Introducing the University of Pittsburgh's August Wilson Archive
With Dr. Sandra Shannon and Bill Daw
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.
Mike: Bill, you mentioned the scale of this collection. How do you process that? And maybe more specifically, what do you and your colleagues need to do in order to make such a collection accessible to the public?
William: Well, we're lucky that some of the boxes were previously kind of categorized by the August Wilson estate before they arrived. So, that gives us a bit of a head start with our work. And as you said, the work that we do is called archival processing, which is basically arranging and describing the materials in the archive. This results in a document called a finding aid that we will create that explains to the researchers how the collection is organized and then details what is in each box and each folder of the collections, thousands and thousands of folders. A large part of the collection is going to center around the American Century Cycle plays. And so we're going to group a lot of the materials relating to those plays together and kind of arrange things in that fashion. And I just want to say that I am just one of many members of the archives and special collections staff that are going to be working on this project. We are hiring another full-time archivist to work exclusively on the August Wilson archive, and they're going to be starting with us in March . There's also going to be a small army of Pitt student assistants and interns working on the project. And these Pitt students are so incredibly lucky to be some of the first people to work with this collection before it's made available to the public. And we know that researchers are clamoring for access to this collection, but we have to balance those demands with taking the proper amount of time to organize the materials.
Mike: Yes. Speaking of that clamor for access to the collection, Sandra, from your perspective both as a scholar and as an admirer of Wilson's work, how do the various documents and objects in this collection help us better understand the playwright and his plays?
Sandra: I think about the phrase that August used in a 1991 interview. He said, “I am writing a four-hundred-year-old autobiography,” and of course that blew my mind as a young scholar. And of course, when he said it, I gave pause and thought about what he meant. There is a large part of August in the American Century Cycle. You could reference it as autoethnography, in fact, that he's drawing largely from his own personal experiences. I think sometimes scholars understand the line. You don't cross the line, but you write about, to use another phrase, the ground on which you stand. You can write about mankind. You can write about all kinds of universalities, but the ground on which you stand is your personal experience. So I think with the archives that allow scholars to hopefully build upon the initial research that I've done and my other colleagues, I like to call, in August Wilson studies, those who've written and spoken and published on him to sort of put more flesh on it, flesh it out.
It's interesting that as a scholar we don't necessarily search for facts. It's not a science; it's an analysis. We deduce. We look at specific things and we make deductions and look at it from a number of perspectives. The beauty of it is that we can now look at it with the lens of August Wilson's life a little bit clearer now. So that's going to be a whole other branch of August Wilson studies. Of course, when I was doing my research back in the early eighties, I'm not telling, but the source material that I drew on largely of course were August's plays. And I did get a grant from Howard University to travel to Yale University. I interviewed Lloyd Richards. I visited the Yale Repertory Theater. They have a library on site. The school of drama had a library on site. The library subscribed to a clip service, that is, any mention of Yale Repertory Theater or any mention of August Wilson in newspaper clippings in and around the area, that New England area, they got them. And so they kept that information in this huge series of scrapbooks. That's where I started my research, and that material basically entailed theatre reviews, feature articles. There were no books, no essays. So that's where my research [began]. So I feel as if coming into our own, and I'm so glad that I'm here to witness it. And so, while Bill says clamoring, I'll say chomping at the bit to get at it, to get at the archives, the Wilson archives.
Mike: Bill, whether they're clamoring or chomping at the bit, or whatever, when it's available, how will people be able to access this collection?
William: We've committed to having the entire Wilson archive available to researchers within three years. And having said that, as we complete work on sections of the collection, we'll turn those around and make those sections available to researchers before the three years are up. And in the meantime, we're going to begin programming and outreach efforts as well as support the work of the August Wilson Society, the August Wilson House, August Wilson Journal, and the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, which is mounting an exhibit later this year called “August Wilson, A Writer’s Landscape.” And materials from the archive are going to be loaned or reproduced for that exhibit. So, that's going to be the first opportunity that the public has to see materials from the collection. Now, after that, when the collection is available to the public, they would have to travel to Pittsburgh and use the materials in our reading rooms on Pitt's campus. I don't know how much of the collection we'll be able to digitize. That's something that we're going to have to determine in collaboration with the August Wilson estate.
Mike: Sandra, when you published Dramatic Vision, as we've been saying, it was the first book-length study of Wilson's work. And it seems like, from what you were just saying, from your experience doing research in the eighties, things have changed so much. His plays are being produced all over the country—or they will, when the theatres reopen, hopefully. Fences and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom have gotten these successful, star-studded Hollywood adaptations. How do you see Wilson's status today? And what does he mean for American, and perhaps specifically Black American, theatre and culture?
Sandra: I think that having the full perspective of… if I may say, I remember one of the questions, or it wasn't prompted by a question, it was a response that August gave in one of his pensive moments. He was regretful that nobody was writing about him. That should just let you know how far we go back, I go back. He was very cautious; he named several other writers, “they're writing but why are they writing about me?” And so I am so pleased to know that this is going to inspire much more writing about August Wilson, the importance of August Wilson to where we are now. We all know where we are as a nation in terms of race relation, in terms of color, in terms of politics and all of that. August was there. I've just marveled with the perspective that I have as somebody who sort of basically started way back before August “blew up,” and now to see the stamp and the Netflix movies and all other kinds of indications that August has arrived…
This is August's moment. This is August's season. And so I think it bodes well in terms of speaking to African American [culture]. And I think African Americans get it. I think white Americans, I think all cultures, get it. Understand the importance of realizing that, yes, we are part of the larger society, but we are also—we also have a culture about which we need to be to first of all, acknowledge, right. And to be proud of, you can do both and. And I think that was part of August is mission to underscore the distinct aspects of Black culture. But at the same time saying, yes, we are American as well.
And he does that by telling the history, by arguing, by insisting that we know our history, even though we are in the twenty-first century. So what? You still need to know from whence you've come. That was a through line in his writing. And I think that's relevant for any culture. But you asked about theatre as well, I think, yeah, about Black theatre. I think, of course Black theatre is the stage for African American culture. You learn the history. It's a classroom. It's a laboratory. So, while everybody is… every theatre has not produced an August Wilson play, I dare say that the directors, the playwrights, the designers in some way have been influenced by August Wilson.
Mike: Thank you both so much. We'll be posting links in our show notes that will let you explore the University of Pittsburgh's new August Wilson archive. Sandra and Bill, it's been really wonderful to have you both here talking about the August Wilson archive. Thank you both so much.
Sandra: It's been my pleasure. Thank you so much.
William: You're welcome. It was nice talking with you.
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