ChickenBones: A Journal

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I wrote stories as a little boy, play-acted as most kids do when I was around eight

or nine, and by the time I was in the fifth grade I was trying very hard to write

scripts and scenarios that my friends and I could perform.

 

 

August Wilson Plays and Critical Perspectives

August Wilson Century Cycle  /  Fences  / Piano Lesson  / Gem of the Ocean  / Joe Turner's Come and Gone 

Radio Golf  /  King Hedley II  /  Jitney  /  Two Trains Running  /  August Wilson: Three Plays  /  Seven Guitars  

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom  / The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson / August Wilson and Black Aesthetics

*   *   *   *   *

Writing on Napkins

A personal remembrance of August Wilson 

By Dennis Leroy Moore 

 

There's more [life] behind me than ahead. I think of dying every day. ... At a certain age, you should be prepared to go at any time. – August Wilson 

A good portion of the drama division's non-white staff and students react in disbelief when they realize the only time August Wilson receives any attention is in a first year class that lasts six weeks. . . . It is time to express the frustration that many of the non-white actors, particularly African American actors, here at Julliard experience –  not having the opportunity to study their own people's contributions, since it was, in large part Black American Theater that helped to expand boundaries of theater art in the 1960's and 1970's." – excerpt from the 'Proposal for a Black Theater History Seminar' To the Drama Division at Julliard from Dennis Leroy Moore January 13, 1997

 

And with that I went from a troubled young actor into a troubled young artist.  1997 was a crucial year in my own personal and artistic development and a huge portion of my development was indirectly led and crafted by playwright August Wilson. 

Wilson revealed the light within the cave, he woke me up not merely as a black actor, but as an artist who would have to realize he had a personal and cultural responsibility to be who he was.  To express who he is, what he is, what he feels.  I was on a mission and was barely twenty-one years old, but knew I had found my calling.  I was going to commit my life to directing.

I wrote stories as a little boy, play-acted as most kids do when I was around eight or nine, and by the time I was in the fifth grade I was trying very hard to write scripts and scenarios that my friends and I could perform.  I remember the first script I ever sat down to write was for my fifth grade media class.  I remember feeling embarrassed that my classmates would support me in the writing of our class "movie" which was to be shot on one of those ancient VHS home camcorders (remember those babies?). 

I was an awful student as far as academics and test aptitude goes, I was constantly failing math, and desperately daydreaming about being a writer (or at least being Humphrey Bogart in the Maltese Falcon).  I had read every Stephen King, Dashiell Hammet, and O'Henry book I could find.  I was ten and was really proud of myself when I stumbled through Alex Haley's the The Autobiography of Malcolm X . 

Now, I admit, I didn't really know what to make of it and was actually afraid of the book.   I didn't understand the rancor and political ideologies and got extremely confused.  But I was the only one in class who knew who Malcolm was and so I was "deep."  I knew who Malcolm was, even if I didn't know who I was.  Or where brother Malcolm was within me.  Some brothers find Malcolm in jail.  I found him by studying acting. 

The following year I acted in my first play and within twenty-four months I was a hard working, training, actor at the Sanford Meisner Theater doing repetition exercises,  playing wasps in A.R. Gurney and Cheever plays,  yet not having a goddamn clue who the hell I was.  I wasn't actually interpreting black characters and it began to bother me, but only on an unconscious level.  I was only twelve, thirteen and still just having fun "performing."

Still, I knew I wasn't like the blonde or blue eyes around me – whether it was at Stagedoor Manor or the Meisner Theater, under Italian director Jack Romano. I came closer to certain realizations whenever I read Langston Hughes or saw a picture of him.  Yes, I thought, he even kind of looks like me.  Light skin, wavy hair...Perhaps?  But it would always feel wrong, cause I was not a poet.  I was an actor and I loved performing.  However, I was an actor with no history, no culture, no people.  I was acting in no man's land, surrounded by white folks in the village, and never investigating the dramatic conflicts that I knew of in my own family for instance.  I wanted to do a play about a young black urban boy like me, for example – not pretend I am a villager in "Our Town." 

