The late August Wilson has been described as one of America’s most influential playwrights. In 1990, he sat down with Dramatics to discuss his work, his inspirations, and his creative process.

IN THE LATE 1970S, when a struggling poet by the name of August Wilson decided to try his hand at playwriting, he encountered a major stumbling block: “I couldn’t write dialogue,” Wilson confesses. “I didn’t value and respect the way that blacks spoke. I thought that in order to create art out of it, you had to change it.”

So, what did the future Pulitzer Prize winner do? “I asked a playwright friend, ‘How do you make your characters talk?’ And he said, ‘You don’t. You listen to them.’”

August Wilson

Photo of August Wilson by Elizabeth Etienne.

Listening to August Wilson talk is like watching a marvelous impersonator in action. He shifts from funky street language to the grand baritone of a cultivated man of letters with ease, moving in and out of speeches from his own plays like an old blues musician who has memorized and honed a host of favorite tunes over the course of a lifetime.

Hearing his characters speak, it’s impossible to imagine that this beautifully poetic playwright ever had any difficulty finding the right words. From his first award-winning play, 1984’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, to the equally honored Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences, Wilson’s theatrical works have engaged audiences on Broadway and at regional theatres across the country with their celebration of the beauty and power inherent in the oral tradition of black Americans. One critic called Wilson’s plays the closest thing to “blues operas” ever written.

The son of a white German-American baker and black mother, the 44-year-old Wilson was raised in a poor Pittsburgh neighborhood known simply as “The Hill” (his grandmother had migrated to Pittsburgh — on foot — from North Carolina). At the age of 15, Wilson dropped out of his predominantly white Catholic high school, fed up with the rampant racism of his classmates and angered by a teacher who accused him of plagiarizing a 20-page paper Wilson had researched and written on Napoleon. He took refuge in the public library, reading everything he could by black authors like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison.

In the early to mid-1960s, Wilson lived in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse, writing poetry in the style of one of his early heroes, Dylan Thomas, and observing the older men and women with whom he lived. He co-founded Black Horizons on the Hill theatre in 1968 and wrote his first stage pieces for the company. He also produced and directed a host of plays by such writers as Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Ed Bullins.

Wilson moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1978 and had his first professionally produced play, Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, staged there in 1981. The play received no notable critical response, but when Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was accepted by the prestigious Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center’s playwriting conference the following year, a powerful voice for the American theatre was born.

The Piano Lesson, which premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1987, is part of the playwright’s ambitious cycle of works chronicling black America decade by decade through the 20th century. It opens this month on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Set in 1936, The Piano Lesson concerns Boy Willie, a Southern sharecropper who has come to Pittsburgh in order to persuade his sister, Berniece, to sell their most valuable family heirloom: a piano decorated with hand-carved images of their ancestors. Boy Willie wants to buy some land with the money they will receive — the very land his ancestors once tilled as slaves — while Berniece considers it sacrilege to sell this symbol of her past.

The Piano Lesson is filled with the wonderful elements audiences have come to expect in the playwright’s works: spirits from the past, blues music, loneliness, hope, laughter, religious rituals, and those marvelous storytellers that always manage to crop up in Wilson’s plays.

Settling into his chair in the cramped restaurant of a small West Hollywood hotel, the grey-bearded Wilson is wearing his trademark small black cap atop his balding head. He smokes a steady stream of Marlboro cigarettes as he speaks, frequently switching in and out of his characters’ voices, his large, soft brown eyes peering through the smoky haze.

You once said that the reason you decided to take up playwriting was to “tell a history that had never been told.”
That’s right. Most of black American history has been told by someone else. Most of the history writers have been white. No one had approached history as an alive, living thing. Kids that are 17 years old today didn’t spring up out of a vacuum! They are who they are because the conditions in the country the past 17 years have made them who they are. Everybody has a personal history that influences not only who they are, but collectively who we are as a people.

In order to proceed toward the future, you have to know who you are at this particular moment. You need to know what your relationship is to the world in order to make any kind of decision about what kind of future you’re going to have. A lot of young black people today don’t know who they are, and they make no connection to anything that went on 20 years ago. I met a kid in high school in New York in 1987 who thought that slavery ended in 1960! Now that’s his parents’ fault, that’s our fault. With few exceptions, all blacks in America originated in the same place: from the South, from the plantations. And yet, we know nothing about the people that preceded us, and that’s a direct reflection on American culture, because in America we forget what happened yesterday.

I understand there’s a story that you tell about the first time you heard a Bessie Smith record. 
In 1965, I was 20 years old and trying to explore the world. I couldn’t afford records, so for three dollars I got an old record player that played 78s, and the St. Vincent DePaul store across the street had tons of 78s. One day in my stack of records was this Bessie Smith record, and it was so striking, it was so unlike anything I’d ever heard, that I listened to it 22 straight times, thinking, “This is about me, this is who I am. This woman is singing something about my life, about my grandmother and her life!”

