(Note: I wrote this essay after watching the recently debuted Netflix movie version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, based on the play by African-American dramatist August Wilson. I am a huge Wilson fan, and wanted to tell the story of how I discovered him and why I believe he’s one of America’s literary treasures.)
One of my favorite college courses at Stanford was Modern Drama, where we read the canon of the best plays from the last 150 years. We started with Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and worked our way through O’Neill (Long Day’s Journey Into Night), Miller (Death of a Salesman), Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Beckett (Waiting for Godot), Baraka (Dutchman) and a few others I can’t remember.
I loved the above plays, but there was one other in the course that really stood out to me, and it was a work that had been published just a few years prior: Fences. This 1985 drama was written by a relatively young playwright who, according to the back of the slim paperback we read, came from Pittsburgh. I’d never heard of the play, nor of the author: August Wilson.
Fences is about an African-American family living in the 1950s in a mostly black neighborhood of Pittsburgh (based on the Hill District, the area of the city where Wilson was born and raised). The main character is Troy Maxson, a 53-year-old sanitation engineer (that is, a trash collector) who was once a professional baseball player in the segregated Negro Leagues. The story centers around Troy’s frustrations with his family (including two sons, his wife Rose, and his brother Gabe), his job (where he suffers from blatant racial discrimination), and all the other challenges faced by a man of his skin color and station at that particular time in our nation’s history.
Troy is a fascinating, complex character, by turns boisterous, funny, tender, morose, and angry. It is this last emotion, however, that stood out for me from the play’s beginning. Why is Troy so angry, so hardened, so seemingly bitter at the world? As the story of his life unfolds, we learn why. Troy is a very flawed man, but his life has also had more than its share of tough blows and cruel twists. It is a deeply human portrait, and generates great empathy in the reader/audience. The play asks a hard question of all of us: Were we in Troy’s shoes, would we be any different?
I’m nearly the same age now that Troy is in Fences. I’ve now experienced my own life struggles and setbacks, joys and pains. But even back then, at age 20, I sensed the power of this work to tell universal truths. Discovering and delving into books like this was why I studied literature in college — because the poetry of the written word is able to move me like nothing else.
Shortly after I graduated from college, and eventually moved back to my native Seattle a year later. Imagine my surprise to learn that August Wilson himself was now also living in Seattle. Not only that: he resided in the very neighborhood where I grew up, and in fact would often do his writing in the local cafés and coffeehouses nearby! I was blown away.
When I heard that Wilson was doing a reading at a Seattle bookstore around this time, I was excited to attend. Unfortunately, it turned out that I was going to be out of town that night; still, I importuned my parents to go to the reading and get my book signed by their fellow Capitol Hill resident. They obliged, and I still have my college-bookstore copy of Fences with Wilson’s signature (“To David — Continued strength / Thanks for your support”) — one of my favorite literary treasures.
In the ensuing years of the 1990s, I sought out and read a number of other early Wilson plays. I dearly loved The Piano Lesson (published 1987), about two siblings who are grappling with their family’s history and legacy, which includes an enslaved ancestor and a valuable piano that he hand-carved. The question at the center of this work is whether they should sell the piano (one sibling wants to use the money to buy the land where their ancestors once toiled as slaves) or keep it. The dramatic tension that Wilson manages to evoke through these kinds of family conflicts makes his plays both timeless and extremely relatable.
I began attending live performances of Wilson’s plays at the fabulous Seattle Repertory Theater, often taking along my mother or my wife. I remember seeing Seven Guitars (published in 1995) there, and King Hedley II (1999). I didn’t love every one of them, but they were always moving for me on some level.
In addition to the compelling characters and engaging plots, Wilson’s plays are known for their poetic language. Most of the dialogue is rendered in the vernacular speech of African-Americans (I took another great course in college that was titled Black English), and he manages to capture the incredible lyricism of this speech better than any other writer I've read. To illustrate, I’ll choose a random example from Fences: a conversation between Troy and his son Cory, a promising high school football player who is being recruited to play for a college team.
Troy: And ain’t no need for nobody coming around here to talk to me about signing nothing.
Cory: Hey, Pop … you can’t do that. He’s coming all the way from North Carolina.
Troy: I don’t care where he coming from. The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway. You go on and get your book-learning so you can work yourself up in that A&P or learn how to fix cars or build houses or something, get you a trade. That way you have something can’t nobody take away from you. You go on and learn how to put your hands to some good use. Besides hauling people’s garbage.
