Sunday, January 29, 2017

August Wilson's century in blacks and blues

WHAT goes around comes around. Whoever came up with that existential truth lived long enough to witness both the upside and the downside of its alternately tireless application. August Wilson did. When he died in Seattle on Oct. 2, 2005, he’d seen his breakthrough play, “Fences,” pivot American theater, and our expectations of what African Americans could say in that American theater, in a new direction. Fast forward 11 years and “Fences” — at long last — has become the lapidary, powerfully incendiary motion picture it had to be.

In light of last Tuesday’s Oscar nominations for the film, directed by Denzel Washington, I’m revisiting an Oct. 2, 2005 appreciation of Wilson. The piece, published in what’s now, is in part a revisitation of my interview with him in San Francisco in 1991. The universality of his themes within an African American context was transformative. Times are more challenging now than in 1991, or 2005. Considering the myriad marginalizations, insults, assaults and tragedies that have happened to black Americans since then, and their corrosive internalizing effect on the psyche and the soul, it’s no wonder “Fences” speaks to us today.

WHEN AUGUST Wilson’s play “Fences” opened on Broadway in March 1987, in a New York City in the throes of racial conflicts that seemed to permeate every aspect of daily life, the play was hailed as a revelation in American theater. Simply put, the play reached people.

Though its characters were African American, the play’s central clash — the chafing between a father and son on differing but parallel courses in search of themselves — brought multiracial audiences to tears night after night.

Wilson, who died Sunday at age 60 of inoperable liver cancer, thus enjoyed a wide renown as a playwright unrivaled in the 20th century he documented. And that’s not just as a black playwright; assessments of his talent so narrowly defined miss the point of what made his plays work, what made them so eagerly anticipated by theatergoers of every persuasion.

In creating his sweeping 10-play cycle of black American life, Wilson worked in the idiom of black America, but his genius lay both in universalizing that experience for theatergoers largely unaccustomed to black America on stage, and in investing those plays with a deft weave of reality and myth.

Until “Fences,” mainstream American theater received black plays with painful infrequency, in indifferently-regarded works that either isolated the black American experience from everything else, or celebrated black life in the trappings of the musical, a theatrical form that fixes narrative and context in a frothier, more dramatically insubstantial framework.

Not that music was alien to Wilson: One of his triumphs of invention was how he used the blues. A music mostly relegated to the national past forms the emotional underpinning for many of his plays. Wilson explained for this reporter in a 1991 interview its importance as soundtrack and spiritual touchstone. ...

Read the full essay at

Image credits: Wilson: Michelle McLoughlin/Associated Press. Fences art: © 2017 Paramount Pictures/BRON/Macro.

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