August Wilson had a magnificent ear. His supreme gift as a playwright was for transforming African American vernacular into crystalline poetry onstage. His sense for language was also evident in how he chose to be known. Growing up in the largely Black, poor, and working-class Hill District of Pittsburgh, dreaming of the sort of literary glory enjoyed by his idols Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, the young man must have known that “Frederick Kittel Jr., Great Black Writer” somehow didn’t have the right ring to it. At the age of 20, he rejected being the namesake of his father, a white, German-born, alcoholic baker who was, the playwright would later recall, “a sporadic presence” in his life. “August” was originally his middle name. “Wilson” was the maiden name of his Black mother, Daisy. Put the two together, and you had a moniker exuding steadfast wisdom, a name with gravitas, a name commensurate with its owner’s audacious ambition.
In the early 1980s, August Wilson embarked on a theatrical decathlon of his own design, aiming to write 10 plays, each set in a different decade of the twentieth century, that would reflect African American culture “in all its richness and fullness.” The time frames of the plays did not unfold chronologically. Take, for example, three of Wilson’s best: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (set in 1927) was followed by Fences (set in 1957), which was followed by Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (set in 1911). Collectively, the 10 plays would be called both the Pittsburgh Cycle and, perhaps more aptly since one of the works is set in Chicago, the American Century Cycle. Between 1982 and 2005, Wilson worked steadily, averaging a play every two and a half years. The tenth and final play in the Cycle, Radio Golf, premiered five days before his sixtieth birthday. Mission accomplished, he died of liver cancer six months later.
The plays are remarkable in both the depth of their historical exploration and their breadth of tone. The most emotionally wrenching are the two that take place earliest in the century. For many of the characters in Gem of the Ocean (set in 1904) and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, slavery is a living memory and the Middle Passage an ancestral trauma that returns in nightmarish visions that, horrific as they are, can lead to a redemptive “washing of the soul.” Meanwhile, two of the plays set later in time border on satire in their caustic wit. In both Two Trains Running (set in 1969) and Radio Golf (set in 1997), Black folks strive to make it in America’s capitalist game only to find that, for them, the rules are subject to constant color-coded changes.
It is rarely noted today, but, in the last decade of his life, Wilson came to be seen—in the eyes of America’s theater establishment—as something a bit more fierce and troubling than a benign Broadway griot conjuring the history of his people onstage. In June 1996, at the peak of his fame and influence, Wilson gave a speech titled “The Ground On Which I Stand” that shocked and appalled prominent arbiters of the dramatic arts in America. Proudly proclaiming himself a “race man,” Wilson offered a blistering critique of “cultural imperialism” in the theater world and made a bold, blunt call for Black self-determination in the arts. Nine years later, in Radio Golf, Wilson would ridicule ambitious African Americans of the Clinton era who surrendered their principles for “a seat at the table” with high-status whites. With this speech, Wilson, who had been welcomed and fêted more enthusiastically than any other Black playwright, effectively knocked the table over. In his foreword to the text of Jitney (set in 1977), the always-iconoclastic Ishmael Reed wrote that Wilson wanted to distance himself “from the neo-cons and neo-liberals who had claimed him as a member of their ranks.” As a character in an August Wilson play might put it: Them white folks thought he was they boy. But he wasn’t studying them.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I sensed that a lot of older white theatergoers I spoke with felt a bit virtuous about attending August Wilson plays. They would say, “I loved The Piano Lesson” with the same sort of self-regard as the dad in Get Out when he declares he would vote for Obama a third time if he could. Seeing an August Wilson play wasn’t just a great night out at the theater—it was an edifying anthropological excursion.
“Don’t never let nobody tell you there ain’t no good white people,” the former slave Solly says in Gem of the Ocean. But good white people are hard to find anywhere in the Century Cycle. In a cumulative dramatis personae numbering in the 70s, I counted a grand total of four white characters onstage, and all of these are men with dubious motives. Of the countless offstage white characters mentioned, they are overwhelmingly cheats, murderers, and rapists, or, as is the case in Jitney, in which a young white woman falsely accuses her Black boyfriend of rape, deadly liars. The widespread white villainy in the plays either did not register with Wilson’s white admirers or did not trouble them. After all, he wasn’t writing about people like them, was he?
“I am what is known … as a ‘race man,’” August Wilson declared in his keynote address to the Theatrical Communications Group national conference at Princeton University, in June 1996. “That is simply that I believe that race matters—that it is the largest, most identifiable, most important part of our personality.” This pronouncement came after he had, earlier in the speech, cited among his influences, “Marcus Garvey and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad,” two names that Wilson certainly knew would raise the hairs on many an American neck.
He then turned to his métier. “If you do not know, I will tell you,” Wilson said. “Black theater in America is alive, it is vibrant, it is vital … it just isn’t funded.” In the theater world, financial resources were “reserved as privilege to the overwhelming abundance of institutions that preserve, promote, and perpetuate white culture.” As a remedy, he called for the creation and funding of institutions that would be dedicated exclusively to African American works: “We need theaters to develop our playwrights. We need those misguided financial resources to be put to better use. Without theaters we cannot develop our talents.… We need some theaters.”
