BACK STAGE WEST
February 10, 2000
With a revamped "Jitney" at the Taper and "King Hedley II" at Seattle Rep, playwright August Wilson comes full circle with his 20th-century project.
by Rob Kendt
If August Wilson were judged solely by his dramatic gift, he would rank among the more brilliant craftsmen of American playwriting to emerge in the past century. But what makes Wilson--whose two-decade career has garnered him seven Broadway productions, a Tony, and two Pulitzer Prizes--such an inspirational figure not just to writers of color but to writers, period, is that his formidable dramaturgical craft is in service of a comprehensive vision of life, a unique and unmistakable personal worldview.
It is this distinctive artist's voice that is Wilson's true genius, and it's what he has spent his five-plus decades of life discovering and honing, even before he knew he was doing so. By contrast, he's only spent the last 25 years or so learning the craft and trade of his chosen field, the theatre. As he recalled in a recent interview with Back Stage West, he spent the better part of the 1960s and '70s developing his voice as a poet, inspired by the Black Power arts movement and such figures as Amiri Baraka, and that when he decided to broaden his canvas to the theatre, he didn't feel he had to find his voice, merely learn a new craft.
After writing and staging several one-acts at Black Horizon on the Hill in his native Pittsburgh in the early '70s, he wrote an ambitious Old West musical, Black Bart, which was staged in 1978 at the Penumbra Theatre, a black theatre in St. Paul, Minn. Wilson then wrote his first major straight play, Jitney, about a gypsy cab station in Pittsburgh; he submitted it to the Playwrights Center in St. Paul and won a Jerome Fellowship.
Encouraged, Wilson set his sights on the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Conn., a leading play development program. After two years of having his submissions returned, he vowed to write not just a "better play" but to "up my sights" and write "the best play that's ever been written." The O'Neill Conference accepted his 1982 submission, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and introduced Wilson to veteran director Lloyd Richards, who headed both the O'Neill Conference and the Yale Repertory Theatre. Ma Rainey opened on Broadway to resounding acclaim in 1984, and Wilson has since written eight major full-length plays, nearly all garnering Broadway productions and wide popularity. One, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Piano Lesson, was adapted into an award-winning telefilm by Hallmark Hall of Fame, and a screenplay based on his other Pulitzer winner, Fences, is still kicking around Hollywood.
His newest play, King Hedley II, opens at the Seattle Repertory Theatre next week, while his first play, Jitney, is receiving a first-rate production at the Mark Taper Forum. The latter was significantly rewritten for a revival at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre in 1996, honed into a tight enough shape that it can stand alongside the other installments in Wilson's "decade" project, which now includes Joe Turner's Come and Gone (set in 1911), Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1927), The Piano Lesson (1930s), Seven Guitars (1948), Fences (1957), Two Trains Running (1969), Jitney (1979), and King Hedley II (1985). Wilson has said that he'll write one more in his 20th-century series--a play encompassing both the 1990s and the "aughts," the zero-to-10 decade after the turn of the last century.
The question, of course, is what he'll do once he's covered the 20th century. The other thing I was curious about is Wilson's evolving writing process. In Joan Herrington's enlightening 1998 book I Ain't Sorry for Nothin' I Done, Wilson's approach is depicted almost as transcribing the voices of characters, often without knowing who they are or what they'll say--then piecing together a cast of characters and ultimately a play from these fragments in a technique he has called "collage," the inspiration for which he's attributed to black assemblage artist Romare Bearden.
Wilson sat with Back Stage West on the Music Center plaza before Jitney's Taper opening and talked freely about his process, his voice, and his agenda for the American theatre.
Back Stage West: I've read that you now do a lot of your rewriting in rehearsal. Are you doing any here at the Taper?
August Wilson: If I see the need to do some, yeah, I'll do some. You get a lot of stuff from the actors--the actors will show you different aspects of the character, and you get ideas by feeding off the actors.
BSW: I wonder if actors now influence not just your rewriting but your initial writing, as well. When you start a play listening for the voices of your characters, do you now sometimes hear Charles Dutton or James Earl Jones speaking?
