving, self-denying wife in Rose and a worshipful son in Cory. During August Wilson’s own childhood, he infuriated Bedford by quitting the high school football team. In Fences, Wilson inverts those events. As Cory is being recruited by college coaches, Troy refuses to believe times have changed that much, and essentially orders his son to drop the sport. And when Cory defies that edict, and then has the deception discovered by his father, the central confrontation of Fences is joined.

More than a few critics have likened Fences to Death of a Salesman for the filial battle at its heart. That compliment, though, actually sells Fences short. For as Troy rages at Cory, driving his flesh and blood away, he also betrays Rose for a younger woman. His best friend, Jim Bono, pulls away from the spectacle of Troy’s self-destruction. No, Fences isn’t Death of a Salesman; it’s more like King Lear, the harrowing portrait of a patriarch, an oversized man of oversized emotions, ruining all that he holds most dear.

Even as Wilson aims his unblinking gaze on human frailty, though, his judgment is moderated by his capacious heart. Like Lear, Troy dies broken. Unlike Lear, Troy is ultimately forgiven, perhaps even redeemed. And that redemption must be understood in racial as well as individual terms. It is part of the life force that Wilson located in the African American pageant.

As Wilson told John Lahr of The New Yorker in 2001, when his 30 years of work on the American Century Cycle was drawing toward its close, “When you go to the dictionary and you look up ‘black,’ it gives you these definitions that say, ‘Affected by an undesirable condition.’ You start thinking something’s wrong with black. When white people say, ‘I don’t see color,’ what they’re saying is ‘You’re affected by this undesirable condition, but I’ll pretend I don’t see that.’ And I go, ‘No, see my color. Look at me. I’m not ashamed of who I am and what I am.”

Samuel G. Freedman has contributed to Andscape since it was launched as The Undefeated. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book Into the Bright Sunshine: Young Hubert Humphrey and the Fight for Civil Rights.