Shaman to His Culture
Observations on August Wilson

by Ken Bush
My life has brushed up against August Wilson’s a couple of times. As an instructor at the Duke Ellington High School of the Arts in Washington, DC, I watched theatre students and faculty steeped in multiculturalism and color-blind casting explode along racial lines during his guest lecture on the need to protect black American culture from white domination. Five years later in 1993, I got to know him better during several weeks at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center National Playwrights Conference. In both cases, I was struck by the depth of conviction in this quiet, unassuming man.

To describe a single individual as a force in American theatre might seem hyperbolic for anyone but August Wilson. His plays have both chronicled and defined black culture in this country, garnering three New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, two Drama Desk Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, and a Tony Award in the process. The characters and situations he creates are incredibly diverse and span much of the Twentieth Century from the displaced denizens of a boarding house in 1911 (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone) to an embattled diner owner struggling against the white establishment in 1969 (Two Trains Running). His most recent work, Seven Guitars, portrays mourners at a backyard wake in 1948 Pittsburgh, the locale for most of his plays. It is currently running on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre

. In a conversation I recorded at the O’Neill Theatre Center, August expanded upon his mistrust of terms like multiculturalism. "There has never been a cross-cultural exchange," he said, but rather a "cultural war." "If you can destroy the culture you can destroy the people. . .with the black culture, if you get everyone to adopt the values of the dominant culture, you have effectively destroyed their culture." He went on to say that black Americans should be viewed as an 'alien culture," different but not inferior to western civilization as envisioned by this country.

For all of his political beliefs, I found August Wilson to be, primarily, an accomplished and sophisticated theatre practitioner who understood that the human condition crosses all bounds. Shortly after our recorded conversation, several of us at the O’Neill Theatre Center managed to talk him into going to a movie (something he had not done in four years). The film we intended to see was sold out and I somehow ended up sitting next to August as we watched Sleepless in Seattle. I was barely able to concentrate on the story, imagining instead his reaction to what was surely a lethal dose of white American culture. Consequently, it was a surprise when he turned to me as the film ended and said quite earnestly, "Well, I cried. Did you cry?"

Without doubt, the most lasting impression I have retained of August was an exhibition of his talent one late July afternoon at the O’Neill Theatre Center. Recollections of my three-minute-career as a sparing partner for a Golden Gloves champion prompted August to recount his latest work about the fight game in the 1940s. I expected a straightforward narration but, suddenly, he began to walk and speak in a totally different rhythm as he created the prize fighter’s character. Just as quickly, he shifted to the boxer’s manager and girlfriend, each having their own distinct life. The effect was astonishing. For the next ten minutes I watched as each of these characters wrestled for control of their creator so they could tell their story. Finally August’s voice returned and he continued talking about where he wanted the play to go, as if nothing had happened.

I realized that I was seeing a man possessed not only by his belief in his culture but by the thousand individuals who embodied that heritage through his memory and imagination. When we enter a theatre to see an August Wilson play, we visit a world complete unto itself that is also part of a continuum whose bounds only the playwright has tried to fathom.

Ken Bush teaches in the University at Albany’s Theatre Department.