Wilson went on to criticize the sort of white theatergoers who flocked to his plays, saying “the subscription audience holds theaters hostage to the mediocrity of its tastes, and impedes the further development of an audience for the work that we do.” He added: “While intentional or not, it serves to keep Blacks out of the theater. A subscription audience becomes not a support system but makes the patrons members of a club to which the theater serves as a clubhouse.” Finally, for good measure, Wilson slammed reviewers, most of whom had lavished praise on his work. “A stagnant body of critics,” he said, “operating from the critical criteria of 40 years ago, makes for a stagnant theater without the fresh and abiding influence of contemporary ideas.… The critic who can recognize a German neo-Romantic influence should also be able to recognize an American influence from the blues or Black church rituals.”
Brustein and Wilson went at it in a series of written exchanges in American Theatre magazine. Criticizing the playwright for employing “the language of self-segregation,” Brustein said, “I fear Wilson is displaying a failure of memory—I hesitate to say a failure of gratitude” for the support his work had received in the theater world. Wilson responded: “To suggest that I owe a debt of gratitude to the theaters that have done my work is to suggest my plays are without sufficient merit to warrant their production other than as an act of benevolence.”
The Brustein brouhaha culminated in a public debate at New York’s Town Hall in January 1997, an event that the chattering classes greeted with an excitement usually reserved for Ali-Frazier prizefights. The moderator, Anna Deveare Smith, had to ask for order in the crowd after Brustein mocked Wilson for considering himself “African” and said that the playwright had “probably the best mind of the seventeenth century.” Wilson replied: “These are some of the most outrageous things I’ve ever heard.” After that, the evening got really contentious. You can listen to excerpts of the debate on YouTube.
“The Ground On Which I Stand” was most widely attacked for the opposition August Wilson expressed in it to nontraditional or color-blind casting. “To mount an all-Black production of Death of a Salesman,” he declared, “or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as Black Americans.”
When Paramount Pictures approached Wilson about buying the film rights to Fences, the playwright had a fundamental request, one he used as the title for an op-ed piece he published in The New York Times in 1990: “I Want a Black Director.” As Wilson recounted in the article, his wish was “greeted by blank, vacant stares and the pious shaking of heads as if in response to my unfortunate naiveté.” Wilson even turned down “a well-known, highly respected” white filmmaker. “White directors are not qualified for the job,” he insisted. “The job requires someone who shares the specifics of the culture of Black Americans.” August Wilson stuck to his guns. And when he died 15 years later, none of his plays had been turned into movies.
Today, Wilson’s decision to hold out is reaping luscious fruit. In 2010, Denzel Washington starred in a Broadway revival of Fences, bringing a febrile energy to the role of Troy Maxson, reimagining James Earl Jones’s original, more somber, and seemingly definitive portrayal. Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, approached Washington about a film adaptation. At last, Wilson would get his Black director. Arguably the all-time biggest Black star of stage and screen, Washington had won his first Oscar for playing a runaway slave turned Union soldier in Glory and had incarnated Malcolm X. He had portrayed not only action heroes but also (Hooray for nontraditional casting!) Richard III. The film version of Fences that he starred in and directed is a master class in “opening up” a piece of theater. With clever changes of settings and dynamic camera work and editing, Washington made the stagiest of dramas thrillingly cinematic. He also respected the cultural integrity of Wilson’s work. The playwright’s estate has entrusted him to produce film versions of all 10 plays in the Century Cycle.
The second film adaptation, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, features Viola Davis in a bravura performance as the title character, “the Mother of the Blues.” Davis has become the preeminent interpreter of Wilson’s women. She won her first Tony Award for playing the fiery Tonya in King Hedley II (set in 1985) and nabbed a Tony and an Oscar for her portrayal of Troy’s wife, Rose, the most soulful of the wounded warriors in the Maxson family battleground, in Fences. In addition to her towering talent, Viola has the most expressive pair of eyes in American cinema since that other dazzling Davis: Bette.
Wilson’s demand for Black artistic independence led some to call him a “separatist.” Today, he seems more like a visionary.
The leaders of the Ma Rainey creative team embody August Wilson’s vision of Black self-determination in the arts. The film’s director, George C. Wolfe, began his long and distinguished theatrical career with the piquant satire The Colored Museum and the musical drama Jelly’s Last Jam, about jazzman Jelly Roll Morton. The screenwriter, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, was a frequent Wilson collaborator. While remaining faithful to Wilson’s text, they have added a prologue and an epilogue to the film version that only enhance the power of the work. The casting of Glynn Turman as the pianist Toledo will warm the hearts of Black film lovers who have revered the actor since his role in the 1975 classic Cooley High. Finally, after portraying such Black icons as Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and the superhero T’Challa, Chadwick Boseman capped his career with a scorching performance as the trumpeter Levee, his last appearance on-screen before his tragic death at 43.
By insisting on a Black director for a movie adaptation, August Wilson proved himself to be as much of a badass as his Ma Rainey, who knows that, aside from her talent, her greatest power as an artist is the power to say “no,” and to keep on saying it, until she gets exactly what she wants. As producer of the Century Cycle, Washington has approached an array of acclaimed Black directors, including Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, and Barry Jenkins, to helm future adaptations.
Thanks to the movies, people worldwide will get to discover August Wilson’s extraordinary poetry, grounded in the intensity of his listening to his Black elders in Pittsburgh. In his introduction to Seven Guitars (set in 1948), he paid tribute to his mother, Daisy, saying that the everyday content of her life was “worthy of art.” During that heated Town Hall debate in 1997, an audience member asked August Wilson about his mixed racial heritage, in effect, raising the specter of Frederick Kittel Sr. The playwright’s response was swift and to the point: “My father was German. What about it? … The cultural environment of my life is Black. I make the self-definition of myself as a Black man, and that’s all anyone needs to know.”