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Rob Weinert-KendtOctober 12, 2023
August Wilson in an undated photo (Wikimedia Commons)

Audiences at the Glen Hazel Recreation Center in Pittsburgh could hardly have known, as they watched the sole performance of a modest two-character play called “Recycle” one summer night in 1973, that they were witnessing the debut of one of the great American playwrights. August Wilson had not just written the play, inspired both by his bitterness over his recent divorce and by a murder at a local bar; he also appeared in it as a lovelorn man prone to flowery poetry. According to August Wilson: A Life, an excellent new biography by Patti Hartigan, Wilson lost his cool in the first moments of the play, slapping his female co-star in an unscripted moment of rage.

August Wilsonby Patti Hartigan

Simon & Schuster
544p $32.50

It would be nearly 10 years before Wilson’s first published play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” put him on the theatrical map, and through the 1980s and ’90s he would churn out a series of popular masterworks about the African American experience. These included “Fences,” “The Piano Lesson” and “Seven Guitars,” all of which proliferated at major regional theaters both before and after their Broadway runs. By the time he died of liver cancer in 2005, at the untimely age of 60, he had completed a set of 10 plays, one for each decade of the 20th century.

Hartigan’s book is not just the first major biography of Wilson; it is also hard to imagine a better one.

Hartigan’s book is not just the first major biography of Wilson; it is also hard to imagine a better one. She traces the winding path that led him to his ascendance, then delves into the tumults and triumphs of his two decades at the heights of achievement. Along the way, she manages to paint indelible portraits of two distinct worlds and to monitor the fraught traffic between them. From mid-century Black life in a singular outpost of the Great Migration, Pittsburgh, Wilson drew his enduring loyalties and fiery temperament. There he found most of the characters and situations that would later inspire his plays. And as he emerged into a predominantly white theater industry—a field Hartigan, a longtime critic and journalist for The Boston Globe, knows intimately—Wilson experienced both extraordinary success and wrenching conflict.

The plays are the link between these worlds, of course, and Hartigan gives each due consideration (as well as offering her own critical perspectives). But it is among the strengths of her book that she can weave their complicated production histories with the ups and downs of Wilson’s busy, peripatetic life, which encompassed three marriages and at least three home bases, including not only Pittsburgh but also St. Paul, Minn., and finally Seattle.

Wilson’s true home away from home was the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, an idyllic seaside writers’ retreat. It was there he not only incubated most of his great works but formed the central relationship of his career, with director Lloyd Richards. Richards, a Black man who had directed Lorraine Hansberry’s work on Broadway, wielded considerable power as head not only of the O’Neill but of Yale Repertory Theatre, and he used this power to champion Wilson’s work.

The extent to which Richards also helped shape the plays themselves eventually became a sticking point and the source of a painful rupture between the two men. But perhaps more important was Richards’s ingenious producing plan for developing Wilson’s writing: He essentially built a pipeline among regional theaters, including Yale Rep, Seattle Rep, the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the Huntington Theatre in Boston. In these locales, Wilson’s plays could be tried out and tinkered with en route to their Broadway bows.

Like another great American poet, August Wilson contained multitudes, and we are the richer for it that he put some of those multitudes onstage.

This sweet deal, though, came in for its share of criticism from various quarters. Robert Brustein, a white director and critic, implied that Wilson was a mediocrity benefiting from a kind of affirmative action. Some Black colleagues felt that Wilson had been anointed as the singular talent from their ranks and that his success at white theaters did little to advance their interests (though it did create work for generations of Black performers and directors). Wilson heard and confronted these criticisms in 1996 with a blistering speech, “The Ground on Which I Stand,” delivered to an audience of theater colleagues. He indicted the industry to which he owed his career for failing to create more room for Black artists, and for treating the few Black artists allowed into their ranks as inherently lesser.

This racial gap and its discontents still roil the theater field. Yet it would probably please Wilson to know that while his work is frequently and lovingly revived (and belatedly adapted into films), he is no longer the singular Black genius, the so-called “exception.” The American theater has embraced the work of Lynn Nottage, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Dominique Morisseau, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, James Ijames, Aleshea Harris, Katori Hall, Jackie Sibblies Drury—there are thankfully too many to list here. While few playwrights before or since have enjoyed the one-man development pipeline Wilson had, theaters still partner in co-productions to ease the lift of launching new work. And 10 years ago, the Mellon Foundation created a playwrights-in-residence program that installs full-time writers at a number of regional theaters—a deal not even Wilson had.

So, have we progressed or regressed as a culture, let alone as a nation, in the years since Wilson was making his plays? It is not a question Hartigan explicitly takes up, but it is certainly raised by a contemplation of Wilson’s oeuvre. He traces Black characters from Jim Crow to gentrification, and through the era of civil rights and Black Power, but with an emphasis less on larger political movements than on the lives, loves and work of particular people who are both shaped by and struggling to shape their own circumstances. Indeed, Wilson’s best characters are as rich and full as any ever imagined. In my book, Turnbo, the incorrigible gossip from “Jitney,” is as memorable a pain in the neck as Lady Bracknell or Malvolio. Herald Loomis, the anguished lead of Wilson’s masterpiece, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” is as shattering a tragic figure as any conjured by the Greeks.

Though his characters were often read as symbols by white audiences, and certainly Black audiences embraced them as representations of lives they had never seen rendered onstage, it is his characters’ unshakable integrity, their full and fine-grained humanity, that is the reason his plays endure. I can think of no higher tribute to Hartigan’s biography than to say that it gives the same due to Wilson’s own outsized, complicated character. Like another great American poet, Wilson contained multitudes, and we are the richer for it that he put some of those multitudes onstage.

Correction: Herald Loomis, not Harold Loomis, is the lead character in August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” Wilson's speech “The Ground on Which I Stand” was delivered in 1996, not 1966.

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