Monday, Apr. 25, 2005 – Copyright Time
…But he isn’t through talking about racism, black actors — and why he doesn’t read Shakespeare
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August Wilson’s mom, a cleaning woman trying to raise four kids in the Pittsburgh slums, won a radio contest once. She named the product that went with the ad slogan “When it rains, it pours” (Morton salt), and the prize was a new Speed Queen washing machine. When the station found out she was black, Wilson recounts, his mother was offered instead a certificate for a used washing machine from the Salvation Army. Friends told her to take it anyway; it was better than the old washboard she was using to scrub her kids’ clothes. But she refused. “Something,” she said, “is not always better than nothing.”
Like many of the tales in August Wilson’s plays, this one reverberates across generations. Years later, Paramount was trying to make a movie out of Wilson’s play Fences, and Barry Levinson was interested in directing. Wilson thought of his mother when he nixed the idea, insisting that the play–about a former Negro League baseball player struggling to support a family in 1957–must be directed by an African American: “Man, I’m thinking, ‘Something is not always better than nothing.’ She influenced me in ways like that.”
Fences never did get made into a movie (though Wilson has written a new script, and producer Scott Rudin is trying to bring it to the screen). But that kind of principled pigheadedness seems perfectly in character for a man who has spent two decades of his creative life on a single mission: a cycle of 10 linked plays, each representing one decade in the black experience in 20th century America. The plays have received wide critical acclaim, Broadway runs, two Pulitzer Prizes (for Fences and The Piano Lesson) and upwards of 2,000 productions in regional theaters across the country. And now, finally, they are complete: the 10th play, Radio Golf, will open this week at the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, Conn. Wilson, an inveterate rewriter, will keep fine-tuning the play as it moves in August to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and later, presumably, to Broadway. And then we can truly take the measure of one of American theater’s monumental achievements–and an artist who, in creating something where there was almost nothing, realized that for a project this big and this close to your soul, you have to invest everything.
Wilson’s plays already stand apart from virtually anything else in contemporary theater. The overarching subject of his epic is the legacy of slavery, yet the plays teem with vibrant, idiosyncratic, fully imagined characters who are never reduced to political placards. The plays are realistic, even old-fashioned, in style but sprinkled with mysticism and magic: ghosts, visions, seers and a matriarchal figure named Aunt Ester, who recurs throughout the series and lives to the age of 366. With their poetic, often meandering dialogue, the plays typically start slow (anyone who says his eyes have never drooped in the first act of an August Wilson play probably isn’t being honest), but build to thrilling, sometimes violent, often otherworldly, climaxes. And although the last one, Gem of the Ocean, almost didn’t make it to Broadway (after an investor pulled out, producer Carol Shorenstein Hays, who had backed Fences, put in $1 million to save it), they have drawn black theatergoers in droves to a street that is still known, without irony, as the Great White Way.
Radio Golf brings the cycle into the 1990s. It is set in an inner-city redevelopment office, where two black businessmen (one of them running for mayor) are seeking to clear space for a new commercial development. There are purposeful echoes of earlier plays: descendants of two characters from Gem of the Ocean (set in 1904) are on hand, as is a character from Wilson’s 1960s play Two Trains Running; and Aunt Ester’s home is the last one marked for demolition. The social message is more overt than most in Wilson’s canon: the play is about the “failure of the black middle class,” he says, “who failed to return their expertise, participation and resources back to the community.” Yet the last chapter of this 10-part journey full of tears and tragedy ends with an affirmation, a hopeful sign for the future. “We got to be united and come together,” says Wilson, “before we can proceed on, into the 21st century.”
Wilson, who turns 60 this week, is sitting in an outdoor cafÃ© on the Yale campus. A polite, doughy-faced man, he likes the outdoors because it allows him to puff on his Marlboro Lights, but on this unusually hot spring afternoon, he looks a bit formal and out of place in coat, tie and newsboy cap. He grew up in Pittsburgh’s predominantly black Hill District, dropped out of school in the ninth grade and set out to educate himself by devouring books in the library. One of the first was anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture. “In my plays I sort of work as an anthropologist,” he says, “finding those parts of culture, habits and whatnot that embody these people.” He soaked up the life of his neighborhood, even dropping in on funerals of people he didn’t know just to get a sense of the generations that came before–until one day a woman came up and asked, “Did you know my father?”
