Magazine March 20, 2017, Issue

Reconsidering August Wilson

Denzel Washington, Mykelti Williamson, and Viola Davis in Fences (Photo: David Lee/Paramount Pictures)

The film adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences, which is now in theaters, has brought its late author some well-deserved new accolades. What’s notable about this playwright’s reputation, though, is how different his record of achievement is from what a study of his press clippings and his many award nominations would suggest. He received a Tony, two Pulitzers, and five Best Play awards from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle — but, all too often, those prizes were given to him with a conspicuous measure of self-satisfaction. Many of the critics seemed to be patting themselves on the back for their magnanimity in recognizing a black playwright.

The odd effect of this smug and condescending attitude has been to cause many people who are unfamiliar with Wilson’s work to underestimate it. Inevitably, they assume that he is another Toni Morrison: an obviously terrible writer graded on a curve. I can only suspect that this explains the slighting reviews that Wilson sometimes received from his most doggedly liberal critics. They grew doubtful of what they had written in his favor.

Such an example of disregard for Wilson in the “official” press may be seen in the snippy review that Fences was given by Frank Rich in 1985 upon its Broadway premiere. Dismissing it in the New York Times as “technically better crafted than the previous [Wilson] work” and “melodramatic,” Rich went on to single out the production design for his praise, observing that it was the achievement of “Yale students” and “exceptional.”

As the current film of Fences partially manages to show, the play is, in fact, a masterpiece: a heartbreaking story of the pain, the failures, the misfortunes, and the frequent amusements of everyday life — in this case, those arising within a working-class black family living in Pittsburgh in the late 1950s.

This was a world Wilson knew from the inside. The fourth child and first boy in a family of six children, Wilson was christened at his birth in 1945 with his father’s name: Frederick August Kittel Jr. That German surname reflected the origins of his redheaded father, a refugee from the Sudetenland who had emigrated to the United States, where he worked as a pastry chef. It was there that his father met the African-American woman who bore him.

When that union foundered and his parents separated, Wilson lived with his mother and eventually changed his name to hers. His father’s place in the household, meanwhile, was taken by his stepfather, an embittered ex-con named David Bedford. He served as the model for Troy Maxson, the troubled central character in Fences. Convicted of homicide, Bedford had spent 23 years behind bars, and before that he had been denied the chance for athletic success because of his race. Needless to say, Bedford was not always the most supportive of stepfathers, and in later years Wilson said that he had been raised without a father, denying the role in his life of both Frederick Kittel Sr. and Bedford.

The struggles of those men were repeated through Wilson’s own first decades. He dropped out of school when he was 15, after a white teacher falsely accused him of plagiarizing a 20-page paper he had written on Napoleon. That was followed by a short-lived stint in the Army and employment at a series of itinerant jobs, including short-order cook and gardener. This continued into Wilson’s mid thirties.

So, when he depicted cab drivers and sanitation men, it was not from the point of view of a sociologist — or, as is more often the case with present-day authors, an entomologist. Wilson had held innumerable low-wage jobs, and he understood all too well the world of pawnshops and payday loans.

And it was in writing realistically about the struggles and frailties of the downtrodden that Wilson excelled. In this sense, his career paralleled that of a dramatist whose background was entirely unlike his own: Eugene O’Neill. Just as O’Neill was at his best when depicting circumstances he knew intimately, so Wilson was most powerful and truthful when he wrote plays that were thoroughly plausible and full of that quotidian detail.

Unfortunately, this was not always his approach. Fences is one of ten plays in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle”: a series depicting black life in the Iron City, with one play set in each of the 20th century’s decades. At this point, white critics have managed to offer hagiography for every one of those. But they vary widely in quality.

The film of Fences conveys some of what distinguished the play’s 2010 Broadway production, which featured an essentially identical cast. Wilson’s plays are known for their talkiness and their somewhat conventionalized monologues, and that inherent staginess is evident in the movie. But in the best parts of the film, audiences can get a clear sense of why Washington, Viola Davis (as Troy’s wife, Rose), Stephen Henderson (as his best friend, Bono), and Russell Hornsby (as his older son, Lyons) won such acclaim for their performances in the revival and why the play is so revered within theater circles.

Readers who live within range of New York would do even better to see the Broadway revival of Wilson’s Jitney, which features a cast dotted with many of the city’s most respected black stage actors. A depiction of the lives of a group of men working in a faltering gypsy-cab company during the recession years of the 1970s, Jitney has a more contrived story, but the current production offers a truer indication of what distinguishes Wilson’s work.

Those qualities are even more readily evident in the play that first provided Wilson with critical acknowledgment, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and in his last great drama, King Hedley II. What these two have in common with Fences is that they are tragedies centering on seemingly ordinary men and that the events of their stories are consistently credible.

That was not always the case for Wilson. Influenced by Afrocentric ideology, he frequently included characters in his stories who were conjurers, and supernatural elements that he associated with the bondsmen’s tradition of folk tales. These implausible devices are central to the plots of some of his best-known dramas, including Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, and Gem of the Ocean. Likely affected by white-liberal guilt, critics raved about these factitious accounts of African-American life, and The Piano Lesson won Wilson his second Pulitzer. Frank Rich was in tune with the critical consensus when he pronounced it “miraculous” and claimed that it offered the audience “haunting music.” That was his verdict on a story about the need to exorcise a white ghost who is being held within an old piano stolen by sharecroppers because it was etched with images of their slave ancestors on its front face. (Yes, it’s incredible — and not in the laudatory sense that Rich would have intended.)

The making of the movie of Fences was delayed first by Wilson’s difficulty in adapting his own work and then by his very public insistence that a black director with the proper sensibility and awareness for the material be found. This was part and parcel with his oft-stated claim that black directors were the only ones who should direct the stage productions of his plays. These pronouncements likely turned conservatives away from Wilson’s writing, and there is little doubt that if Wilson were alive today he would be among the first to be speaking of “resistance.” His conviction that a consciousness of black life was needed to understand his work was rooted in his belief that whites would fail to grasp the nuances of his plays, but it was not based on any notion of race as a fixed and hereditary concept.

Moreover, the essential message in Wilson’s best work is conservative. Deprived of a proper family life in his childhood, he was a staunch advocate of the family, of personal responsibility, and of staying on the right side of the law. The tragedy of Troy Maxson in Fences is tied directly to his failure to live up to these principles. The tensions and the conflicts arising from them are central as well to Jitney and to the ex-convicts depicted in King Hedley II. No other American playwright in recent decades has so powerfully addressed these subjects as Wilson. It is likely no accident that no other so forcefully rendered tragedy upon the stage.

– Mr. Leaf is a playwright based in New York City. His latest play, Deconstruction, opens in New York on March 3.

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