Awards Season is upon us, and I was thrilled to see Viola Davis win a Golden Globe last Sunday night for her gorgeous, heart-breaking performance as the wife of a charismatic man who loves deeply but poisons all his relationships by his inability to come to terms with his past. The husband in question is a black man living in pre-Civil Rights America, but the character traits of the man I described could easily belong to anyone: white, black, Latino, Asian or even Extra-Terrestrial. Fences, August Wilson’s play-turned-film, gives me another reason to plead my case: Art Matters. It’s much more than entertainment.
“In Fences, they [white people] see a garbage man, a person they don’t really look at, although they see a garbage man every day. By looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this black garbage man’s life is affected by the same things–love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that. . .can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.” August Wilson, interviewed by The Paris Review, 1999.
And what do black people see? The Paris Review asked him that, too:
“Blacks see the content of their lives being elevated into art. They don’t always know that it is possible, and it’s important for them to know that.”
Fences made its Broadway debut in 1987 and won the Tony and also a Pulitzer. When Denzel Washington and Viola Davis starred in a Broadway revival in 2010, they both won Tonys, as did the play for Best Revival. But Fences is only one-tenth of Wilson’s crowning achievement. Ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th Century, each chronicling a different aspect of the African-American experience. Collectively they’re known as The Pittsburgh Cycle.
There are many cool aspects to this story. Wilson didn’t write the plays in chronological order. After some small regional success as a playwright, he submitted two of his plays to Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center’s National Playwright’s Conference. Both were rejected. He wrote a new one, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and submitted it. This third one was the charm and brought him national recognition. Ma Rainey was based on the rough-and-tumble life of a real-life blues singer, set in 1927 Chicago. After its success, Wilson realized that each of those three plays he’d submitted to the Conference were set in a different decade. Maybe he should keep going? He did, and the rest is history. He is considered one of the pre-eminent playwrights of the 2nd half of the 20th Century, mentioned in the same sentence with Edward Albee, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Fourteen days after his death, in 2005, The Virginia Theatre on Broadway was renamed The August Wilson Theatre.
August Wilson died much too young–at 60–from liver cancer. He’d optioned Fences as a feature film to Paramount back in 1987 but specified that he wanted it to have a black director. All these years later, the film finally found its match in Denzel Washington. If you’ve seen the film or the play, you know it’s called Fences for a reason. Sometimes people build fences to keep their loved one’s close (like Viola Davis’s character). And sometimes people build fences to keep others away. Wilson put up his own fence when he optioned the film rights, and here’s what he said about wanting a black director for the film.
“Someone who does not share the specifics of a culture remains an outsider, no matter how astute a student or well-meaning their intentions.” Spin magazine essay, 1990.
Culture, not race, was the issue for him–even though the two, of course, are linked. Whether or not you agree with him (and there are probably those who disagree), I thought of this analogy. It might be like asking a Chinese director (and former peasant) to direct a Jane Austen novel-turned-film.
Staring at death in 2005, Wilson was especially disappointed about two things (according to what his widow’s told the press). That one of his plays had never been made into a film. (Now, of course, Fences has.) And that Jitney, one of the first plays he wrote in the Pittsburgh Cycle, was the only one that had not made it to Broadway. That’s about to change on January 19. At least his widow and their daughter can savor the moment. Set in 1971, Jitney is about a group of Pittsburgh cab drivers facing strained family relationships, romantic troubles, violence and economic woes in their gentrifying neighborhood. Not long after he wrote it, that great TV series Taxi starring Danny DeVito became a big hit. Different racial/ethnic component, but there are many similarities.
Here’s something else August Wilson could be excited about–and it’s a biggie. In December, Denzel Washington announced that he will executive-produce Wilson’s other nine plays as films for HBO. “It’s my ten years’ life work right now,” he said. “One of the finest things that’s happened to me in my career.” The first play he’ll produce is Ma Rainey, which jump-started Wilson’s career as a playwright. It’s the only one of the 10 that’s not set in Pittsburgh. As powerful as live theatre can be, it can’t reach the number of people that a film does.
In his too-short lifetime, August Wilson travelled far: Dirt poor childhood/mother descended from slaves/absent German-immigrant father/high school education/self-taught poet & playwright TO icon of the American theatre. He wrote plays about African-Americans, but he wrote characters that speak to us all.