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.
Blues as theater, theater as blues
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.
“The music is a specific cultural response of black America to the world, the circumstances and the situation in which they’ve found themselves,” said Wilson, charming and generous of spirit, a man of constant energy whose chain smoking formed a counterpoint to his comments.
“If you didn’t know anything about African people and nothing about black people in America, and someone gave you blues records, you could listen and find out what kind of people these were … their symmetry, this grace … you’d be able to construct their daily lives.”
That he as a playwright found and articulated universal truths is a given; that’s the mission of all playwrights. But Wilson’s gift was to find the universal within the largely overlooked backdrop of African American life, and to lift that expression of America — subtleties and nuances intact — into view for a wider playgoing audience, one that recognized his name more readily than many other playwrights, black or white.
Right time, right place, right play
Wilson crossed over in a way no African American playwright did before or since. Lorraine Hansberry died too young and too soon for her work to have articulated the full dimensions of the civil rights movement, or the role of black Americans in charting their destiny as a result of that movement.
The work of Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) was too often received by theatergoers as angry examples of racial propaganda, mythic exercises long on political education and short on emotional texture. Playwright Ed Bullins began his own naturalistic “Twentieth-Century Cycle” of black life in 1968, years before Wilson’s work saw light of day.
But it was Wilson’s plays that exploded into wider recognition through his blend of naturalism and poetics, the music of his language, the social forces of his heyday, and that utterly ephemeral aspect of good luck — being in the right place at the right time with the right play.
And in leapfrogging around the black American twentieth century, Wilson made his plays timely for modern audiences with stories that ran counter to the glitzy, mega-scale productions that characterized Broadway for much of the 1980s and early 1990s. Wilson worked in the small scale, found the drama within a smaller circle of intimates: family, friends and acquaintances.
The fight for self-awareness
In “Fences,” which won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for drama, the story of conflicts between a bitter, overprotective father and a son intent on accepting a football scholarship assumes wider dimension as the wrenching story of a battle between generations, and the power of sports in American culture.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” examines one woman’s struggle to nurture her music in the first throes of the mass marketing of communication. “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” looks at black Americans battling to achieve a sense of self-worth in the period of the first generations after the upheaval of the Civil War.
“The Piano Lesson,” which won the 1990 Pulitzer for drama, studies the conflicts that arise when a family faces a choice of whether to part with a treasured family heirloom in order to acquire a patch of land in the South.
In “Radio Golf,” a wealthy realtor poised to be Pittsburgh's first black mayor dreams of developing a decaying inner city — a dream that confronts the reality of people unwilling to demolish the past.
In these and other plays, the overriding theme of Wilson’s work comes through: the African American search for identity and connection, for self-awareness in a world and a country at odds with such discoveries.
‘Maybe I’ll start over’
In that 1991 interview, Wilson was asked “Is there life after the cycle?” The answer from this charitable, passionate, driven lion of the theater, the most-celebrated American playwright of the past quarter-century, revealed the breadth of his vision as a writer, and the scope of his aspirations for his people and his nation.
“Maybe I’ll start over,” he said. “I intend to write as least 15 more plays about black folks in America. My biggest problem is to find the time to sit down and do the work. But what is there to do except to write another play?”
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