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GWEN IFILL: When Tony-winner Brian Stokes Mitchell demands the opening act spotlight in August Wilson’s latest play, the character he portrays– King Hedley II– is angry. He is tortured.
BRIAN STOKES MITCHELL: They make up the rules, and then they break them themselves. It don’t do nothing but put me two weeks behind. I ain’t nobody. I don’t count. I don’t need to eat, I don’t need to pay my bills.
GWEN IFILL: Hedley has killed a man for scarring his face. He has served his time. He cannot get a job, instead scratching out a living on petty scams. Born to promise, he watches, frustrated, as his life slips and slides away. Such frustration– especially given voice through the words of an African-American man– is a recurring theme for Wilson, who, at 55 years old, has established himself as one of the nation’s preeminent playwrights.
BRIAN STOKES MITCHELL: He’s our Shakespeare. He takes these gigantic, grand themes about humanity and the human experience, and puts them in a small setting with characters and people that we all know and we all live with and we all can relate to, that are very simple… at first glance.
BRIAN STOKES MITCHELL: I’m living for you. That’s what I told you when we first got married.
GWEN IFILL: King Hedley is the eighth of ten plays Wilson is writing chronicling each of ten 20th century decades in black America. This one, set in the 1980s. The awards have come regularly: A Tony award, for “Fences,” here with James Earl Jones.
JAMES EARL JONES: I got out of here every morning and bust my butt, putting up with them crackers all day long…
GWEN IFILL: A shelf full of honors from the New York drama critics circle, and two Pulitzer prizes, including one for “The Piano Lesson.”
ACTOR: You never find you another piano like that.
GWEN IFILL: Later adapted for television, “Piano Lesson” tells of a brother and sister’s fight over whether to sell an elegantly carved piano. The instrument is both heirloom, and a reminder of their family’s legacy of slavery. The sister, played by Alfre Woodard, believes the piano’s history makes it too valuable to sell. But Willie Boy, played by Charles Dutton, has other plans.
WILLIE BOY: If my daddy had seen where he could’ve traded in that piano in for some land of his own, it wouldn’t be sitting up here now. He spent his whole life farming on somebody else’s land. Doaker, I ain’t gonna do that!
GWEN IFILL: All but one of Wilson’s plays are set in the Pittsburgh neighborhood where he grew up. The characters he has created in the years since, explore the American dream, but a dream as seen through the eyes of the Americans most playwrights overlook. His last production, “Jitney,” was set in a Pittsburgh gypsy cab station in the 1970s.
ACTOR: ‘Cause we’re gonna be running jitneys out of here, until the day before the bulldozer comes!
GWEN IFILL: Marion McClinton directed “Jitney,” and is also taking “King Hedley” to Broadway this spring.
MARION McCLINTON: Well, August is always constantly in pursuit of the truth. He writes about the truth of a people, the truth of a decade, with great poetry.
GWEN IFILL: It is an unconventional poetry. One that relies on Wilson’s ear for the dialect and language of an often dispossessed people. Director Lloyd Richards first heard it in 1984, when he gave Wilson his big break by staging “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” here in the Chicago production.
LLOYD RICHARD: When I read it, I felt very much that I was hearing those people really articulate. And I said, “who could’ve written that kind of a play?” Certainly, the person knows and understands the life of black people.
GWEN IFILL: As “King Hedley” has traveled from Pittsburgh to Chicago to Seattle to Washington’s Kennedy Center, Wilson has tagged along– tinkering, rewriting and recasting. I sat down to talk with Wilson about “Hedley,” and about his work, in Washington.
GWEN IFILL: At some point you decided you were going to actively embrace the African-American oral tradition as a way of telling your stories. Was that a conscious decision or were you just writing what you knew?
AUGUST WILSON, Playwright: Well, it… Conscious and I was writing what I knew at the same time. You know, I think I can trace that back to when I first heard Bessie Smith as a 20-year-old living in a rooming House in Pittsburgh in 1965. And I would go across the street to the St. Vincent de Paul Store and, indiscriminately, buy these 78 records for a nickel apiece. And I had… Patti Page, you know, all the popular music of the ’30s and ’40s. Hoagy Carmichael tunes, et cetera. And one day I had a typewritten yellow label, a record by someone named Bessie Smith, you know. And I put that on the turntable, and it actually changed my life.
BESSIE SMITH: (singing) …Sweet jelly roll so fine…
AUGUST WILSON: I was stunned by this record. I had never heard anything like it. And as a consequence of that, I began to look at the people who were living in the rooming house. I began to look at them differently; I began to connect them to a history. And then I realized that I was part of that. And so I claimed that record there as mine. And from that moment on, you know, I began to, in my writing, you know, to embrace and explore this African presence in America.
GWEN IFILL: And explore and embrace the musicality of it as well.
AUGUST WILSON: Absolutely, yeah. See, I learned this earlier on, also, in that when I was writing poetry and we had a place in Pittsburgh, the Halfway Art Gallery, and the musicians and the poets would go down there on Saturdays and Sundays. And the musician would tell us, you could play… you could read while we set up. And the people came in and they didn’t want to hear the poetry. They came to hear the music. So we were an addendum. So I thought, well, if you’re going to do language, if you have the musicality of language, since you’re dealing with words, you have to have that. Otherwise, the people are not going to listen, you know.
ACTORS: Well you begged me all come down there…
GWEN IFILL: I was struck in this play by how much rage there seemed to be — not only on the part of Hedley, who’s searching for his identity, but also all the characters, including the women characters, to a degree that I haven’t noticed in your work before.