1990. The eighties are over, I am entering the High School of Performing Arts.  Here, everything blows wide open: I realize black people have written plays, I feel more secure from having read black plays (Louis Peterson's Take a Giant Step, Charles Fuller's A Soldier's Play and Zooman and the Sign were among my favorites) and I am also able to put August Wilson into a slightly better context as I could already with David Mamet, for instance.  I read Fences, Wilson's best-known play, one day on the way home from school on the train and I am completely won over.

In my humble opinion, Fences is one of the only plays that honestly rivals the blistering social realist tragedy of Death of A Salesman and A Raisin in the Sun.  Incidentally Fences  was long ago optioned for film, but Mr. Wilson insisted on a black director of his choice and although he wrote several screenplays, the project is still on hold. They shelved his screenplay adaptation and his request for a black director. Translation: Hollywood doesn't know what to do or what black director to hire in order get the film done. I would offer my services, but my schedule is so busy these days...

1989, my mother takes me to my first Broadway play: The Piano Lesson, a rather chilling brother and sister battle over a family heirloom – a link to the slavery in their past. I remember shivering throughout the entire performance, I remember feeling almost like a ghost, like someone who had been let in on a secret, a tremoring group sιance if not a mass hallucination.  I remember how charming and full of pain Charles Dutton's character, Boy Willie, was every time he walked past or mentioned the piano.  Chills.  What the hell is this?

This is some deep shit.  I remember even saying that to myself.  I had the same feeling many years later when I read Wilson's Gem of the Ocean, which is up front and center a haunting, ghostlike play, with conjured tales of slave ships and the black man arriving in chains in the New World. (I did not see the production of Gem because I cannot stomach Phylicia Rashad, but that is another story.)

Aside from one or two singular performances in movies – Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun, Louis Gossett in Officer and a Gentleman, and certainly Denzel Washington in – what at that time? Could it have been Cry Freedom, perhaps, or even Glory? – I had never seen black people relating in that way before as I had first seen in 1989 while watching The Piano Lesson.  Now Denzel, Morgan Freeman – these were strong, even brilliant actors, expressing and revealing and performing – but I could still tell, regardless of anything, that they were being  helmed by white men.  I don't know if this means anything, I just know I could sense this aspect. 

Miles Davis always said he could tell a white band from a black band from just listening on the radio. He says he just could. That is how I felt, I could always sniff out the director or writer and feel if he was black, particularly, if it was an overtly "African-American" theme.  Admittedly, I was young yes, didn't quite understand the director's role or the writer's role in film, exactly, and still separated the mediums: movies and TV were on the right and theater was on the left.  Theater was like a beast from another planet, effortlessly revealing to me the cultural, historical, political, and personal thoughts and feelings of a specific race, family, character – that my soul could dance with. 

I never had seen any real black interiors expressed dramatically the way I had seen it in The Piano Lesson.  Afterwards, I had seen Wendell Harris's film Chameleon Street (which set the seed for filmmaking) and Danny Glover's chilling performance in Charles Burnett's murky classic To Sleep With Anger.  These were the closest examples I had to what Wilson's work was doing to me that night, but at that time I hadn't known those film examples.  I never had experienced black people expressing themselves through dialogue in the way that I had seen white actors.  It was a revelation.  As if God spoke.

Fast forward to 1995.  By my second year at Julliard, I simply could not play the game anymore.  I was not content with being an actor, in fact I despised it – thought it was stupid, humiliating to have to audition for a job, get on my knees for an agent, lose weight, stay in shape, obsess over my complexion, etc. Acting was empty for me and retained little or no virtue.  I began to write seriously and from that point on I realized my strength not as a playwright, but as a dramatist.  As a director. 

I took a leave of absence in 1995.  I was depressed and uncertain about how to continue at Julliard and how to manage the commercial world of Acting.  Big teeth and bright lights were just not me.  I was living in a penthouse with two other actors on 54th street between Eighth and Ninth avenues.  I was in therapy twice a week, started to smoke cigarettes, and was writing a stupid play about clowns.  Life seemed scary and formless. 

