What turned high school drop-out Frederick August Kittel Jr. into the revered and consequential playwright August Wilson?
That’s the question at the heart of “August Wilson: A Life” (Simon and Schuster, 544 pages), billed as the first major biography of the playwright. Author Patti Hartigan, a former arts journalist at the Boston Globe, attempts to answer in several ways — one of which feels especially relevant, even urgent.
Although August Wilson is one of only three American playwrights to have a Broadway theater named after them (the others are Eugene O’Neill, to whom he is sometimes compared, and Neil Simon, to whom he’s never compared), he is probably not as well-known as he should be.
Wilson (1945-2005) made a unique contribution to American culture by dramatizing African American life in the twentieth century as the author of the ten-play Century Cycle. Sometimes called the Pittsburgh Cycle, each play is set in a different decade of the twentieth century, all but one of them taking place in the Hill District in Pittsburgh where Wilson grew up. All ten were (eventually) produced on Broadway.
These include “Fences,” his most popular and remunerative play. It was the only one of the ten to win the Tony Award for Best Play. (Eight of the others were Tony-nominated, and “Jitney,” the first play in the cycle that he wrote, and the last to make it to Broadway – a dozen years after Wilson’s death – won the Tony for Best Revival of a Play.) “Fences” was also the first of two to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (the other is “The Piano Lesson”), and the first of the two so far to have been turned into a Hollywood movie. (The other is “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the 2020 film directed by George C. Wolfe starring Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis.) Eddie Murphy wanted to star in a movie adaptation of “Fences” at the peak of his popularity in the 1980s, and Paramount paid Wilson a million dollars for the rights so Murphy could do so. But a Murphy movie never happened, according to Hartigan, because of Wilson’s insistence on a Black director. It took more than thirty years for “Fences” to be adapted into a film, in 2016, starring, produced and directed by Denzel Washington — who has said he plans on filming the rest of Wilson’s cycle.
Wilson liked to tell people he didn’t see a professionally produced play until he was 31 years old. He was the son of a largely absent, German-born white father named Frederick August Kittel, and a single Black mother, Daisy Wilson, who had moved to Pittsburgh from isolated rural Spears Top Mountain, North Carolina, and was raising her seven children in a two-room flat without indoor plumbing. Her son worked at odd jobs, such as dishwasher and short-order cook until way into his thirties. All this is true, more or less, but it’s not the whole truth. As Hartigan shrewdly observes, Wilson was a raconteur who liked to tell stories – including about himself — that were as much mythology as memory. Actually, with his mother’s avid encouragement, “Freddy” began reading voraciously from the age of four. Daisy scraped to send him to a good school and, yes, he did drop out, but that was because of his intolerance for racist slights. “I dropped out of school, but I did not drop out of life,” he liked to say, continuing his education on his own, inhabiting the local library, befriending a librarian at the University of Pittsburgh.
From an early age, the man who reinvented himself as August Wilson had decided to be a writer. At first the writer he wanted to be was a poet. The shift to playwriting was a product of the times, and a dazzling array of inspirations. He fell in with a group of street poets from the neighborhood who became influenced by the Black Arts movement, which erased lines between poetry, activism and performance. This was first embodied by Amiri Baraka (the poet-playwright-activist born Leroi Jones), who came to Pittsburgh to deliver a speech that floored the younger man. One of Baraka’s books of poetry became “my bible. I carried it wherever I went.” But Baraka had also founded an arts organization in Harlem that became the model for a theater that Wilson and his friends started in Pittsburgh
Baraka was one of “the Four Bs” that Wilson later said he considered his main creative influences. Another was the Blues, which became “the wellspring of my art,” after listening to the records of Bessie Smith. The play that eventually became “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was originally going to be about Bessie Smith, but Wilson thought it fresher to revolve the story around a blues singer who wasn’t as well known.
