Remembering August Wilson
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ACTOR: I don’t want to raise no more babies when you got to fight to keep them alive.
JEFFREY BROWN: In a cycle of plays considered a landmark in American theater history, August Wilson chronicled the African-American experience of the 20th Century, giving voice to those rarely represented in the theater.
ACTOR: — don’t be running — get these out of here –
JEFFREY BROWN: His first play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which opened on Broadway in 1984, was set in a Chicago recording studio.
ACTOR: How come you ain’t never liked me?
JEFFREY BROWN: Wilson’s second play, “Fences,” earned him his first Pulitzer Prize and a Tony award. Like the plays that would follow, it was set in the Pittsburgh neighborhood in which Wilson grew up. Here, James Earl Jones plays Troy Maxson, once a gifted ballplayer, now a garbage collector, confronting his son.
JAMES EARL JONES: A man’s got to take care of his family. You live in my house, you sleep your behind on my bedclothes, you put my food in your belly because you are my son; you are my flesh and blood, not because I like you. It is my duty to take care of you. I owe a responsibility to you. Now, wait, let’s get this straight right now. Don’t go along any further. I ain’t got to like you. Don’t you go through life worried if somebody likes you or not. You best make sure that they are doing right by you.
JEFFREY BROWN: Wilson talked about “Fences” in a 1987 NewsHour interview with Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
AUGUST WILSON: I wanted to show a man who– here again, the idea of responsibility– a man who was responsible despite the situation and circumstances of his life, that he couldn’t run off and leave his family, et cetera, which is a lot of the ideas you get about black males. So I try in all my plays in particular to present a very strong positive male image, because I am a black male.
JEFFREY BROWN: Born Frederick August Kittel in 1945, Wilson’s mother, Daisy Wilson, was black. His father, a German immigrant, was white. Wilson left high school at age 15 and educated himself, becoming first a poet, then a playwright.
SPOKESMAN: You never find you another piano like that.
JEFFREY BROWN: He earned numerous awards, including a second Pulitzer for “The Piano Lesson,” which was later adapted for television.
SINGING: It was as hard –
JEFFREY BROWN: In 2001, during a production of “King Hedley II,” –
ACTOR: They make up the rules and then they break them themselves.
ACTOR: Don’t do nothing to put me two weeks behind –
JEFFREY BROWN: — the eighth play in his cycle, Wilson spoke to Gwen Ifill.
AUGUST WILSON: 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; they’re 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.
JEFFREY BROWN: August Wilson completed his ten-play cycle with “Radio Golf,” which opened last spring at the Yale Repertory Theater. He died Sunday at a hospital in Seattle, less than two months after announcing he had inoperable liver cancer. He was 60 years old.
JEFFREY BROWN: Some thoughts on August Wilson now from two men who knew and worked with him. Actor Anthony Chisholm performed in six of Wilson’s plays, most recently in “Radio Golf” at Yale and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Kenny Leon directed that Los Angeles production. He’s directed three other Wilson plays and acted in two more. Mr. Leon directed the Broadway revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” last year, and is founder of the True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta. And welcome to you both.
Kenny Leon starting with you, what makes you want to direct a play by August Wilson?
KENNY LEON: First there is a correction, I’ve directed all of August Wilson’s plays except for one, and last year I directed “Gem of the Ocean” on Broadway and now we are challenged with taking “Radio Golf” into Broadway, and I have to say August Wilson that is the greatest playwright, if you will, of our generation because he writes the truth, because he gives voices to those folks that have no voice, because he has an artistry to the honesty and I think I am humbled to have even been in his company.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Chisholm as an actor, what is it about the writing and characters that makes you want to act in his plays?
ANTHONY CHISHOLM: Well, his writing is so vivid it’s so — it runs so deep in your veins when you read his work. It conjures up images; it takes you on a journey instantly into his world and through his story. You see the image of your character in your mind’s eye and it just takes you over. It’s wonderful.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Leon, let’s expand a little bit on this idea of giving voice to people who didn’t have it before. Where did that come from? And why was that so important?
KENNY LEON: Well, I would say the last three or four months have been really important to me because to sit and share time with August and his — as we put the finishing touches on “Radio Golf” — I mean his insight about life, his wisdom flows from life to play almost seamlessly — his understanding about life. I mean no one, Shakespeare — 26 plays, Miller, O’Neal, four or five plays but August Wilson wrote 10 plays about every decade that we’ve been in America. And his plays are not just for African-Americans. He wrote specifically about that culture, but — and that specificity comes an understanding about the universal man, about all of our families, all of our loves.