The parties we had, the girls we knew,  the oddballs and freaks,  the unemployed actors and musicians,  the dancers we all wanted to sleep with – none of it seemed real or meaningful.  In fact, I couldn't tell if I was coming or going half the time.  I think that is normal for anyone just barely out of their teens.  But for me it was bad.  I saw nothing positive about my chosen profession and felt my artistic horizons would be limited.  My feelings and ideas may have been limitless, but that was not how I felt. 

Theater art seemed cheap, devoid of any real blood and guts.  I felt that way until I read and studied the Living Theater, the plays of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, and saw Wilson's 1995 play Seven Guitars. I could appreciate the dramatic vision, the breath of Wilson's writing, and the scope of Lloyd Richard's brilliant, understated, direction.  The itch was coming back: I wanted to direct.

In the early 1980's, Lloyd Richards was dean of the Yale Drama School, head of the professional Yale Repertory Theater and director of Lorraine Hansberry's landmark A Raisin in the Sun, one of the most influential plays in American history. (Richards was not allowed to direct the film version.)

In Richards, Wilson had found his balance, a true collaborator.  Much like Tennessee Williams had Kazan or the way Becket had Alan Schneider.  Richards was Wilson's artistic father, an experienced director who taught him stagecraft and helped him learn to re-write. Likewise, Wilson's soulful material was a gift to Lloyd Richards, who went on to workshop and direct the first August Wilson plays.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, a drama about a volatile trumpet player who rebels against racism in a Chicago recording studio, went quickly from workshop to its Broadway premiere.  Then time sped up, often with one play in initial workshop, another on Broadway and a third midway from one point to the other, simultaneously.  Wilson and Richards worked feverishly and like Lennon and McCartney – they carved up the empire amongst themselves.  In the 1980's and early 90's – they owned American theater and could do no wrong. 

Now, by studying the plays of August Wilson, I inherently was also studying the directing of Lloyd Richards.  So my understandings of Wilson's work have been rendered by Richard's interpretations, for the most part. The Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiariostami refers to filmmaking as the seventh art; an art form so mysterious and new and unexplored. Its possibilities are endless. It has only been around for just a little over a hundred years.  It is an embryo in the lifespan of the arts.  More specifically, the director is in his infancy.  Compare the span of a director and a drummer and you will see what I mean.  However, like a drummer, a director is hard to define. 

If one really sits down and analyzes it - you almost don't know where to start when discussing directors or playwrights.  If the style of a work isn't very inviting or flashy, it is often hard for us to understand the artist.  And often when we do, or think we do, we do it in such a patronizing or shallow way.  French filmmaker Jean Luc Godard once stated that certain movies become popular for all the wrong reasons. The same could be applied to all the arts. 

David Mamet, one of August Wilson's contemporaries, the Art Pepper-Theatrical-provocateur of white middle class America – has almost been reduced to a joke in several American conservatories and University Theaters.  He's the "cunt" poet, the white Richard Pryor-jazz-ma-tazz due to his proclivities and use of the English language and the hyper-realistic way many of his characters curse.  They reduce him to that.  Cursing.  That's it.  That's absurd, if not downright contemptuous of art, but that is often what happens when certain artists cannot be really digested at large or when they have past their prime. 

This happens to these rare personal artists who have been lauded by the mainstream all the time.  And where Lloyd Richards work has been overlooked as a director, Wilson, I feel, still has been ghetto-ized as this rather generic master playwright of the black experience.  "The Black Experience" – what the hell does that mean?

The White experience.  If I said that, you'd look at me cross-eyed. It's too wide and varied.  Do you mean what the early Europeans accomplished or destroyed? Both? The work of Shakespeare or Sophocles? The music of the Clash or the films of Woody Allen?  Rome?  The rape of Africa?  Stalin?  The KKK?  President Clinton?  What? Obviously one would have to be talking about all that.

The black experience, obviously, is dense, layered, varied, and rich.  Its commonality goes beyond the history of slavery, the clinches of our shared colonization, and the pain of what we endure as the most oppressed, ostracized, abused, and ignored people on the face of the planet.  By the 1980's, it seems that the conservative tide that had taken hold of America was not merely present in the obvious take over of the White House or Reaganomics, but also quite apparent in the theater. 

