Mike Lueger: Welcome to the Theatre History Podcast, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide.
Hi, and welcome to the Theatre History Podcast. I'm Mike Lueger. With every year that passes, it seems that playwright August Wilson's legacy looms ever larger over the American theatre. The signs of his influence are everywhere, from the recent announcement that his image will grace one of the US Postal Service’s Forever Stamps to the critical acclaim that greeted the recent movie adaptation of his play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. There has also been some exciting news about how Wilson's legacy will be preserved. In the fall of 2020, the University of Pittsburgh library system announced that it had acquired Wilson's archive. Joining us to talk about this news are Dr. Sandra G. Shannon and William Daw. Dr. Shannon is professor emerita of African American literature in the English department at Howard University. Her book, The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, was the first published study of the playwright’s works, and she's written or edited many more volumes on Wilson's life and work. Mr. Daw is curator of the Curtis Theater Collection at the University of Pittsburgh. Sandra and Bill, thank you both so much for joining us.
Sandra G. Shannon: Thanks for having me.
William Daw: Happy to be here.
Mike: Sandra, can we begin with you? Could you please give us some sense of what makes August Wilson and his work so important?
Sandra: Of course. I think what comes to mind most is how it speaks simultaneously to African American culture as well as everybody—the universality of it. But of course, I came to it as a young African American scholar in the mid-1980s, and his works spoke to me, especially how my father had just passed away. And I just stumbled upon the play, Fences, and I saw autobiographical reflections in that. And in fact, that was the universality, the ability of August to really touch your soul. And at that time, I'd not had the opportunity to meet him. And I wanted to know: who is this playwright? Who is this writer who has reached so deep into my soul and knows my business here? And so, I just pledged to find out who he was and to read as much as I could about him. But I think it's the way he touches our souls, and it sort of transcends race, transcends gender, and transcends time.
Mike: You do, you write really movingly about that personal reaction to Wilson's work and to Fences in particular in The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, your book. I'm also curious—you mentioned how it transcends time, his work. There's also a really interesting structure to his sort of larger body of dramatic work. Could you tell us a little bit about that and why he ended up adopting this kind of structural scheme?
Sandra: Well, I think if you try to impose some sort of rationality on the order, the sequence, the chronology of it all, it just falls apart. It's fascinating what he does with time. A couple of points on that: my book, The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, is considered a biocritical study. And so I arranged the plays according to August's growth as a playwright, but there is also another chronology of work, another sequence that worked there, and that is the fictive timeframe of each of the plays. So there is that. And also what I find fascinating is what August said he was doing. He said that, you know, what I'm trying to do is to focus upon a series of mistakes that African Americans have made during the twentieth century. And sort of laying them out there and showing these are the mistakes, and this is what you need to do to recoup from those mistakes.
And then also another fascinating manipulation of time, if you will, is August beginning the cycle essentially with Jitney, which is 1977, and ending it with 1995. But according to the way those plays were written, as you both know, he wrote the last two plays, unfortunately just before he passed away at sixty in the year 2005. Those plays called book-end plays. You have Gem of the Ocean set in 1904 and Radio Golf set in 1997. He wrote those two plays in succession. So it's fascinating how he came full circle. And also—you've got me started—there are plays that might be considered, that can be considered, sequels within the American Century Cycle.
You have a play, what is it? Seven Guitars. In Seven Guitars, the child that one of the characters is carrying is a full-grown man in the next play. So you have that going on there as well, so there's a lot of manipulation of time there. King Hedley the Second, that's what I meant. So the baby that the woman is carrying in Seven Guitars turns up a full-grown thirty-something-year-old man in King Hedley the Second. So he was a master at manipulating time to his favor.
Mike: Wilson's archive coming to the University of Pittsburgh is, I think, in many ways very appropriate. I was wondering maybe, Sandra if we could start with you, and then Bill if you want to add onto this, what was August Wilson's connection to the city of Pittsburgh?
Sandra: Well, I think my colleague Bill might be able to answer that better, but the fact that all but one of his American Century Cycle plays is set in Pittsburgh, speaks volumes. And the streets’ names, the names of individual characters, some of them people who actually existed, people that he knew—so he grounds his place in the city of Pittsburgh, specifically the Hill District, the community that birthed him that he knew most about. So Pittsburgh sort of becomes the metaphor, and he sort of hangs those American Century Cycle plays, with the exception of course of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, on that particular, in that framework of Pittsburgh.
William: Yeah, and he also started in the performing arts while still living in Pittsburgh with the Black Horizons Theater and Kuntu Repertory Theatre before he moved from Pittsburgh and then started writing his own plays. But yeah, starting with the Black Horizons Theater in the late sixties and, after that organization was no longer active, Kuntu Repertory Theatre kind of picked up that baton and became the main African American performing arts company in Pittsburgh for about nearly forty years. And Rob Penny and Dr. [Vernon A.] Lillie, who were the founders of that organization, were collaborators with Wilson. Rob Penny grew up with August Wilson, and so that also connects him to Pittsburgh and his career. And we have some of that material in the collection, and we also have the archives of the Kuntu Repertory Theatre as well.
Sandra: Right. What I find interesting is that, as a fledgling playwright, Black Horizons Theater, as well as Kuntu, played major roles in August's growth as a playwright. I remember he talked about Black Horizons. He co-founded it with Rob Penny, but that was the time when they were sort of looking for material to put on the stage and came across Amiri Baraka’s (or LeRoi Jones’s) collection of revolutionary plays, call for Black revolutionary plays. And so they staged those. And then of course, August was not real happy about the amount of material to put on stage. And that had something to do with his dabbling and writing plays for material to put on the stage.
Mike: Bill, you mentioned just a moment ago a little bit about what's in the collection, but could you give us maybe a more comprehensive overview of what's going into this archive?
William: Sure. There's a lot of different types of materials in the collection. The archive contains mostly paper materials created during Wilson's career. Of course, there are scripts and production materials relating to each of the American Century Cycle plays. It also includes Wilson's personal library and his personal music collection. Music was very influential in his writing. It also includes unpublished works, including plays that were separate from the American Century Cycle. There are hundreds of writing tablets, poetry, drafts of speeches and essays. There's also artwork that Wilson created. And then as non-paper materials go, there's photographs, audio recordings, video recordings. So it's a fairly large collection. When it arrived onsite, it was about 450 boxes.
Mike: Literally the work of a lifetime. I'm curious, out of all those hundreds of boxes and just probably thousands of documents, do you have any favorite personal items?
William: Sure. There's quite a few. And I should also mention that it also includes all the awards and honorary degrees that were given to Wilson. They're also part of the archive. These include the certificates that came along with winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. There's also the honorary degree that he received from Howard University is also very nice. It's very, a highlight. In addition to the diploma itself, Howard University created this broadside that has these nice biographical notes relating to Wilson's life. But as a librarian, I'm kind of partial to the diploma that was given to him by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in 1989. And the story behind that is that when Wilson was 15, he wrote a paper on Napoleon for a history assignment, and his teacher accused him of not writing the paper. So based off of that accusation, he decided to stop going to school.
But he got up each morning and walked to the public library and continued his education on his own. And this is where he explored the works of African American authors like Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, spending all day in the library. And he originally started doing this because he didn't want his mother to find out that he wasn't going to school anymore, but it also shows the tremendous amount of self-determination that Wilson had. Later, in 1989, once Wilson had become successful and was telling this story during interviews, and in speaking engagements, the Carnegie Library decided to present this honorary diploma to him for completing his education in a public library.