Has blues music continued to play an important role in your life?
It’s crucial. It’s the bedrock. It’s the foundation of everything I write. The music functions as a carrier of the cultural response of black America to the world that they see themselves in. There’s mythology, there’s history, there’s a social organization. In order to make this information memorable, it has been put into a song so that the music provides you with an emotional reference to the information, and it’s easy to pass on. And if people sing the song, the information is kept alive, and they’ll continue to sing it as long as the information is valuable to them. If you did not know Africans, and if somebody gave you a blues record and said, “These are who these people are,” you would be able to listen to that and see their grace, their passion, the way their community was organized — all this is contained within the music. And so, what I do is mine this, and all the ideas and attitudes of all the characters in all the plays come straight out of the music.

Who or what else has influenced you? 
I have what I call my four Bs: Blues, Baraka, Bearden, and Borges.

How has the artist Romare Bearden influenced you?
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone was directly off his painting, Millhand’s Lunch Bucket, which is a boardinghouse painting. My objective was to try to animate that painting, snap my fingers and have it come alive and make it move. It was Bearden who said, “I try to explore in terms of the life I know best, those things which are common to all culture.” And that’s what I try to do in the plays: to explore the commonalities of the culture which I know best. So, I’m writing about myself, but I’m also writing about the larger cultural commonalities that we all share, the things that we all do, but do differently. Bearden has a tremendous amount of love and respect for black life in America, and he treats it with dignity and nobility. I always say, “If only I can write like he paints.” That’s what I aspire to.

You were once quoted as saying, “I don’t create my art out of the suffering and pain of the human condition, I create it out of the zestful part of life.” Yet one of your earliest heroes was the tortured Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas.
That’s when I was a 20-year-old poet. I probably stopped reading Dylan Thomas in 1967. It’s a stereotype that a writer is a suffering soul, and I refuse to be that kind of a writer. Part of the human condition is suffering; we suffer because we’re human. We all do it. You can’t be human and not suffer. And once you accept that, then you look around for the zestful parts. It’s more interesting to create art out of that than the other. There’s been a lot of art created out of suffering, there’s a whole body of work about that, you don’t have to do that anymore. So, I try to approach it from the other zestful part, use that as a launching pad.

Your central characters tend to be fantastic storytellers. Can you tell me about the role storytelling plays in your works?
It’s part of the black tradition, the oral tradition. It’s a way of keeping information alive. So, if you’re telling a story, your obligation as a storyteller is to make it memorable, so that the person hearing it will want to go and tell someone else — that’s how it’s kept alive. If it’s not memorable, then it dies, and the information dies with it. So, this is a very important part of the black tradition and of black culture. Anytime you have five black characters onstage, it’s very natural for them to tell stories, because the stories are the only way that cultural information, ideas and attitudes, community sanctions, ways of conduct, et cetera, are revealed. If I tell you a story, I’m telling you how you are supposed to act in the world. I don’t just tell you a story to entertain you. There is information in there for your benefit.

Religious ritual also seems to play an important role in your works. Do you see a connection between the ritual of religion and the ritual of the theatre?
I’m not sure what you mean by the ritual of the theatre, but there are rituals attendant to everyday life. And, certainly, part of black America’s life is very spiritual.

I guess I’m thinking more in terms of an audience coming together to hear a story, to be moved emotionally and spiritually by a performance. For instance, I read that you were once fascinated by the theatricality and performance of a preacher at an outdoor Southern Baptist revival meeting you attended.
That’s right. I didn’t have the nerve to walk in the tent, so I stood outside. But I could see this guy. And there was the element of dance, he had a drum, he had the people laughing and talking. He’s telling them all about sinners, and he had them all on his side, none of them recognizing that they’re sinners until wham! And they go, “Oh, he’s talking about me!” And I thought, “This guy’s a master!” He was just manipulating this congregation of people, and he did anything he wanted to do to them. And it all led up to this climax, which was, “Come up here and put some money in this pocket.” And he knew how to do that. He knew that the amount of money that he got was dependent upon how well he performed. And they jumped out of their seats to give him money, and they walked out of there saying, “Boy, I had a good time!” It was better than TV, better than going to a movie, and I was impressed by that. [Pause.] Boy I wish I could do that!

Your plays are filled with elements of the supernatural — clairvoyants, ghosts, shamans, and so on. Where does this interest stem from?
It stems from African culture. From ancestor worship. Part of the supernatural is part of the spiritual element. In Africa, there is belief in witches and that sort of thing, and just because you’ve been in North America since the early 17th century doesn’t mean that you forget all about those kinds of ideas that are still a part of the culture. So, I try to give it to both my characters and the audience because it’s part of who we are.

