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.
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.
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?).
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
Falcon). I had
Dashiell Hammet, and
O'Henry book I
could find. I was
ten and was really proud of myself when I stumbled through Alex
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
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.
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
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
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
Take a Giant Step, Charles Fuller's
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
Wilson's best-known play, one day on the way home from school on
the train and I am completely won over.
my humble opinion,
Fences is one of the only plays that
honestly rivals the blistering social realist tragedy of
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...
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?
is some deep shit. I
remember even saying that to myself.
I had the same feeling many years later when I read
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
art seemed cheap, devoid of any real blood and guts. I felt that way until I read and studied the
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.
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.)
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
rape of Africa? Stalin?
The KKK? President
Obviously one would have to be talking about all that.
black experience, obviously, is dense, layered, varied, and
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
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.
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
made Wilson revolutionary was how he wrote and what his
characters said. Writing
about black people in and of itself isn't radical.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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.
was kind of like, "Well Wilson is a great playwright,
Dennis, but do you really believe in his Separate but Equal
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.
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
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
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,
If Robert Walser was Paul Klee, August Wilson is Romare
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
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
the reading of his latest draft which he admitted had
several problems although I could not tell from just
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
memory serves me right, Marion McClinton took over as
"Wilson's premier director" once Lloyd Richards
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
Wilson's only play set in the 1980's, about an ex-convict who
tries to get his life back together.
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?"
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."
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Joe Turner and
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.
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
. . . 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
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
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.
Proust, who died after completing the final volume of
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.
the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's obituary, Christopher
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
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."
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.
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
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.
Leroy Moore / Berlin / November 28, 2005
* * * *
10 plays written by August Wilson chronicling the black
experience in America in the 20th century, and the decade in
which each was set:
- "Gem of the Ocean" A haunting, ghostlike play,
conjuring tales of slave ships and the black man arriving in
chains in the New World.
- "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.
- "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" A volatile trumpet player
rebels against racism in a Chicago recording studio.
- "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.
- "Fences" A father-son drama of dreams denied and how
that denial affects the relationship between the two men.
- "Two Trains Running" The displaced and the dreamers
congregate in a dilapidated Pittsburgh restaurant scheduled for
- "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.
- "King Hedley II" An ex-con attempts to get his life
back on track despite the desperation, despair and violence that
- "Radio Golf" A successful middle-class entrepreneur
tries to reconcile the present with the past.
* * *
* * * *
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
* * * * *
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 Prizewinning 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
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
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
* * * * *
Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
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
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
* * * * *
* * *
(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
posted 6 December 2005 /
update 12 December 2011