A third influence was visual artist Romare Bearden: “What I saw was Black life presented on its own terms, on a grand and epic scale, with all its richness and fullness, in a language that was vibrant and which made attendant to everyday life, ennobled it, affirmed its value, exalted its presence.” The initial idea for two of Wilson’s plays, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and “The Piano Lesson,” both came from Romare Bearden collages (“Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket (Pittsburgh Memories)” and “The Piano Lesson (Homage to Mary Lou)” respectively.)
The fourth B Wilson claimed was Jorge Luis Borges, because of the structure of his short stories, which revealed the end at the beginning – a technique he used for “Seven Guitars.”
A far more obvious and ubiquitous influence was the neighborhood where he grew up, which he likened to a Third World country because of the poverty. But it was also, as Hartigan writes, “a stage on which the human comedy played itself out—junkies and artists, hookers and hoodwinks, fruit vendors and con men, every single one of them looking for opportunity. Wilson later marveled at the vitality of the area: he remembered walking the streets that boasted ‘nine drugstores . . . three wallpaper and paint stores, two lumberyards, a live fish market, four funeral homes, eighteen barber shops, thirteen beauty shops, and one hundred and forty-seven bars.’ It also had eighty-two churches and the Mainway Supermarket, which charged exorbitant fees because it could. Wilson steered clear of the supermarket and rarely worshipped, preferring instead to write in restaurants and cafés, beginning a tradition he would continue for the rest of his life.”
Wilson’s preference for what used to be called greasy spoons in cities all across America is one of the many details in the book of his vivid character, most of them endearing, some of them pointed. He liked to hang out with eccentric neighborhood characters whom other people avoided. He could talk for hours about, say, how poorly designed the remote of his TV was. He was afraid of dogs. He smoked all the time, even in the shower. He never learned to drive. Whenever he went shopping, he insisted that the cashier put his purchase in a paper bag, because when he was growing up, a Pittsburgh store would provide one only to the white shoppers.
Some of these details offer hints of what drove him, but “August Wilson: A Life” is not at its best when trying to analyze him as an artist; it doesn’t offer much critical insight into the beauty or importance of what he wrote. (This may be in part because the biography was not authorized by the August Wilson Estate, forcing the author to paraphrase letters and early writings.) Rather, the book is strongest at detailing the development process by which his plays were made, much of it unprecedented.
At the age of 37, Wilson was first invited to join the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference in 1982 to work on “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” There he met Lloyd Richards, the director of the conference, the dean of the Yale School of Drama, and artistic director of the Yale Rep. They began a partnership that was essential to the development of his plays and of his career – and brought to the fore the nation’s network of regional theaters. Wilson would write and rewrite his plays for productions in regional theaters in St. Paul, Seattle, Chicago etc. before producers brought them to Broadway. This had the added benefit of turning the audience, and even the critics, into collaborators on a work in progress rather than gimlet-eyed judges, looking for faults. But Richards didn’t think there was any other way to get the work seen. “We are all conscious of the Commercial Theatre’s attitude toward serious plays and of their feeling about serious plays concerning minorities,” Richards said. “They are not considered a good risk.”
It would be nice to feel that things have changed. But, given the current crisis facing regional theaters in America, things might have changed for the worse.
Ten years ago, WNYC produced all ten plays of Wilson’s American Century Cycle for a series of radio broadcasts. I attended the performances in their studio, an exquisite experience, made all the more so when I got a chance to talk to some of “Wilson’s Warriors” – the label given actors who had performed throughout the years in productions of his plays. One of them ,Ruben Santiago-Hudson, told me that when he first saw a Wilson play, “I was smitten, captured, put in a spell. Nobody had represented me with such integrity; nobody seemed to have the love for me and the people I knew like August did.”
But a lesson of August Wilson’s Cycle is that you don’t have to feel represented to be smitten, even while not all the plays are masterpieces, and some feel long.
“My plays are talky,” Wilson once said. “I say shut up and listen. They are about Black men talking, and in American society you don’t too often have that because the feeling is: ‘What do Black men have to say?’” If the plays meander, Hartigan writes, “the male characters are wise, and their stories matter.”