In For a Penny: August of Our Years

Charles Lewis III, meditating on August.

Seven Guitars programme

“So when I saw two hundred niggas stunned into silence by the power of art in the music of John Coltrane and his exploration of man’s relation to the divinity, that’s when I got interested in jazz. And also, as a young man wanting to be a writer, I said, ‘This is what I want my art to do. I want to accomplish that’.”
-August Wilson, November 2004

This February would have been the 70th birthday of one of the most influential playwrights of the 20th century. This October will mark the ten-year anniversary of his death. For the best and worst reasons, 2015 is year of the late August Wilson.

April 27th was observed as “August Wilson Day”, revivals have sprung up everywhere – here in the Bay Area, Oakland’s Lower Bottom Playaz are staging King Hedley with Radio Golf set for December, and SF’s Multi-Ethnic Theater staging Two Trains Running – and radio station WNYC is hosting readings of his entire American Century Cycle with name actors.

All fitting tributes for a man who, to this day, can be a divisive figure in the Black community.

Talking about theatre in general can be a divisive topic in the Black community, mainly due to incredibly myopic perceptions. Someone remembers reading A Raisin in the Sun in school, maybe seeing a Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk matinee, and maybe hearing the name “Lynn Nottage” thrown about. Black theatre artists have to fight the perception that theatre is a “bougie” hobby that occasionally produces a nice gospel play that you can take your mother to.

August Wilson never made those plays. It’s all the more paradoxical that his work would ever be considered “bougie” when he was told his writing would never appeal to White audiences. Jazz played crucial role in his writing and his dialogue took on a musical quality. It was also unapologetically political, though not in the way of an Amiri Baraka.

Wilson wrote from a personal place and fought hard to maintain the artistic integrity of his work. He shunned Paramount Pictures’ offer to adapt his Pulitzer-winning Fences because the studio wouldn’t hire a Black director. The lack of a Hollywood adaptation might explain a lack of greater recognition of his work. He wasn’t a media darling like former Black theatre staple Tyler Perry, so an audience that doesn’t attend theatre regularly is unaware of Wilson’s importance.

I first saw Wilson’s work in 1995 as a high school sophomore. The ACT hosted the West Coast premiere of Seven Guitars and I caught the post-show talkback with castmember Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Santiago-Hudson is behind the WYNC readings and reprises his role of Canewell. It excites me to think who might listen to those readings. I’d like to think that somewhere some “bougie” Black kid will have his/her first taste of one of American theatre’s greatest voices and be inspired to use his/her own. Who knows?

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