He started writing poetry, then poetic plays, and then (after moving to St. Paul, Minn., where his work was first staged at the Penumbra Theater Company) developed a realistic style laced with melodious dialogue inspired by the early blues songs he loved. He was influenced by the work of playwright Ed Bullins–who showed him that “you could put black folks on stage as black folks”–but was pretty much a theatrical naif. He hadn’t read Shakespeare (except for The Merchant of Venice in school) or Tennessee Williams or virtually any of the other modern American classics. There was some calculation there. When he started writing poetry, Wilson immersed himself in poets like Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell and Dylan Thomas–and “as a result, it took me from 1965 to 1973 to find my own voice.” In his plays, by contrast, “I was free to find my own way.” Says Marion McClinton, who has directed several of Wilson’s plays, including Jitney and King Hedley II: “He pulled his whole artistic style and breath and soul from who [black people] were. He wasn’t writing to get validation from the dominant cultural forces in this country. He didn’t care about that.”
Wilson has caught up on his reading a bit since then; he is a fan of Chekhov and has seen a few more (but only a few) Shakespeare plays. He goes to movies rarely and says that for 11 straight years, starting in 1980, he didn’t see a single one. (The last film he saw before he quit was Raging Bull, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro; the first one when he came back was Scorsese and De Niro’s Cape Fear, so he figured he hadn’t missed much.) He avoids the media spotlight, living in Seattle with his third wife, a costume designer, and their seven-year-old daughter. He moved there in 1990, after his second divorce, because he liked the quiet.
He remains a passionate, often politically incorrect, advocate for the black community. In 1996 he caused a ruckus with a speech in which he called for a separate African-American theater, castigated black playwrights and directors for participating in an “art that is conceived and designed to entertain white society” and decried the increasingly fashionable practice of “color-blind casting”–i.e., blacks playing traditionally white roles. The outcry was fierce; the drama critic Robert Brustein, in a blistering rebuttal in the New Republic, disparaged Wilson’s plays and denounced his words as the “language of self-segregation.”
Wilson’s views haven’t changed. The plight of black theater, he says, is even worse today, while color-blind casting has exploded–Denzel Washington in Julius Caesar and James Earl Jones in On Golden Pond on Broadway this spring alone. “If I see a production of Gem of the Ocean with a white cast, maybe I’ll change my mind. But Death of a Salesman with a black cast–that’s not the way blacks respond to this problem. It’s a white play. It’s intended to be.” He realizes that is not a popular view among African Americans in the theater. “I understand the rules of war too. The actors go, ‘There ain’t no work.’ That’s your fault. Start some theaters.”
Asked about the black political movement today, he responds, “What movement?” Black leaders? “We have Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, but it does not mean anything to black America, which is still under assault from the social practices of this society.” Bill Cosby’s criticisms of black parenting? “A billionaire attacking poor people for being poor. Bill Cosby is a clown. What do you expect? I thought it was unfair of him.” His modest, soft-spoken manner belies what is obviously a deep sense of grievance. He describes sitting down at a counter not long ago and watching a white man next to him snatch $2 off the table. “He thinks I’m going to steal his $2. That’s reality; that’s the world I live in.”
Now that he’s finishing up his 20th century cycle, Wilson can finally get to some projects he’s been putting off for years. He has finished 80 pages of a novel, and he wants to write a comedy, about a strike of coffin makers, featuring cameo appearances by Queen Victoria, Benny Goodman and the Platters. It’s a far cry from tortured Wilson characters like Herald Loomis, the itinerant searching for his wife after spending seven years in bondage in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Wilson’s favorite among his works. But the closing line of that play might just as well apply to a playwright ready for the next leg of his remarkable career: “You shining like new money!” –With reporting by Kate Novack/New York City
RICHARD ZOGLIN – Time
Monday, Apr. 25, 2005 – Copyright Time