The 1980's saw the death of any mainstream theatrical experimentation that had actually existed, particularly within the realm of Black American drama.  (The underground, I speculate, was still kicking into maybe the early 1990's).  Music was still changing, pop art had I suppose reached its zenith with Basquiat, Keith Haring, graffiti, and the popularity of Warhol – but in theater it seemed to resign itself into a state of unknowingness.  Irish poet and playwright, SD Clifford wrote to me that the English language is dead, it needs new forms.  I agree, that is part of our problem right now.  The artistic wasteland that theater artists and dramatists have found themselves in, prove it. What August Wilson was able to do – just as a individual writer – was compose new ways of expressing the feelings, ideas, and moods of people. This may sound obvious and easy, but it ain't.

Brecht said that no art can be truly revolutionary unless it is revolutionary in form.  This is as true as it gets, but also slightly misleading.  All true artists know that form follows function, that style and content are one and the same.  Meaning is within the formal aspects of the work itself.  I am baffled that most people still don't seem to understand this.  Particularly the so-called "elite" or even the so-called "radicals."  What made Wilson revolutionary was how he wrote and what his characters said.  Writing about black people in and of itself isn't radical. 

Do you know how many black people are writing plays? A lot. Do you know many white New Englanders all think they are Thornton Wilder? A lot. That doesn't mean anything.  Wilson proved himself to be a real artist because he had the innate talent and listened to himself, the beat of his own drum, and observed the life around him.  Mamet has certainly done the same thing, no doubt about it - although I am not sure if he has a love for people the way Wilson seemed to. 

Wilson took the lyrical Naturalism of Tennessee Williams, the roots of black American experience, his aesthetic feel for blues and jazz, and the dialogue of common folk and just sprinkled a dash of his own poetic sensibilities into it - giving us a sublime collage of dramatic experience.  His work bordered on the spiritual nature of political vehemence, black consciousness, and family - and that to me is his greatest achievement.

Wilson bucked the system early and did not opt for easy way outs, nor was he about to condescend and patronize his characters, black people, or audiences at large.  In this modern age, that is beyond admirable.  Wilson, rather too simply, always said that he listened to the way people spoke and wrote what he heard.  That may be true, but not as evident as it may seem.  His characters talk with the music, cadence, and form of hyper-realist and dramatic poetry.  This is where his contribution is similar to Williams' in just a purely formal way. 

I applaud Brenda Payton who wrote that Wilson was the pre-eminent American playwright, which can scare the conservatives and the White elite of American arts conservatories and the like because of the very fact that he re-explored and defined the English language in an American and specifically black American idiom.  But, again, I always asked myself - where does that come from?  How does the artist learn and believe in himself, go his own way, even if he is unsure of what it will produce?  How do we learn that?

Answer is simple: you can't, either you are or you aren't an artist, but if you are you must trust in yourself, not the media.  Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art as Stanislavski said.  Do not be concerned with popularity and, even worse, do not indulge in the trappings of what society tells you is an artist.  I realized this lesson when I left Julliard.

In 1997, August Wilson and Robert Brustein met at New York's town hall for a showdown in modern theater: a battle of culture, ideology, and aesthetic.  Against the wishes of the Julliard drama division, I went to this historical event with two other actors of color, and was prepared for a life-altering course.  In 1996, Wilson wrote an earth shattering manifesto "The Ground on Which I Stand," calling for an end to white domination over the life and execution of African American theaters, color-blind casting,  and the desultory stride that black theater companies had found themselves in. 

Wilson's manifesto not only touched the very core of my being, but aroused in me an answer to the existential dilemma many Black actors, playwrights, and directors faced.  We must make our own theaters, build our own schools, go our own way.  Ever so often these issues are brought up in various cultural, educational, and political ways.  Sadly, however, despite the applause – not one major Black theater company formed as a result of Wilson's shotgun plea.  Even stranger, more Black companies were closing (New Jersey's Crossroads company, for example) and the rising condescension that was given to us at Julliard was no help either. 

It was kind of like, "Well Wilson is a great playwright, Dennis, but do you really believe in his Separate but Equal philosophy?"  And, of course, they would always bring up that Wilson's producers were white.  Still, I didn't care – I had read the Gospel and was touched with the passion of a disciple.  I needed to give myself a bit of love as well as my people.  I left Julliard to do just that: concentrate on the human conflict via black actors. 

