Playwright August Wilson, who died in 2005, would have turned 70 this year. Wilson is best known for the 20th-Century Cycle, in which each of 10 plays depicts African-American life in a different decade of the 20th century. Fifteen years into the 21st century, his work has ongoing resonance in conversations about the way black men are treated—and mistreated—in the United States.
Wilson began his writing career as a poet, and his first work for the stage, Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, was based on an original poem cycle. He found much greater fame and success in the theater, though, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama twice. Still, he called poetry “the highest form of literature” in a 1999 interview with the Paris Review. In another interview published in 2004, he batted around the idea of publishing a new collection of poems. He died of liver cancer the following year.
Over the course of seven weeks in March and April, a celebration of Wilson’s life and work will take place at various venues across the city of Chicago. As part of the festival, the Poetry Foundation will host a special performance of Wilson’s poetic works, including his poetry and passages from his plays, on March 25. Today his poetry is extremely hard to find, which makes the March 25 event especially notable.
The Poetry Foundation spoke recently with Chuck Smith, curator of the Chicago festival and a longtime director of Wilson’s work. Smith is currently directing a production of Two Trains Running, set in the 1960s, at the Goodman Theatre, where he is resident director. The other nine plays in Wilson’s 20th-Century Cycle will be presented at nine free public readings across the city. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
Wilson said one of his greatest influences was Amiri Baraka, who worked as a playwright but was better known as a poet. Do you see that influence in his work for the stage?
In a sense, they’re both writers for social change, for social justice. There’s always an element of social justice in all of August’s work. Not so much that it’s a protest play, but what you do is you see the situation as it really is, from the eyes of the African-American, from an ordinary man, an everyman perspective. ... Baraka, who used to be LeRoi Jones, he was pretty much in your face with it. August Wilson is not in your face. August Wilson is much more subtle, and it comes at you in a different way. In some aspects, you get the same message, but you get the message in a different way.
Wilson also said his earliest plays were more overtly poetic than his later work. Can you hear the poetry in his dialogue?
The play we’re working on right now, Two Trains Running, that was probably at the point where one could say you can still hear the poetry in it. Maybe in the ones following, you don’t hear it as much. But Two Trains Running, it’s full of old men talking, and the poetry is quite evident in the language there.
In poetry you hear certain verses over again in certain stanzas, and in his monologues you hear very similar words spoken once and then somewhere in that monologue you hear [them] again. So it’s there, it’s definitely there.
Do you see his language evolving over time? Does Gem of the Ocean, which premiered in 2003, read differently to you than, say, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, from 1982?
Yeah, it does. ... I did a production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom here at the Goodman in 1997. I was scheduled to do a production of Jitney [written in 1979] the following season. While I was reading Jitney, ... I was almost like “I know exactly what’s going to be said next.” ... There was a certain rhythm in those early works.
Do you see Wilson’s work as political?
It’s going too far to say it’s political. It’s that each one of these plays gives a glimpse, a fly on the wall, of African-American life in whichever decade it’s being told: Gem of the Ocean in the early 1900s, Fences in the ’50s, Two Trains Running in the ’60s. It’s a glimpse of: What are these people talking about? Usually African-Americans, even though one wouldn’t consider them always talking about politics, they’re talking about what’s going on in their life and what’s going on in their lives, politics is affecting it, the decisions of other people are affecting their lives.
What it is like working with Wilson’s plays in this particular moment, when it seems like the whole country is wrestling one way or another with how America treats black men?
There are moments in the play Two Trains Running when characters speak that we immediately think about the situation that’s going on today, right now. It’s almost like he wrote it for today’s audience; it seems like that. Situations he brings out in the play are pretty much a mirror image of what we’re witnessing right now with the killings of these men. ... Black men have died at the hands of others, and nothing has happened to the ones who have caused the deaths. And that’s right in the play. ... You can’t think about that and not say, “Whoa, he’s writing about exactly what’s going on right now.”
What do you see as Wilson’s main literary legacy?
The 20th-Century Cycle is his legacy. ... I honestly believe 100 years from now people will be talking about Shakespeare, they’ll be talking about Tennessee Williams, they’ll be talking about Eugene O’Neill, and I’m positive they’ll be talking about August Wilson.