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August Wilson has been referred to (by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) as “the most celebrated American playwright now writing, and . . . certainly the most accomplished black playwright in this nation’s history.” Earlier this fall the beneficiary of Mr. Gates’s praise was in Atlanta to oversee the production of one of his plays. He took time off to meet for lunch at the Sheraton Hotel’s Fourteenth Street Bar, arriving in a black turtleneck sweater under a tweed coat. The tables in the bar are set up on a balcony overlooking the yellowgold emporium that is the hotel lobby. Wilson, who gave up cigar smoking years ago—though he lit one up upon the birth of his daughter, who is now two years old—asked to sit in the smoking section. No cigar on hand, he had purchased a pack of cigarettes at the lobby newsstand downstairs. He said he would give up cigarettes soon, as it would be ridiculous not to be around when his daughter goes to college.

A word about the playwright. Born on April 27, 1945, Wilson grew up in a workingclass area of Pittsburgh. His father, a GermanAmerican baker, abandoned the family when his son was only five. Wilson’s mother remarried and the family moved to a mostly white suburb. Fed up with racial indignities, he dropped out of school at sixteen and his real education started, so he has stated, in the local library. In 1968 he was a cofounder of Black Horizons Theater Company, though his artistic voice at the time was expressed in poetry. In 1978 he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he wrote his first major play, Jitney. A subsequent play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, submitted to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, came to the attention of Lloyd Richards, then artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater. Richards helped Wilson refine the play, which then opened in 1984 in New Haven. Hailed as the work of an important new playwright, the play came to Broadway later that year, and marked the start of an astonishing career—including two Pulitzers (Fences and The Piano Lesson) and a number of Drama Desk Awards, as well as a Tony Award for works that include Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, and King Hedley II.

 Though softspoken, Wilson is a man of strong convictions about the role of blacks in this country and from the first has involved himself in “trying to raise consciousness through theater.” He has an astonishing memory—the envy of those aware of it—and equal abilities as a mimic. With consummate skill he can shift his voice, which bears hardly a trace of a regional accent, into the rich patois of the South when he mimics the railroad porters he met as a boy in Pat’s Place in Pittsburgh.

In 1997 a widely publicized debate took place in New York’s Town Hall between Wilson and Robert Brustein, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Wilson’s position, based on W. E. B. DuBois’s principles (described in 1926 in his magazine The Crisis), was that the plays of a true black theater must be, in brief, “1) about us, 2) by us, 3) for us, and 4) near us.” Brustein criticized Wilson’s views as “self-segregation” and argued that funds for “black theater” on those terms would be foundationfunded “separatism.” Wilson repeated a statistic throughout the evening—that of the sixtyfive theaters belonging to the League of Regional Theaters, only one was black, the Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick, N.J. “The score is sixtyfour to one.”  He pleaded for a black theater that would not have to rely on white institutions or make its appeal to white audiences. The debate was spirited, if inconclusive. And reasonably polite. At its conclusion Brustein referred to Wilson as a “teddy bear.” Wilson fended off the compliment: “I may be personable, but I assure you I am a lion.”


 

INTERVIEWER

What do you suppose Robert Brustein meant when he referred to you at the close of your Town Hall debate as a “teddy bear”?

AUGUST WILSON

I think he was expecting someone with a more strident tone and antagonistic demeanor. I think he was surprised to find out that I’m a pretty likable person, and that despite out different views I conducted myself with a civility and grace of manners my mother always demanded of me. For myself, I found him to be a more likable person than I had imagined. And I certainly value and respect the contributions that he has made to the theater; our differences of opinion on black theater do not dampen my respect and appreciation, nor in any way invalidate the considerable contributions that he has made.

INTERVIEWER

Can you say what first drew you to the theater?

WILSON

I think it was the ability of the theater to communicate ideas and extol virtues that drew me to it. And also I was, and remain, fascinated by the idea of an audience as a community of people who gather willingly to bear witness. A novelist writes a novel and people read it. But reading is a solitary act. While it may elicit a varied and personal response, the communal nature of the audience is like having five hundred people read your novel and respond to it at the same time. I find that thrilling. 

INTERVIEWER

When did you first become involved? 

WILSON

In 1968, during the Black Power movement, when black Americans were, as one sociologist put it, “seeking ways to alter their relationship to the society and the shared expectations of themselves as a community of people.” As a twenty-threeyearold poet concerned about the world and struggling to find a place in it, I felt it a duty and an honor to participate in that search. With my good friend Rob Penny, I founded the Black Horizons Theater in Pittsburgh with the idea of using the theater to politicize the community or, as we said in those days, to raise the consciousness of the people. 

INTERVIEWER

Does that mean you were looking for plays that dealt with those issues? What kind of plays did you produce?

WILSON

We did everything we could get our hands on. Scripts were rather scarce in 1968. We did a lot of Amiri Baraka’s plays, the agitprop stuff he was writing. It was at a time when black student organizations were active on the campuses so we were invited to the colleges around Pittsburgh and Ohio, and even as far away as Jackson, Mississippi.

INTERVIEWER

You were the director.

WILSON

And I acted when the actors didn’t show up. As the director, I knew all the lines and I took over more times than I wanted to. I didn’t know much about directing, but I was the only one willing to do it. Someone had looked around and said, “Who’s going to be the director?” I said, “I will.” I said that because I knew my way around the library. So I went to look for a book on how to direct a play. I found one called The Fundamentals of Play Directing and checked it out. I didn’t understand anything in it. It was all about form and mass and balance. I flipped through the book and there in Appendix A I discovered what to do on the first day of rehearsal. It said, “Read the play.” So I went to the first rehearsal very confidently and I said, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to read the play.” We did that. Now what? I hadn’t got to Appendix B. So I said, “Let’s read the play again.” That night I went back to the book and sort of figured out what to do from that point on.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have a theater?

WILSON

No. We worked in the elementary schoolsthey let us use the auditoriums there. That was our base of operations. The audiences were mostly black. We charged fifty cents admission. Eventually that got up to a dollar. We literally went into the street a halfhour before the show and talked people into going in. Once they got in, they really liked it: “Hey, hey, you gonna do another play?” “Next Thursday.” “I’m gonna be there!” 

INTERVIEWER

Were you writing plays at the time? 

WILSON

I was writing poetry. But I found the theater such an exciting experience that one day I went home to try. I had one character say to the other guy, “Hey, man, what’s happening.” And the other guy said, “Nothing.” I sat there for twenty minutes and neither of my guys would talk. So 1 said to myself, “Well, that’s all right. After all, I’m a poet. I don’t have to be a playwright. To hell with writing plays. Let other people write plays.” I didn’t try to write a play for a number of years after that first experience.