So how has Wilson really and specifically influenced me?  It is hard to put into words, without sounding abstract or general.  I am not a playwright per se, although I do write a great deal of theatrical texts that are meant to be interpreted and I certainly write screenplays.  Wilson's work with Lloyd Richards developed my eye as a director – space, rhythms, blocking even.  But Wilson's written word has influenced me in my approach to character's  phrasing and their own speech.  I do not necessarily mean dialect here folks, I mean their idiosyncratic way of seeing the world and expressing it.  It borders on literal poetry, but Wilson always get it steeped in the tangible and "here and now" dramatic experience. 

When his characters sound flowery they mean it because they are poets in every day life.  Wilson imbues his characters with a larger than life passion and intent.  They were Shakespearean.  Or perhaps an even better name for it would be: Bearden-ian.  Wilson was heavily inspired by the great painter Romare Bearden and his characters are almost like Bearden's paintings come to life - not literally, but spiritually.  The black American home, the traditions, hopes, fragmentations, rituals...everything.  If Robert Walser was Paul Klee, August Wilson is Romare Bearden.

I may not have graduated College or received a degree in anything, but for me my own personal education as an artist has done more than any school could – because experience is the greatest teacher.  In 1998, I was directing a production of James Baldwin's play Blues for Mister Charlie in Harlem.  That spring, Wilson was reading from his latest draft of Jitney (a father-son drama set in a gypsy cab station) at Second Stage theater in midtown Manhattan.  Marion McClinton was directing and I had gotten an invitation to come and check out the new restored theater as well as hear Wilson read.  Remember now, this was my second time actually seeing the Man in the flesh. 

After the reading of his latest draft – which he admitted had several problems – although I could not tell from just reading.  However one aspect of Wilson's work that I must bring up with great delight is how Wilson truly redefined the contemporary monologue in theater.  Several of Wilson's characters have solos, so to speak.  Like a jazz ensemble, Wilson will have all his characters relating and joshing and criticizing each other as a group, and then every now and then the focus will be on one individual who has so much to get off his or her chest.  I enjoy that aspect of Wilson's writing and it is probably my own bias, because I too enjoy the function of a monologue in a dramatic context, I like dialogue and I appreciate the risks Wilson and his actors often took with that.  One of the biggest criticisms of Wilson's work is that it is too verbose.  I would disagree.  It is not that Wilson's characters have long monologues or talk too much, it is that we as the audience –- in society – listen to people too little.

After the reading, I introduced myself to Wilson and shook his hand.  Seeing him up close one could get the sense of a real Lion (which he once referred to himself as, in response to Robert Brustein patronizing him by saying that "Mr. Wilson is a lamb."), a self-obsessed and highly neurotic individual.  He was large and imposing with large hands I remember.  He seemed nervous or perhaps he was just in a rush.  He was handsome in a classic rugged professorial way and his beard seemed all the more real to me up close than it deal in photographs.  His eyes sharp, his lisp clearer now that he was only four feet away.   

I told Wilson how much he had inspired me and how at that very moment my theater troupe (Dionysus 2000) were in their second year of re-interpreting black classic dramas for a new age.  I was proud and was hoping to hear Wilson say he was, too.  I don't think he cared much, to be honest, and looking back I see how silly it all might have been.  He didn't know me and who the hell cared if I was directing a play? 

Yet, I think my courage to address him and hold court intrigued him.  I gave him a flyer to the play and told him I would love to see him there, that my work was very much about putting into practice what he had preached.  Wilson looked at me as if I was talking about someone else and then smiled humbly.  I told Wilson I would like to de-construct several of his plays so that I could get inside of them.  I told him although I admired his work, sadly I would never be able to direct any of them.  Purely for aesthetic and intuitive reasons. 

Wilson has inspired me, no doubt, but I don't have the connection to his material that a true director must.  Which introduces the next character into our mise-en-scene.

