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August Wilson

By Romulus Linney

If you have not seen, or read, a play by August Wilson, do. You will be glad you did. For there you will find the heart and soul of African American men and women in the 20th Century. His ten play epic, one play for each ten years, the last finished just as he died, needs little mention here. It is world famous as an unparalleled achievement of American drama. His awards and honors are legion. The devotion of those who knew him and loved him is beyond any description. His success as an artist and an entertainer at the same time, a feat seldom achieved in the theatre, or in any art for that matter, sets him securely in the highest ranks of American letters. That you can easily find out for yourselves. More elusive is his rare intelligence, the depth and scope of his understanding, the intensity of his passion for the wonderful black human beings he loved all his life. They are hidden with a magician’s skill within the seeming simplicity of everyday characters: taxi drivers at a gypsy cab station, out-of-work musicians trying to record blues for fumbling executives in a drab studio while listening to an ambitious trumpet player with a terrible story of a mother’s rape and a father’s lynching. In every play, one after the other, his situations are as fresh and original as his portrayals of African American life are constant and unflinching. He creates his plain folks with such skill, ease, honesty, and straightforwardness, that no matter who we are, we can all see ourselves in them, in their humors, struggles, follies, sufferings, and wisdom.

August grew up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, when it was teeming with the fierce music of poor and proud inner city life. After his funeral, its streets were lined with people standing in the rain, waving cardboard signs with their love for him written on them, and calling out to the line of funeral cars passing by. The men and women who lived in the Hill District come alive from youthful memories, masterfully re-created for the stage. Often, on napkins. A waitress, watching him once drink his black coffee and scribbling on a paper napkin, asked him if that made writing all right, because on napkins it couldn’t mean anything. He was delighted to agree with her, since she had just explained to him the secret of his artistic freedom. August never shirked from the dire realities his people faced in the past, face in the present, and will face in the future. They are grim indeed, in situations like the dark hull of a slave ship crossing the ocean, summoned up before us by the knowledge of a two-hundred-year-old woman, with its terrible creaking and groans, or the fate of a great athlete buried alive by his racist society. But August never creates tragic events with rancor alone, but always with a supple, bending, and abiding love, even for the stern realities he knew so well. He is not satisfied with bitterness. He rocks his audiences with laughter at the clumsy energies, sardonic ambitions, and bustling enterprises of hopeful people trying to get along and maybe ahead, especially when their efforts lead nowhere. His characters are big enough to enjoy the ironies of their own foolishness, with a bemused contemplation of a bleak, unfair, yet fully lived existence.

When August spoke in public, after an opening or at an awards ceremony, he spoke to the best of everyone listening to him. He told us that the theatre was one of the greatest of man’s creations, and we were fortunate, as he was, to be a part of it. The most enthusiastic of men, he smiled his warm smile, focused his eyes ahead of him, pursed his lips a little, as he did, and told us about the fine things he could see, that we were all going to do. Everyone would be there, so would he, and so would we. And everyone felt the warmth of a faithful artist, burning inside the modesty of a noble gentleman.

We told each other stories, sent each other books and music. He was writing a novel, and did me the honor of carrying one of mine to the rehearsals of his last production. Two of his letters to me were written when he was dying, stricken with savage suddenness by liver cancer, one letter when there was hope, one when there wasn’t. Both are steady and calm, signed “your friend,” in his spiky signature, though he had to dictate them to his wife Constanza, who is with us here today. I will always be amazed at his concern for a friend at such a time, and those letters are like nothing else in my life. This sentence, please, from my last letter to him: “No one, no one, since William Faulkner in my youth, has spoken to me out of the richness of humanity as you have in your plays.”

Now let me do the best possible thing and have August Wilson speak to you for himself. From his play, FENCES.

     Mr. Death. See now … I’m gonna tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna take and build me a fence around this yard. See? I’m gonna build me a fence around what belongs to me. And then I want you to stay on the other side. See? You stay over there until you’re ready for me. Then you come on. Bring your army. Bring your sickle. Bring your wrestling clothes. I ain’t gonna fall down on my vigilance this time. You ain’t gonna sneak up on me no more. When you ready for me … when the top of your list say Troy Maxson … that’s when you come around here. You come up and knock on the front door. Ain’t nobody else got nothing to do with this. This is between you and me. Man to man. You stay on the other side of that fence until you ready for me. Then you come up and knock on the front door. Anytime you want. I’ll be ready for you.”

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 6, 2006.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters