Better late than never. I knew next to nothing about August Wilson until he died in 2005. The upside of that deficit is that now I can catch up on all his amazing work. I should’ve known about Wilson because he was born in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1945 and I was born in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1947. A hill of housing Projects for poor people, in later decades it became known as the “worst” part of town, and at one point, a “no-go zone”—meaning, I believe, that the police were afraid to enter the neighborhood. Back in our day, when there was a sense of community, the population was a mix of African-Americans, many of them – like Wilson’s mother – having come up from the South, and Jewish and Italian immigrants. I only lived in the Hill District my first three years, and then we moved out in 1951, I believe.
August Wilson was there a bit longer. But in the 1950s when his family moved out to a white working class neighborhood not far from where we were living by then, they were the target of a lot of racist shit. He had a hard time finding a school and ended up for a while at Connelley Vocational High School, where my dad studied to be an electrician one or two years before getting an electricity shock that put him in the hospital and ended his education. August Wilson too left school around age 15, but he more or less educated himself at the Carnegie Library – the place that saved my life as well, and in fact that library ended up giving him the only college degree they ever awarded.
He produced a series of 10 plays that portrayed black life in Pittsburgh in succeeding decades called The Pittsburgh Cycle – all but one take place in the Hill District. He won two Pulitzer Prizes for them. In fact, seems like he won every damn prize available to playwrights in his too-short life.
I got “Fences” out of the library (one of the ones that won him a Pulitzer). And read it last night. It is compelling, deep, honest, and beautiful. It wrestles, with wit and with candor, with the difficulties of living in that flawed institution known as the family, which itself is embedded in a racist society that refutes your claim to a decent life. Sons are pitted against fathers, and wives against husbands. “Fences” faces the complexities of extended families – and all nuclear families are just one betrayal or disability or disaster away from being extended.
I warn you now that I’m about to have an August Wilson orgy – I’m going back to my library to order as many of the Pittsburgh cycle as are available. I highly recommend that if you haven’t read “Fences,” take an hour or two and enrich your life.
I haven’t touched on the adult part of August Wilson’s life, because I don’t know much about it. I thank Kay Bourne, my go-to historian, for turning me on to August Wilson and to so many other talented, accomplished African-Americans.
I end with two quotes about writing from August Wilson:
“I don't write particularly to effect social change. I believe writing can do that, but that's not why I write.”
“Between speeches and awards, you can find something to do every other week. It's hard to write. Your focus gets splintered. Once you put one thing in your calendar, that month is gone.”
And here is an excerpt from the 2010 Broadway revival of FENCES, starring Denzel Washington (as Troy Maxson) and Viola Davis (as Rose):