If memory serves me right, Marion McClinton took over as "Wilson's premier director" once Lloyd Richards finished directing Seven Guitars, in my opinion the last great Wilson play and one of the final major American theatrical productions of the 20th century.  It was Lloyd and August's last waltz and it was beautiful.  I even enjoyed Keith David's arrogant performance and I normally can't stand him.  But McClinton took the last years of Wilson's writing and interpreted him in all too pedestrian manner.  He panders and makes his actors do the same.  McClinton has referred to August Wilson as "the Michael Jackson" of American theater and for some reason, brothers and sisters, that just never sat well with me and neither did McClinton's ridiculous production of King Hedley, Wilson's only play set in the 1980's, about an ex-convict who tries to get his life back together. 

I introduced myself to Marion McClinton (whom I admired very much back then, I enjoyed his production of  Jitney, but since then it has been a harrowing descent into abysmally sloppy direction) and I told him I was very excited to see his latest work.  He grinned at me and nodded and tried to get Wilson's attention.  August had to go, but I asked him: "Mr. Wilson, you must give me something. Just an idea of how to do it." 

He was puzzled. "Do what?"

I explained to him I would get awful creative blocks, writer's block in fact for days, weeks on end.  I didn't know how to break them.  He told me: "Napkins. Write on napkins – when you are working on a script, making notes – write on napkins. That way you can throw them away, you'll feel like you aren't bound to them. Eventually you'll see that these napkins will build up and eventually you'll organize your notes into a script."

Eight years and four major screenplays later, I still write on napkins and make notes on anything other than a notebook.  Most neurotics probably do...much to the chagrin of our loved ones. 

Wilson did not see my production of Blues, nor did we ever meet again.  My own personal development and work took me into the unexplored regions of cinema and the new Drama of the Digital Video Age.  It was only a matter of time that I found my voice, unfortunately it was not in the theater-proper, it revealed itself to me in dramatic filmmaking.  Reflecting on Wilson now – I think it is fair to say that he was rather like William Shakespeare – casting a shadow over contemporaries like Ben Johnson.  Or the way Bob Dylan seemed to loom larger than other folk songwriters such as Phil Ochs.  Or the way that Spike Lee seems to be lauded more than Julie Dash or Kasi Lemmons.

Wilson was a brilliant artist, there is no doubt about it  -- for those who doubt I dare you to read Loomis' speech in Joe Turner's Come and Gone (about seeing the bones on the track of the Atlantic route of the slave traders) – and then tell me you don't think brilliance was flowing through his veins –  but I often wonder about the other African American playwrights who never get recognized.  Those who have been toiling and were left to dry outside of the Broadway mainstream or Regional Theater repertoire.  

Names like Marvin X and Phillip Hayes Dean pop into my head.  And then I think about great playwrights like Lonne Elder III or Ron Milner, who both easily could give Wilson a run for his money.  (Elder's Ceremonies in Dark Old Men is a masterpiece) Although I am one of the only few rabid fans of early Amiri Baraka,  Baraka's output as a dramatist has been quite awful.  After his incredible Slave Ship (and I only read this, obviously) I don't think he found himself able to express himself through the play any longer.  His essays picked up where his plays (and poetry) stopped, via early 1970's. 

But what of the playwrights who are not affiliated with any institutions? Playwrights with no major backers, no connections to "white" money?  If it is true that Black dramatists are not appreciated because the African American community at large doesn't support his or her development (like that of the filmmaker), then it is beyond true that there is also a shower of pained sentiment that other playwrights have towards Wilson. 

Some of these older playwrights who have been putting it down on paper longer than Wilson or just as long – may feel the way Satchel Paige may have felt towards Jackie Robinson.  I don't know if that is right or wrong, it really doesn't matter.  The point is that it is worth noting that other voices are out there and have been expressing their dramas just as well, if not actually better, than Wilson.  Perhaps if there had been more a mainstream balance with August Wilson, one could really assess his work in a true context. 

His Fences and Joe Turner and Ma Rainey are supreme masterworks of drama and his ouevre could be compared to anyone's.  Mamet may have written more plays, but few of them capture the pain and joy of living like Wilson's.  It would almost be a mistake to try to compare. 