And while we are talking about August, I would say, also have to say that, you know, August, you know, he leaves two daughters here who are going to miss him, and a wife that are going to miss him. And the man was a great writer. But he was a bigger man. He was a big man. And I loved him for that.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Chisholm, I understand you once got a personal tour with Mr. Wilson of the neighborhood in Pittsburgh where he grew up. Did he, in fact, take what he found there and turn it into his art? Is that where it came from?
ANTHONY CHISHOLM: I would say so, absolutely. Walking through that neighborhood — that was in 1996 — walking through that neighborhood with August, oh, God, it was one of a lifetime experience; I was taken to places that he wrote about. I met people that he wrote about and as I took that journey, I felt that I was in to a weird kind of place in space, space — I’m having difficulty articulating right now. But we walked for five hours in the hot sun. He took me to the famous Crawford Grill. Can you hear me?
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.
ANTHONY CHISHOLM: He took me to the famous Crawford Grill, similar to the Cotton Club of Harlem and owned by the man that owned the Crawford Grays baseball team. He took me to Five Points. I watched him get his haircut by an old man that had cut it when he was a child and on to other places. It was special. I could talk for hours and I know we only have minutes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. Mr. Leon, tell us a little bit more about the man. I saw a description often about the work as ferocious; that is an adjective often used about his work. What about August Wilson the man?
KENNY LEON: The man, just like he dealt with death, he dealt with life the same way, with courage and with grace. And my promise to him and to his family is that August Wilson will not be a footnote in our history books. He deserves more than that. He deserves volumes because of the lives he’s touched, the artists that he’s touched, the people that he’s touched; his plays have been done not just in America but all over the world.
I mean he’s worthy of the Nobel Prize just in terms of his personal sacrifice for 23, 24 years, he’s been producing plays to talk about our history and our connection to each other. So that means that in some years he’s only spending two or three months with his family, with his wife and his daughter, and that’s a great sacrifice for any man. But you know, he walked the walk and he talked the talk, and he dealt with truth as he knew it.
And my commitment is to make sure that our young boys and girls, black and white, our college students, black, white, Asian, Hispanic that we all know August Wilson and we know that — what his contributions have been. So in one way this is a — close to one chapter but it is the opening of another chapter. And I don’t think we’ll really understand August’s impact for another ten, twenty years.
JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a little bit also about his impact on the black theater world because that was something he cared very much about that they are being — that there be a thriving black theatre.
KENNY LEON: Absolutely. I think what he did was humanize our history. He put a face to many things like after slavery, for instance, there were no jobs. So, you know, that is almost worse than slavery. But August put a face to that, and put characters to that and let them tell their stories. He honored our mothers and our grandmothers and our great grandmothers by putting their rituals, their songs, their myths on stage so that we could hear them.
And the great actors in the country from Samuel L. Jackson, Lawrence Fishburn, Anthony Chisholm, Felicia Rashad, the famous actors put their imprints on his words but also he provided an opportunity for actors all across the country in place like Chicago and Little Rock and Atlanta. So all of America heard August’s voice and all of the actors across the country had an opportunity to speak these words because it was much more — his work is much more than a play. His work is, indeed, life. And hopefully we will understand that August was also about change and impact and there is none greater. There is not a tree that stands taller than August Wilson.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Chisholm, we just have about 30 seconds left. How would he define his legacy looking ahead?
ANTHONY CHISHOLM: The man was — he was a prophet in the truest sense of the word. I urge everyone to read his works, white, black, Asian, Indian, whatever. Read this man’s work. And as you read through the pages and through the stories, there are so many speeches and passages that carry depth, such depth and wisdom just on life and our existence as human beings alone.
He was a one of a kind and I hope history serves him righteously by keeping him on the forefront of every student, and every public school, and every university not only in this country but worldwide. And I hope those that can make that happen, seize that opportunity and teach courses on August Wilson just like you would like has been done on Shakespeare.
JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. Anthony Chisholm and Kenny Leon on the life of August Wilson, thank you both very much.
ANTHONY CHISHOLM: Thank you.