August Wilson was a giant of American theater—right up there, in my opinion, with Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill. He is best known for a series of ten plays, the Pittsburgh Cycle, depicting African American life in the ten decades of the twentieth century.
The dialogue in his plays has a Shakespearean quality, which is remarkable because the characters are working people you’d find in the neighborhood, visiting and laughing and complaining and living their lives. Their words are poetic, yet real and true and powerful, which shouldn’t be a surprise since Wilson started as a poet.
I just finished a wonderfully readable and thoroughly researched biography, August Wilson: A Life, by journalist Patti Hartigan. I was fascinated by every phase of Wilson’s life, but the part I found most compelling was his time at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center (“the O’Neill”) in Waterford, Connecticut, because that’s where my life overlapped briefly with his.
After writing some novels for young people, I had stumbled into theater, setting out to write a novel about Major League umpires and ending up, almost by accident, doing it as a play, Tough Call. Not knowing what else to do, I entered it into a bunch of play competitions, and, miraculously, it became one of ten plays chosen for that year’s O’Neill. Two years later, my second play, Christ of the Coopermans, was chosen.
When I arrived that second year, I was stunned to learn that one of the other playwrights was August Wilson, with the seventh play in his cycle, Seven Guitars, set in the 1940s. I was absorbed in my own play, but every so often I’d look up and see August working with his director, Amy Saltz, who was my director too.
I’d also see him huddling with Lloyd Richards, artistic director of the O’Neill and recently retired head of Yale Drama School and Yale Repertory Theatre. Richards, Broadway’s first African American director (of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun), was August’s first director and early champion. I learned that the O’Neill was August’s second home, where he had developed the previous six plays in his cycle.
The playwrights, actors, and staff at the O’Neill ate in a lunchroom each day, and a few times I worked up the nerve to sit with August. He loved telling stories and giving his strong opinions about Blacks in the U.S. One day in particular, I remember him stating and doggedly defending his belief that integration was a plot against African Americans—to destroy the all-Black businesses and institutions that had grown up because of segregation. He described his childhood neighborhood in Pittsburgh, where there were Black-owned groceries, hardware stores, barber shops, and every other kind of business, which suffered because of integration.
In her book, Patti Hartigan describes the background of that year’s O’Neill. It seems that August was trying to strike out on his own, to show that he could write a great play without Richards as his collaborator. Richards was undoubtedly hurt by this, but, always classy, he publicly maintained strong support and admiration for August.
Two years later, Seven Guitars went on to Broadway, where it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, as well as Tony and Drama Desk awards for best play, and won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for best play.