Wilson: Yes and no. There's a danger in that, of course. I have written roles for specific actors occasionally; I just imagine a character and hear an actor, and throughout the writing of a play I see that person, and what I know of that particular actor may influence the writing of the character. Influence is the danger of it. But Charles Dutton, for instance--he's such an enormously talented actor that I've tried to challenge him, and that makes me write a bigger character, because I'm trying to push him. So instances like that can work out very well.
BSW: Is following voices still the way you find a play? King Hedley II, your project about the 1980s, is the first of your plays that picks up on characters from a previous play. Did you write that by hearing the voices of unknown characters?
Wilson: No. I got the idea to write King Hedley from the baby that Ruby is carrying in Seven Guitars. Every night I would sit in the theatre and she'd say, "If it's a boy, I'm gonna name him King." And I would always think, Why would you want to put that legacy on a kid? I thought, What if he was named King--what would his life be like 36 years later? But I still have to invent the character; I still don't know anything about him, and I still hear the words as I sit there.
BSW: Tell me about the "decade" project. I've read that you're already working on the play about the 1990s and the "aughts," or whatever you call the 19-zeros. The obvious question would be, once you've covered the 20th century, what's next?
Wilson: To go back over it and write about each decade again--I mean, there are still plays to be written. But I'm not sure. I have some other projects in mind. I'd like to write a folk opera. I've got some experimental kinds of stuff in mind; I've been threatening to do a one-man show. I've got a whole play written called Seven Guitars Too; it's my original idea for Seven Guitars, which is very much different than the play turned out.
BSW: How is Seven Guitars different from the original concept?
Wilson: The original Seven Guitars--I had seven guys with seven guitars onstage. I knew guys like this on the street corners, and I wrote little scenes that were 10 minutes in length, some of them, of guys playing guitars, arguing about what corner who's gonna play on. Another image was of an orchestra of guitars with seven guys arguing about who's gonna sit in what chair. There are all these empty chairs, and the guy comes up and says, "You're in my chair." "But Mr. Johnson told me to sit here." And they get in an argument, the guy pulls a knife on him. I'm going to go back and do that, maybe see where I was going with it, and it will be something very much different than the well-made play.
BSW: You've taken on the task of being a sort of historian/playwright of the century. How does the century fare in retrospect?
Wilson: It's interesting, because you look at the sets for King Hedley II, which is set in 1985--we've got like a torn-down building where the guy plants some seeds and then puts barbed wire around the seeds, and everyone's walking around with 9mms under their belts. It looks like a war zone--like someone dropped a bomb there. And I think that's indicative of black America.
I still feel that we culturally were strongest in the '40s, prior to the Supreme Court 1954 decision in the push for integration. As long as we were separate, we were able to maintain a cultural autonomy; we were in the process of developing an economic base within the black community.
If you look at the black community in Pittsburgh in the 1940s and 1950s, you'll find a vibrant and vital community in which you have everything you need: doctors, lawyers, the dentist up the street, stores, shops, drugstores--in Pittsburgh, I could walk within a space of five minutes to nine different drugstores that community supported. We had three wallpaper and paint stores, which goes against the grain, 'cause everyone has these shacks that they're trying to fix up continually. But there's nothing there now since the push for integration.
Blacks weren't allowed to play major league baseball--that's OK, you had your own baseball league, and on Sundays the community would go out to the ballgame, and you got Mr. Johnson selling his chicken sandwiches, Mr. Smith selling his peanuts, they're earning income, putting their kids through school or building their house or whatever. But once it's, OK, you can play in the white major league, the black league died. I went, like, why? It should have been the other way around--let some whites come in and play in the black league.
BSW: So was integration worth these social costs?
Wilson: Integration is good. I am an integrationist. But I think people get integration confused with assimilation. I'm not an assimilator. I think to integrate is to join in the society, make your contribution and participate in its resources, scarce or otherwise, with your culture intact, so we can still have stores, dress shops, our baseball league. To assimilate is to adopt the values of the dominant society, and if you do that, then what that says to me is that your own cultural values are not sufficient.
I don't believe there's any idea that cannot be contained by black life, or any of the full variety of human experience; I believe that world is capable of sustaining you, so that when you leave your father's house you are fully clothed in manners and a way of life that is sufficient. Only when you are centered around self-sufficiency can you make a contribution to the society in which we all live.
