Ode To A Playwright

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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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