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The Top 50

The power behind the plays

August Wilson has changed the way theater approaches race

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

It seems perverse or maybe a premonition of millennial apocalypse, but it has actually happened: For the first time, an artist has claimed the top spot on the Post-Gazette’s list of Pittsburgh’s most powerful culture brokers.

Not that we’ve taken complete leave of our senses. August Wilson isn’t at the top because he’s a great playwright whose plays make heart-churning comedy and tragedy out of the ongoing human drama. He is, of course, and his work does. But that’s not what this is all about -- what are we, aesthetes? No, Wilson is at the top because he’s a rare artist who exercises cultural clout on a national scale, and that power has a vigorous impact on Pittsburgh

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August Wilson
Bob Donaldson - Post-Gazette

.Ah, but is he a Pittsburgher? In his creative heart, where it really counts, yes -- and this is how artists may differ from philanthropists and administrators.

Born here in 1945, Wilson developed his artist’s vision on the street and in the library. Physically, he moved first to Minneapolis-St. Paul (in 1978), then on to Seattle. But moving to these cool northern cities with their Scandinavian Modern and polite liberal culture gave him a fresh perspective on the city where he spent his first 33 years.

Given distance, he could see it clearer, the Hill District of his youth, and it started pouring forth the rich stream of stories, images and conflicts with which, in seven plays, he has conquered the American theater. In the process, Wilson has opened new avenues for other black artists, changed the way theater approaches race and changed the business of theater, too.

His work has him constantly on the road. But while Wilson’s office may be elsewhere and his work everywhere, his artistic, creative home remains Pittsburgh.

In building his sequence of plays dramatizing each decade of the American 20th century, Wilson has created a world of the imagination -- August Wilson’s Hill District -- to rank with Hardy’s Wessex and Friel’s Donegal. That’s where Wilson lives, and if it isn’t Pittsburgh, where is it? It’s Everyplace, perhaps, but it’s grounded here. It isn’t a history we entirely enjoy, because it contains as much injustice and futility as survival and triumph, but it’s ours, to experience and acknowledge.

Even as a nonresident, Wilson has been a good Pittsburgh citizen. He has always been in and out, partly to visit his extensive family, often to receive awards or help celebrate local institutions. Several times (the Carnegie’s Man and Ideas series, Pitt’s Honors Convocation), he has delivered major addresses about the black role in American history and culture. The only collection of his plays is from the Pitt Press. Pittsburgh Magazine named him Pittsburgher of the Year in 1990, and he spent months here in 1995 as co-producer of the TV version of "The Piano Lesson."

"It was very important for me to have ‘The Piano Lesson’ filmed in Pittsburgh," he said then. "For Pittsburgh has provided the fuel and the father for all of my work. And wherever I travel, I carry Pittsburgh, in the vibrant life and experiences of the Hill, with me."

On recent visits, Wilson has even spoken of the beauty of Pittsburgh, a city he has not always loved. In 1994, he said, "Like most people, I have this sort of love-hate relationship with Pittsburgh. This is my home and at times I miss it and find it tremendously exciting, and other times I want to catch the first thing out that has wheels."

This year, he has been (and will be) here more, probably, than some artists who make Pittsburgh their residence. He spent a month and a half here this spring, because, he explained, "I really wanted to reconnect with Pittsburgh, do some writing here -- this is fertile ground." This longer stay allowed him to celebrate the centennial of the Hill branch of the Carnegie Library, become a regular communicant at Downtown cigar-klatches . . . to feel more at home.

He came specifically planning to revise his screenplay for "Fences," which after many years of delay has a producer and seems to be moving toward actual production. But while getting some work done on "Fences," Wilson found himself turning more and more to work on "King Hedley II," his new 1980s play that will have its world premiere this fall at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, inaugurating its new O’Reilly Theater. "I’ve been pleased," he said in April, finding Pittsburgh stirred his creative juices.

His long spring stay will be exceeded by a longer stay this fall, when he works with director Marion McClinton and a fortunate cast to put "King Hedley" on its feet. The conjunction of a new Wilson play and a $20 million theater will give Pittsburgh a jolt of national theatrical limelight.

But what about TV or the movies? So far there has been only his Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Piano Lesson." There haven’t been more because Wilson has insisted on black directors. His other Pulitzer-winner, "Fences," was long ago optioned for film, but Wilson stood firm.