[a little later in the scene, a crestfallen Cory asks his father]
Cory: How come you ain’t never liked me?
Troy: Liked you? Who the hell say I got to like you? What law is there say I got to like you? Wanna stand up in my face and ask a damn fool-ass question like that. Talking about liking somebody. Come here, boy, when I talk to you.
Somewhere along the line, I learned that Wilson was actually chipping away at an extremely ambitious series of ten plays. Sometimes called the American Century Cycle (or even the Pittsburgh Cycle), this project was nothing less than Wilson’s attempt to somehow capture the entire sweep of the African-American experience over the course the 20th century. Each of the ten plays is set in a different decade of the century, allowing the playwright to examine both the enduring themes and the changing circumstances of his people during that tumultuous period.
The plays were not written in chronological order, which makes one wonder if Wilson had planned the whole thing from the beginning, or the idea only occurred to him over time. (Gem of the Ocean, the ninth play in the series, was the one set in the first decade of the century.) Regardless, by the time he published Radio Golf (the 1990s play) in 2005, the series was being hailed as one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of the stage, and of all American literature. Fences won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award; The Piano Lesson also won the Pulitzer; many of the other plays earned national awards; and in 2017, Jitney (ironically the first work published in the series) became the tenth and final one to receive a Broadway production.
Sadly, Wilson barely lived to finish off his magnificent achievement — he announced in June 2005 that he’d been diagnosed with liver cancer, and died in Seattle just a few months later. He was buried in his native Pittsburgh that October, at the age of 60. (Note that in 2005, I was 36 years old. While I was undoubtedly surprised by his death, I don’t think I quite grasped just how young 60 is; now that I’m 51, his early death seems all the more tragic.)
I am relieved to report that I at least did have the chance to meet the man, once. Wilson did a reading/signing at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Books just a few years before he died, and I got in line afterward with my newly purchased copy of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. I was pretty star-struck, and might not have said anything to the great writer if he hadn’t stopped me after he signed, asking me the question, “Why this particular book?”
It was a perceptive question. Ma Rainey was the second play in the cycle and had been published back in 1984, when Wilson was relatively unknown. The play is set in the 1920s in Chicago (the only one not to take place in Pittsburgh) and is about a female blues singer and her band.
Wilson’s love for African-American music, especially jazz and the blues, shines through in much of his work, but most prominently here. The titular character is based on the real Ma Rainey, a famous blues singer of the period and one of the first artists of the genre to make recordings. However, her contributions to the art form were eclipsed in popularity by Bessie Smith and (in jazz) by Billie Holiday. Wilson's play, in a small way, has helped revive her name and legacy.
I myself hadn’t heard of Ma Rainey when I first read the play, but I am definitely a blues buff — I discovered the great Chicago blues artists of the 1950s and 1960s (Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Buddy Guy, etc.) during my freshman year of college. I got so deeply into the music, I even briefly hosted a weekly show at the Stanford campus radio station devoted to the genre (“White Boy Blues” — so named not because the artists were white, although I definitely loved and played the music of British blues revivalists like Eric Clapton… but because I definitely was).
Of course, I couldn’t really capture this history in a short conversation in a book-signing line, so I think I just answered Wilson’s friendly question by mumbling something about loving blues music. I wish I had said more. He just smiled and nodded. I had no way of knowing that just a few years later, he would be gone.
But his plays remain. And the more I think about it, maybe Wilson’s work— more specifically, the music of his words — resonates with me for the same reason that the blues does. It is a sound emblematic of the entire range of human emotion—from the depths of pain and sadness to the heights of joy and wonder. Or as Ma Rainey puts it in the play (and as powerfully delivered by the outstanding Viola Davis in the movie version):
“The blues help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain’t alone. There’s something else in the world. Something’s been added by that song. This be an empty world without the blues. I take that emptiness and try to fill it up with something. … I ain’t started the blues way of singing. The blues always been here.”
Thank you, August Wilson. Your music has definitely added something to the world.
(Endnote: Just before I started writing this essay, I learned that Denzel Washington — who directed and starred as Troy Maxson in the critically acclaimed 2016 film version of Fences — was working with the estate of August Wilson to bring all ten of the Pittsburgh Cycle plays to the big screen. Two down, eight more to come. As someone who dragged his kids to the movie version of Fences, I’m ecstatic that Washington will ensure that August Wilson’s work is given the treatment and exposure it deserves — that he will not be forgotten.)