AUGUST WILSON: Well, okay, this is 1985, after all. There was a lot of stuff going on.
GWEN IFILL: What stuff?
AUGUST WILSON: Well, you know… Ronald Reagan, I think, is…You know, this is the Reagan era, you know. Black folks did not go through this time of prosperity for some in America. Folks that went through the depression were not noticing it, they did not go through the Reagan era, because… It had a huge impact on the community — just in terms of economics. I think the larger, I mean, if you look at the play, all king wants is a job.
ACTOR: I go for a job. They say, “what can you do?” I say I can do anything. You get me a tanks and the airplanes, I can win any war that’s out there.
ACTOR: If you had the tanks, the airplanes and the boats, you could probably work.
ACTOR: I could dance all night if the music’s right. Ain’t nothing I can’t do. I could build a railroad you give me the steel and a gang of men. The greatest fight. I ain’t linking this to nothing. I can go down there, do metal shop. I know how to count money, I don’t loan money to everybody who asks for it. I know how to do business. I’m talking mayor, governor, I can do it all. I ain’t got no limits. I know right from wrong. I know which way the wind blows too. It don’t blow my way!
AUGUST WILSON: His rage or whatever, is due to the fact he can’t find a job, you know — because America’s not playing by the rules. The rules say that if you have the lowest bid on the contract, you’re supposed to get the contract if you bid the lowest bid. So you’re black and you bid the lowest bid, but you don’t get the contract. You see, so it’s things like that. So King says now I’m playing by the rules, and so his whole thing that he talks about is a job.
GWEN IFILL: And he wants a child.
AUGUST WILSON: Well, he wants a child, too, yeah. I mean, his wife’s pregnant and doesn’t want to have the baby. You know, he wants this sense of continuum. You know, he wants to contribute to the world, you know. And that’s probably the only contribution he can make.
GWEN IFILL: And one of the reasons why she doesn’t want to have the baby contributes to one of the kind of seminal speeches in the play.
AUGUST WILSON: Absolutely, yeah.
GWEN IFILL: Which is what happens black children after they’re born.
AUGUST WILSON: Well, I think she says, “I don’t want to have a baby when you’ve got to fight to keep them alive.”
ACTRESS: I don’t want to raise no more babies when you’ve got to fight to keep them alive. You take little buddy will’s mother up on Bryn Mawr Road. What’s she got? A heartache that don’t never go away. She up there now, sitting down there in her living room. She’s got to sit down because she can’t stand up. She’s sitting down trying to figure it out, trying to figure out what happened. One minute her house is full of life, the next minute it’s full of death. She waiting for him to come home and they bring her a corpse, saying, “come down, make the identification, this your son? Got a tag on his toe, say John Doe.” They’ve got to put a number on it, John Doe number four.
GWEN IFILL: You demand a lot of your audiences. Three and a half hours, maybe, on this play. Why is that? Why the emotional attention that you demand?
AUGUST WILSON: Well, you know, first of all, you know, I’m trying to write the best play that I can write. And I think audiences should bring something with them. You know, if you want to stay home and watch television… this is not television, and that’s what I’m saying. It’s theatre, of course, that’s why you’re here, you know. So if it’s three hours long, you get your money’s worth.
GWEN IFILL: But it’s three intense hours.
AUGUST WILSON: Well, but, see, that’s good. When I go to the theatre, that’s what I would want. I would want to be challenged, I would want something intense. I would want something going on, you know, going on the stage. So that when I walk out of the theatre, I take it with me.
GWEN IFILL: You’ve been described as a man on a mission, and we can go in a million different directions with that. But one is that your play “Fences”– one of your best- known plays– has been in search of a film outlet for, what, 15 years now?
AUGUST WILSON: Mm-hmm.
GWEN IFILL: Because you want a black director.
AUGUST WILSON: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: Explain why that’s important and where it stands now.
AUGUST WILSON: Well, you know, I think, I think it’s important that you have a black director because “Schindler’s List” had a Jewish director, because “The Godfather” had an Italian director, you know. I think when you have a work of art that deals with a culture that’s so seminal through black American culture, that you just simply have black sensibility behind the artistic development of that project.
GWEN IFILL: You are compared often to other black writers, but less occasionally you are compared to Tony Kushner or Arthur Miller or others. Which do you prefer, I guess, to be known as the great African American playwright or the great American playwright?
AUGUST WILSON: I don’t view my plays as belonging to black history. They belong to theatrical literature, you see — because I don’t think of Anton Chekhov as writing about the Russians. I mean, I don’t view his work that way. You see, I don’t view Shakespeare as, you know, an English dramatist, you know?
GWEN IFILL: But surely you’re aware that people view you that way.
AUGUST WILSON: Yes, of course, and I mean, I am. I mean, I am. I’m a black American playwright. You know, I couldn’t deny it. I couldn’t be anything else. I make my art out of black American culture, all cut out of the same cloth, if you will, you know. That’s who I am, that’s who I write about. You know, in the same manner that Chekhov wrote about the Russians, I write about blacks. So there’s no reason why you can’t say “August Wilson, playwright” — even though all of my work, every single play, is about black Americans, about black American culture, about the black experience in America, you know? “August Wilson, playwright.” I write about the black experience of men, or I write about black folks. That’s who I am. I couldn’t do anything else. I wouldn’t do anything else.
GWEN IFILL: Thank you, August Wilson.
AUGUST WILSON: You’re welcome.