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The August Wilson years: Ten decades, ten plays… including Fences

At our recent WhatsOnStage Outing to Fences, including a post-show Q&A with Lenny Henry and the cast, we were alarmed to discover that only 10% of the audience were familiar with the play's author, the late, great August Wilson. If you're in the 90% of the uninitiated, read this feature by Al Senter and improve your education right now.

August Wilson
August Wilson (1945–2005) has rightly been hailed as "perhaps the greatest American stage poet since Tennessee Williams" and his remarkable body of work demonstrates a scale of ambition and a seriousness of purpose that places him firmly within the ranks of Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller. Even if the grand concept of rendering in dramatic form the African-American experience in each of the ten decades of the 20th century was initiated more by accident than design, it remains an extraordinary achievement. Since Wilson devoted himself almost entirely to writing for the stage, the Pittsburgh cycle of ten plays can also be seen as a monument to the power of the theatre to resonate far beyond its physical confines.

Wilson was born in the Hill District of Pittsburgh on 27 April 1945, one of six children of the marriage between Frederick August Kittel, a German immigrant, described as both a baker and a pastry cook, and Daisy Wilson, his African-American wife. The match was not a happy one and it seems to have been Daisy's strength of character that kept the family together. Even as a boy, Wilson showed great independence of mind, and he more or less abandoned his schooling in order to educate himself through the resources of Pittsburgh's Carnegie Library, where he read voraciously. He also loved to eavesdrop on the talk he'd hear on the streets of the Hill District and much of the material he absorbed in those days would later be recycled in the plays.

In 1968, Wilson and a friend formed the Black Horizon Theatre in the Hill District where he did some writing and directing on the hoof, but the 1970s seem to have been spent largely in a succession of short-lived jobs. His early ambition to be a poet gave way to a determination to establish himself as a playwright and he did not have to wait long for his talents to be recognised. After his first few plays were rejected by the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Centre for Playwrights Conference, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, ironically the only play of the cycle to be set away from Pittsburgh, proved to be the breakthrough piece and the next play, Fences, set the seal on Wilson's reputation.

Lenny Henry and Tanya Moodie in Fences
© Nobby Clark

With James Earl Jones as Troy, the ex-baseball player turned garbageman, the play enjoyed a very successful run on Broadway and it picked up a hatful of awards including a Best Play Tony and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1987. In an interview given to the Paris Review in 1999, Wilson explained his intentions towards the mostly white mainstream audience:

"...in Fences, they see a garbageman, a person they don't really look at, although they see a garbageman every day. By looking at Troy's life, white people find out that the content of this black garbageman's life is affected by the same things - love, honour, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognising that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives."

If Wilson wished to conduct a dialogue with the dominant culture in America, he was equally, if not more, concerned to have a conversation with the African-American community. In an interview with The New York Times in 2000, he identified his aims:

"I wanted to place this [African-American] culture on stage in all its richness and fullness and to demonstrate its ability to sustain us in all areas of human life and endeavour and through profound moments of our history in which the larger society thought less of us than we have thought for ourselves."

The foundation of the Pittsburgh cycle was laid by chance, as Wilson revealed in one interview. It occurred to him that: "I'd written three plays [set] in three decades so why don't I just continue to do that?"

The plays range in time from Gem of the Ocean, written in 2003 but set in 1904, to Radio Golf, written in 2005 but set in 1997, via Joe Turner's Come and Gone, written in 1984 but set in 1911, and Fences, written in 1983 but set in 1957. The themes Wilson tackled in his plays included the middle passage, the underground railway, the civil rights movement and black nationalism. In the two decades from 1985 to 2005, Wilson collected nearly 30 awards and commendations for his plays, including two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. The critical regard in which his work was held was matched by Broadway's enthusiasm for it, and the productions would arrive in New York after regional try-outs, often in Yale or in Seattle where Wilson eventually settled.

August Wilson's comparatively early death from liver cancer at the age of 60 [on 2 October 2005] was a serious blow to theatre, both in America and internationally. There were fulsome tributes to him, including from his fellow playwright Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, who described him as "a giant figure in American Theatre. He was reclaiming ground for the theatre that most people thought had been abandoned."

In his appreciation of Wilson in The New York Times, Charles Isherwood remarked that the plays "gave vivid voices to people on the frayed margins of life". Wilson, he said "...argued eloquently for the importance of black Americans honouring the pain and the passion in their history, not burying it to smooth the road to assimilation. For Mr Wilson, it was imperative for black Americans to draw upon the moral and spiritual nobility of their ancestors' struggles to inspire their own ongoing fight against the legacies of white racism."

A few weeks after Wilson's death, the Virginia Theatre in New York was renamed in his honour, an elegant testimony to his achievement and a symbol of his lasting influence on the American stage.

Fences, starring Lenny Henry, opened on 19 June 2013 at the West End's Duchess Theatre, where it continues until 14 September. Al Senter's article is reprinted with the kind permission of John Good Publishing.

For details of other upcoming WhatsOnStage Outings, click here.