I was born in Pittsburgh in 1945 and for 33 years stumbled through its streets, small, narrow, crooked, cobbled, with the weight of the buildings pressing in on me and my spirit pushed into terrifying contractions. That I would stand before you today in this guise was beyond comprehension.  . . . I am standing here in my grandfather's shoes. . . . They are the shoes of a whole generation of men who left a life of unspeakable horror in the South and came North ... searching for jobs, for the opportunity to live a life with dignity and whatever eloquence the heart could call upon. . . . The cities were not then, and are not now, hospitable. There is a struggle to maintain one's dignity. But that generation of men and women stands as a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit. And they have passed on to us, their grandchildren, the greatest of gifts, the gift of hope refreshened. – August Wilson 

So August Wilson is dead and Oprah Winfrey still lives.  Well, I suppose worse things have happened. Wilson, who was born Frederick August Kittel to Daisy Wilson and Frederick Kittel (his father was a German baker) on April 27, 1945. He was born during the tail end of World War II (three days before Hitler shot himself) and died October 2, 2005 in the midst of the United States War in Iraq and as George Bush was on his way to patronize the black citizens of New Orleans.  Seems fitting for a man whose artwork wrestled with demons of past, present, and future and all the implications of a spiritually bereft and cruel society. 

Wilson was feverishly prolific and wrote as if he knew he would die soon.  And God Bless him for that, because he didn't have a chance to lose his angst, his vision, his talent. . . .his voice.  Miles said he stopped playing music cause he couldn't hear the music anymore.  Well, Wilson never had to experience that and he never had the opportunity to write bad plays.  He left us at his height, more or less.  

Like Proust, who died after completing the final volume of Remembrance of Things Past (He was still correcting the typescript on his deathbed) August Wilson died at sixty years old from cancer after having completed Radio Golf, the final installment (and arguably weakest) of his majestic ten-play epic cycle of African American Life in the Twentieth Century.  Not even Eugene O'Neill was able to finish his similarly ambitious project – he only managed to complete the first two parts of what was to be an eleven-play-cycle.  Of Wilson's plays in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's obituary, Christopher Dawson wrote: 

In dramatizing the glory, anger, promise and frustration of being black in America, he created a world of the imagination – August Wilson's Hill District – to rank with such other transformational fictional worlds as Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha, Hardy's Wessex or Friel's Donegal. Critics from Manhattan to Los Angeles now speak knowingly of "Pittsburgh's Hill District," not just the Hill as it is now or was when Mr. Wilson grew up in the '50s, but August Wilson Country – the archetypal northern urban black neighborhood, a construct of frustration, nostalgia, anger and dream. 

Well said.

Let it be clear Wilson's output and quality has been extraordinary.  Just in over twenty-four years, Wilson penned some of the greatest works known in the theater and won a Pulitzer prize.  My only hope is that the new wave of Black directors will continually re-interpret his works and reveal all the elements still hiding within them.  Wilson, like Strindberg did to Ingmar Bergman, will one day haunt some great African American director and I hope I can be there to witness the enduring influences of Wilson and other heavyweight playwrights of his caliber.   It is not enough to say someone was a "genius," or "he was a great playwright." 

The current generation emerging and stretching its wings in the theater and film scene must begin to find out for themselves why Wilson's work was so great and what he gave to actors.  Sadly, black Americans have no real heritage in drama – meaning no historical or cultural understanding of influences between theater and film. 

We don't know filmmaker Haile Gerima in the same way we don't know playwright Amiri Baraka.  We aren't familiar with Charles Burnett's contributions because we don't care about Ed Bullins' plays.  And so on and so forth.  Wilson is a name to a lot people, but it will take time – perhaps decades – until we really understand what it was that he gave us.  It is always like that for any artist – popular or fine, rich or poor. 

Until then we must stay alert and keep treading the path of the unknown, the path that artists like August Wilson blazed with all his obsessive brevity and stern destination in lock.  Eyes peeled, heart in place, napkins ready - to be punctured, wounded, and bled upon.

Dennis Leroy Moore / Berlin / November 28, 2005

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The Plays

The 10 plays written by August Wilson chronicling the black experience in America in the 20th century, and the decade in which each was set:

1900s - "Gem of the Ocean" A haunting, ghostlike play, conjuring tales of slave ships and the black man arriving in chains in the New World.