If "Fences" is filmed, as Wilson now thinks it will be, it remains to be seen whether Pittsburgh will get to play itself on the screen. It did so in "Piano Lesson" because Wilson insisted. Let’s hope his power prevails in Hollywood, a country where screenwriters are notoriously powerless.

Wilson has already demonstrated power in that other country, Broadway. Not by conquering it -- no straight dramatist can do that anymore. Wilson’s theatrical power is of a more radical kind: He has rendered Broadway almost irrelevant. Most of his plays have gone through a couple of years of individual productions at different regional theaters before taking their shot at Broadway; then, after pocketing their many awards (but, truth to tell, never huge amounts of money), the plays have gone back to being produced at regional theaters. In other words, for a distinctive playwright like Wilson, Broadway seems obsolete -- he doesn’t need its imprimatur to sell his plays.

Pittsburgh professional theaters were slow to start producing Wilson, but the Public Theater made up for lost time with "Jitney," which had languished unproduced professionally while Wilson’s fame mounted. The Public staged its professional premiere, which brought Wilson here for a lengthy 1996 stay: "I’m glad it’s here in Pittsburgh," he said, "I’m coming home. ‘Jitney’ is very definitely a Pittsburgh play, more than any of the others." With the world premiere of "King Hedley" this fall, the Public goes that one better.

Wilson’s theatrical clout doesn’t benefit him alone. With his one Tony, two Pulitzers, three American Theatre Critics awards and five New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, all for best new play, he has become the flagship of contemporary black theater. In a round-table discussion among four black playwrights in April, McClinton said, "August is ... the trademark that defines the field."

"August Wilson saved theater," said actor/director Keith Glover. "August showed me there was room for the real deal on stage."

McClinton made it more pointed: "When theaters make money on August Wilson they might say, ‘Let’s do two [black plays] next year.’ There’s been more work since the advent of August."

And when Wilson slowed his early breakneck pace, which had put a new play on Broadway at least every other year, Glover pointed out, "Theaters said, ‘We don’t have an August Wilson play. So let’s try the next one.’ "

That’s clout -- point man for a generation of artists breaking through. But think what it has done for audiences. Wilson is no simple entertainer. Writing out of passion and insight, he speaks clearly and vividly across the great racial divide that threatens this country.

In 1996, he took on the spokesman role overtly, proclaiming his protest against the marginalization of black theater in a keynote address at the annual convention of professional regional theaters. These are the overwhelmingly white companies that love Wilson and for whom he has set many box-office records, but he chastised the policies that fund black art for its multicultural diversification rather than its own imaginative vibrancy.

This led to his very public dispute with the fine critic/producer Robert Brustein, culminating in their January 1997 public debate in New York City that put theater back at the center of the national debate about race and culture. Wilson followed up by convening a conference on African-American Theater at Dartmouth in 1998. That generated the African Grove Institute of the Arts, and a great "gathering of the tribes" is planned for 2002 -- black artists trying to take charge of the means of production of their own art. In this, Wilson is in the forefront.

Some might say his impact is greater nationally than in Pittsburgh. But we have black artists here, too -- like Javon Johnson, Pitt actor/playwright, whose association with Wilson at theater festivals in South Africa and Alaska culminated in Wilson’s attending his latest play at Pitt. Such mentoring is precious. And Pittsburgh also has audiences, white and black, liberated by the accessible insight of Wilson’s plays; it has students, for whom he is a powerful icon to admire.

In the first two years of our Top 50 list, the only artists or performers to make the top 10 were Fred Rogers (both years) and Mariss Jansons (1998). Otherwise, you had to go down to artists ranked high mainly for their administrative, entrepreneurial clout. This year, though, Jansons has climbed to No. 5. Maybe we’re learning.

And what of the cultural philanthropists, arts administrators and trustees of the arts -- how will they feel about taking second place to a playwright? How did Maecenas feel when a fuss was made over his protegé, Virgil? How about the Medicis and Leonardo? Or the Earl of Southhampton and Shakespeare?

Rather than speak for the Earl, let’s just assume his modern equivalents are gratified. What is philanthropy, administration or trusteeship without the art that gives its exercise grace and meaning?


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