August Wilson's plays sang his song to the world

Critical Eye


PLAYWRIGHT AUGUST WILSON MAY NOT have played a musical instrument or even sung, but when he died one week ago today, he left behind a legacy of music.

"Each person's life is their own doing and the hand of Fate that lies in wait around every corner is our own hand, and the music we dance to is the music we make and have made it play just so."

The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner wrote these words for the in-house newsletter of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference. The year was 1982 and Wilson was a poet-turned-playwright working on Ma Rainey's Black Bottom -- the play that would alter his career and the American stage.

I was at the O'Neill that summer, a fellow in its critics program. I remember seeing Wilson, neatly dressed and in his omnipresent cap, looking a little different from the other playwrights -- more formal, more reserved. Back then, Wilson was still finding the music he would make as a playwright and the music his characters would eventually "sing" in his extraordinary decade-by-decade chronicle of 20th century African-American life.

Music -- the blues, in particular -- was a great source of inspiration for Wilson. He spoke frequently about characters finding their "songs." It's a term that referred to a character's distinguishing voice and to his or her identity, forged from the past and looking toward the future.

For the specific sound of his characters' voices, Wilson said he often heard the voice of Charles S. Dutton, the Baltimore-born actor who created two of Wilson's strongest characters on Broadway -- Levee in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson.

This would seem to have given Dutton a natural advantage. But the actor told me recently that portraying Wilson's characters could be "like washing a battle ship with a Q-tip. He presents such a challenge to an actor that you get these long arias, and he truly takes one to a level that you didn't think you had."

Indeed, after the premiere of Joe Turner's Come and Gone at New Haven's Yale Repertory Theatre, Dutton decided he could no longer portray Herald Loomis, the dark, brooding character Wilson wrote for him. "It really drained me," Dutton says of the lead role, which was played by Delroy Lindo when Joe Turner opened on Broadway in 1988.

As to the actual words that Wilson's characters spoke, Irene Lewis, artistic director of Center Stage (which this March will produce the final play in Wilson's cycle, Radio Golf) has a revelatory anecdote about the way he honed dialogue. Lewis recalls that one day in 1999, when the playwright was at Center Stage working on Jitney, his play about gypsy cab drivers, she walked into the back of the theater and found Wilson and director Marion McClinton improvising dialogue.

"Marion would say to August, 'He wouldn't say that.' So August would say, 'Say it back to me,' and then they'd start to act it. That is one of my most vivid memories, and they'd fight: 'He wouldn't say that. That guy wouldn't say that.' ...August obviously making the final decisions," Lewis says.

In 2003, Wilson composed words for the character who was himself. He then stepped across the footlights at Seattle Repertory Theatre and performed a one-man show titled How I Learned What I Learned. He was invited to do this show at several other theaters -- a treat audiences will now forever be denied.

We'll probably also never see the new play he began working on last year -- a comedyabout, ironically, death taking a holiday. But while death has robbed us of all the subsequent words Wilson might have written, the music that suffuses the plays he left behind will live on -- music that is at times exuberant, at times angry, at times boastful, at times mournful, but always distinctly his own song.

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