1910s - "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" Set in a Pittsburgh boarding house, the children and grandchildren of slavery grapple with a world that won't let them forget the past.

1920s - "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" A volatile trumpet player rebels against racism in a Chicago recording studio.

1930s - "The Piano Lesson" A brother and sister battle over a family heirloom, a link to the slavery in their past.

1940s - "Seven Guitars" The final days of a Pittsburgh blues guitarist, telling the story of how and why he did.

1950s - "Fences" A father-son drama of dreams denied and how that denial affects the relationship between the two men.

1960s - "Two Trains Running" The displaced and the dreamers congregate in a dilapidated Pittsburgh restaurant scheduled for demolition.

1970s - "Jitney" Another father-son tale, set in a gypsy cab station, as the owner of the cab company squares off against his offspring, newly released from prison.

1980s - "King Hedley II" An ex-con attempts to get his life back on track despite the desperation, despair and violence that surrounds him.

1990s - "Radio Golf" A successful middle-class entrepreneur tries to reconcile the present with the past.

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AALBC.com's 25 Best Selling Books


 

Fiction

#1 - Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark
#2 - Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree
#3 - Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane
#4 - Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper
#5 - Stackin' Paper 2 Genesis' Payback by Joy King
#6 - Thug Lovin' (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark
#7 - When I Get Where I'm Going by Cheryl Robinson
#8 - Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby
#9 - The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 - Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 - Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 - Don't Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 - For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 - For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 - Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 - Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 - Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 - Stackin' Paper by Joy King

#20 - Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 - The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 - Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 - I Dreamt I Was in Heaven - The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter

Non-fiction

#1 - Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
#2 - Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans
#3 - Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane
#4 - Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper
#5 - Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You're Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant
#6 - Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey
#7 - The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight
#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 - Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 - Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can't Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 - Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 - Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 - A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 - Age Ain't Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 - 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
#23 - Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul by Tom Lagana
#24 - 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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The Last Holiday: A Memoir

By Gil Scott Heron

Shortly after we republished The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, Gil started to tell me about The Last Holiday, an account he was writing of a multi-city tour that he ended up doing with Stevie Wonder in late 1980 and early 1981. Originally Bob Marley was meant to be playing the tour that Stevie Wonder had conceived as a way of trying to force legislation to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday. At the time, Marley was dying of cancer, so Gil was asked to do the first six dates. He ended up doing all 41. And Dr King's birthday ended up becoming a national holiday ("The Last Holiday because America can't afford to have another national holiday"), but Gil always felt that Stevie never got the recognition he deserved and that his story needed to be told. The first chapters of this book were given to me in New York when Gil was living in the Chelsea Hotel. Among the pages was a chapter called Deadline that recounts the night they played Oakland, California, 8 December; it was also the night that John Lennon was murdered.

Gil uses Lennon's violent end as a brilliant parallel to Dr King's assassination and as a biting commentary on the constraints that sometimes lead to newspapers getting things wrong. —Jamie Byng, Guardian

Gil_reads_"Deadline" (audio)  / Gil Scott-Heron & His Music  Gil Scott Heron Blue Collar  Remember Gil Scott- Heron

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The Warmth of Other Suns

The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

By Isabel Wilkerson

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper's wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin was falsely accused of stealing a white man's turkeys and was almost beaten to death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem after learning of the grove owners' plans to give him a "necktie party" (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his trek from Louisiana to California in 1953, embittered by "the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn't operate in his own home town." Anchored to these three stories is Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson's magnificent, extensively researched study of the "great migration," the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to an "uncertain existence" in the North and Midwest.

Wilkerson deftly incorporates sociological and historical studies into the novelistic narratives of Gladney, Starling, and Pershing settling in new lands, building anew, and often finding that they have not left racism behind. The drama, poignancy, and romance of a classic immigrant saga pervade this book, hold the reader in its grasp, and resonate long after the reading is done.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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Enjoy!

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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ChickenBones Store (Books, DVDs, Music, and more)

 

 

 

 

 

posted 6 December 2005 / update 12 December 2011

 

 

 

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