BSW: Along those lines, your speech to the Theatre Communications Group in 1996 called for, among other things, autonomous black arts institutions. Without reviving all the controversy generated by that speech, can you explain why you feel the need for new or rejuvenated black institutions, when you've had such success at existing "white" institutions?
Wilson: Institutions promote and preserve culture. In Seattle, we have Seattle Rep, A Contemporary Theatre, Intiman, and those three theatres--their total budget, I'd be willing to bet, is more than all the black theatres in America combined. They spent $31 million renovating the Eagle building for ACT, Seattle Rep spent $4 million building its second space--they already got a first space--and at the same time this is going on, the Group Theatre, which has been around for 20 years doing non-white plays, can't get enough money to mail out their season brochures. In the same city, they can find $31 million to renovate a building for one theatre and can't find $200,000 for the other?
BSW: Well, you know, Tim Bond, who ran the Group, is now at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, an institution I imagine you'd argue preserves European culture. OSF also does substantial productions of your work, and plays by Lorraine Hansberry, Pearl Cleage. Is that a positive thing--or is it the sort of paternalistic multiculturalism you decried years ago in your TCG speech?
Wilson: I think it's indicative of it. There's nothing wrong with the Seattle Rep. They're gonna do my play next month. They should do some more black plays. But I would like to see the Group Theatre, too. I would like to have a black theatre over here and do Tennessee Williams with a white cast; I could present that to my audience and say, "This is what we think about this play and we want you guys to experience this," the same as Seattle Rep says, "Here, we're gonna do August Wilson, we want our subscription audience to experience this play." Why can't I have this theatre also, in which I can do the same thing?
BSW: You're talking about for a black audience?
Wilson: Whoever you're able to attract as your audience. The Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, a black theatre--its audience is partly black, but 80 percent is white. But it's a black institution; Lou Bellamy decides what plays are gonna be presented, and what culture is going to be preserved. Preservation is an important part of culture; if you don't preserve it, it's gone, it disappears.
If out of 66 LORT theatres, you had, say, nine black theatres and you did five plays a season, that's 45 plays. That's 45 playwrights getting productions they're not getting now, 45 directors, designers, costumers, electricians, carpenters--all these people. It's by doing that you develop your art.
BSW: There are many actors of color who trained in the European classics and feel they can claim them as their own in some way. Do you think that's possible, or is it always a compromise for black actors to do Shakespeare or Shaw?
Wilson: The key is, that's what they're trained on, and the schools make sure actors are trained on all the European classics. They come out trained to do that. They don't train them on African rituals, or Kabuki, or any other world theatre cultural values. So naturally they want to do Shaw. For me, it's a celebration of European art, and what it implies is that you yourself have nothing of value. This society has spent an enormous amount of energy telling blacks from slavery on: You have nothing of value but what Europeans have given you. And other than Othello, I've never seen a situation where a white cast would do a black play. Why doesn't a white theatre stage The River Niger with an all-white cast?
BSW: Most white theatres would cast black actors in a black play.
Wilson: So why would a black theatre do O'Neill or Wilde with black actors? See what I'm saying? It doesn't go the other way.
BSW: How do you assess the kind of success you've had, which has seemed to happen so quickly?
Wilson: I found a letter that I wrote to my sister years ago. I told her I was gonna write about the lives of the people in the community of Pittsburgh that I saw when I was 18. I started as a poet; when I discovered theatre, I realized I could do the same thing but on a bigger canvas--write about the culture and the people that I grew up with.
I think the thing that helped my playwriting more than anything is all those years I spent working as a poet. It took me eight years, from '65 to '73, to find my own voice as a poet. When I started writing plays in '79, I didn't know the literature of plays. I hadn't read very many plays, and I said, I'm not gonna go and do that, I'm just gonna do this, and I used the poetry as the groundwork.
BSW: Have you ever had writer's block?
Wilson: No; I don't believe in it. I find writer's block is a way for writers to prove that they're writers. There are other ways to prove it: Write the damn thing. There are times when I say, I'm gonna write a particular thing, and if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. It's not ready to be born. So I'll write something else or I don't write at all.