Ode To A Playwright
My hope is that we find ways to support young African Americans and other young writers of color. They may be gifted, but, like Wilson himself, have been written off by teachers or ignored by the theater world. My hope is that we name writing workshops for August Wilson in the Hill Districts across America. My hope is that we find the playwrights who will tell the stories of the 21st century with the grace, the beauty and, the truth that August Wilson shared so well in his stories of the 20th century.
I never met August Wilson, yet I felt I knew him well.
I knew the community in which he grew up. I knew the neighborhood alcoholics, the wise women, the young people seeking their way in a world where the cards were stacked against them. I knew the same legends, the same hopes for the future. I knew the same music which was the heartbeat of life and tasted the same food which nurtured our bodies and our souls. Many African Americans never met August Wilson, but because he so beautifully captured our life experience, many of us felt we knew him well.
When August Wilson died a few days ago at the very young age of 60, many of us felt that we had lost an old friend. But the nation lost one of its best playwrights and the world lost a modern- day Shakespeare, whose plays will be produced and read a century from now, not only to understand the journey of Africans in America, but also for their lyrical beauty and exquisite wordsmithing.
August Wilson's own journey, from the Hill district of Pittsburgh to the stages of Broadway is its own story. When, as the only African American in his high school class, he was accused of plagiarizing a report he had written on Napoleon, he dropped out of school and continued his own education by spending his days in the library, devouring books. His nights were spent in his beloved Hill District, listening to the music and the words of its people. All of these experiences went into the melange of his life and came back out in his plays.
Three decades ago Wilson began to write the series of 10 plays which he finished last year and which chronicled the 20th century experience of African Americans decade by decade. It was in these masterful and moving stories that he shared the world view of African Americans, those who lived in the South and especially those who had moved to the North. Almost all of these masterpieces eventually were performed on Broadway, achieving the American theater's highest accolades. For this great body of work which breathed life back into American on-stage drama, Wilson won two Pulitzer prizes, a Tony award and seven New York Drama Critics' Circle awards.
So it was ironic and perhaps a little dramatic that shortly after his final piece in this great body of his life's work was completed, Wilson announced that he had terminal liver cancer. And before we had time to digest it all, he was gone. August Wilson understood that the power of his work was based in his embrace of his community, and he challenged the American theater community's inability or unwillingness to support Black theater. Indeed, his last play produced on Broadway, Gem of the Ocean, almost did not make it to Broadway when it was nearly impossible to find a producer, despite his well-known prior successes.
Shortly after Wilson announced his illness to the world, Broadway producers responded by re-naming the Virginia theater in his honor. My hope is that their recognition of this great American playwright, so steeped in his own culture and so gifted in finding the intersection points of this culture with the universals of human life, will do more than just name one building for him. My hope is that we find ways to support young African Americans and other young writers of color. They may be gifted, but, like Wilson himself, have been written off by teachers or ignored by the theater world.
My hope is that we name writing workshops for August Wilson in the Hill Districts across America. My hope is that we find the playwrights who will tell the stories of the 21st century with the grace, the beauty and, the truth that August Wilson shared so well in his stories of the 20th century.
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