You and Lloyd Richards [artistic director of Yale Repertory Theatre] put your plays through a unique production process. The scripts go through a standard rehearsal period followed by a full production at Yale Rep for several weeks, then are brought back into rehearsal for rewrites and fine-tuning before finally being staged at a major theatre. What do you gain by this?
You get a chance to discover things about the play that you may have missed during your first four-week rehearsal period, the actors performances deepen — they get to play things differently — and you have a chance to say, “We don’t need him to say that line, or maybe instead of going through the door he should do this or that.” You’re basically working to achieve clarity. Does the audience understand everything? Is there anything that is confusing to the audience?

Mary Alice and James Earl Jones in Fences.
Mary Alice and James Earl Jones in Fences. Photo by Ron Scherl.

Are you ever afraid that in rewriting your work at such a late stage you might lose the initial creative spark that is infused in the play’s spirit?
You have to trust yourself. I’ve seen playwrights who are scared to work on a play because they’re afraid they’re going to lose it. I try to encourage them to change everything. Take your play and put it over there! It’s not going anywhere! You still got it! You can always go back to it! So, while you’re here, put that character over there, shift that scene … try to work with it, keep it malleable. You can’t lose it!

Can you describe your creative process? For instance, what do you begin with? An image, an idea?
Each one of the plays has been different. With The Piano Lesson, I began with a question: Can one acquire a sense of self-worth by denying one’s past? This is what I wanted the sister to do, and then I wanted her brother to sweep through the house like a tornado and bring the past with him. And once I discovered the history of the piano, then it became a question of “What do you do with your legacy? How do you put it to use for you?” Then I had to invent or contrive a series of circumstances that would demonstrate a person trying to do that.

But I generally start with a line of dialogue. For instance, in Two Trains Running [Wilson’s new play, set in 1968, that opened at Yale Repertory in late March] I started with the line, “When I left Jackson I said I was gonna buy me a V-8 Ford, and I was gonna drive by Mr. Henry Ford’s house and honk the horn, and if anybody come to the window I was gonna wave. Then I was gonna get me a 30 ought 6 and come on back to Jackson and drive up to Mrs. Stovall’s house and honk the horn. Only this time I wouldn’t wave at them.” That’s all I know. So, then I go, “Who’s Stovall? Why’s this guy want to get a gun and go down to Stovall? And when did he leave Jackson? And who is he?” Then I say, “Did you get the Ford?” And he says, “Man, it took me 13 years to get the Ford. Six years later, I traded it in on a Cadillac, and there wasn’t no way in hell in the world I was goin’ to Jackson.”

So, okay, he never went back. It was 13 years before he even got the means to go back. Et cetera, et cetera. So now I’m on the road. I just ask myself questions about this character and I trust that he will tell me.

And what I also discovered was that if you have in your play a character who knows everything, you can ask him questions. Every time you get stuck you can ask the guy a question: “How long Wes’s wife been dead?” “She been dead 27 years, died about three years after the war. He buried her himself. He said he didn’t want nobody touchin’ her when she was livin’, ain’t want nobody else touchin’ her when she was dead.” You can use the person who knows everything to find out information for yourself, and you can use him to get off information to the audience about questions they have. Because the audience, as the play goes along, will develop questions, and if you can anticipate those questions and answer them at the same time the audience gets them in their head, then they’re rolling with you, everything is connected.

So, I take it you rely heavily on your unconscious in the creation of your art?
Without question. I don’t dictate, just allow the thing to happen. And what’s happening, of course, is that I am unconsciously pulling all this stuff out of myself in a certain fashion. I don’t do any outlining. I just start with different bits of dialogue and from there get to know the characters, and then ultimately say, “Well, wait a minute. Where does this take place?” You then make a decision; it can be anywhere you want it. You say, “OK, a restaurant: four stools and two booths.” And then you have the character who knows everything, and you find out a little about him and then about the guy who owns the restaurant. And then another character walks into the restaurant and you ask him, “Alright, what’s your name? What are you here for? Say something.” And he walks in and he says something, and you write it down. He’s a part of the play now. You don’t know how, you don’t know what part yet, but as this guy begins to talk, and that guy begins to talk, you find out how to use him. He’ll tell you. The character begins to talk and develop.

You see, if it does not change from the original idea, then you’re not working hard enough. You’re not digging deep enough. You start off on this journey; you don’t know how you’re going to get there. And if you marked it all out, and you arrive from here to there, then I don’t think you’re working hard enough.

Now that you have been called the greatest American playwright of the past decade, have been awarded some of the highest honors in your profession, what responsibilities do you feel you have?
Any that I choose to assume. I accept the fact that as a black American playwright I have certain responsibilities to the culture. To expose the culture, to demonstrate the fact that it exists, that it is capable of offering you sustenance. That once you have left your mother and father’s house, you have a ground to stand on, that you have something that is particularly yours.

Have the awards brought on any additional pressures?
No, not at all. First, I don’t pay any attention to that kind of stuff. No matter how many awards you win, it’s you and the typewriter, it’s you and that blank piece of paper. No one can put any more pressure on me than I put on myself. I’ve always demanded of myself the best that was possible for me to do. The best that I have to offer.

This story appeared in the April 1990 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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