AUGUST WILSON: HIS WAY : ‘I’m an Artist First, a Playwright Second and a Black Third’


Suddenly everyone wants to talk to August Wilson. Everyone wants to do an August Wilson play. Since he won the Pulitzer in April with “Fences,” the Minnesota-based writer has been flooded with phone calls. Theaters that wouldn’t touch him before are clamoring for his work.

He’s on a roll. A new musical, “Mr. Jellyroll” (for which he wrote the book), opens on Broadway next spring. His “The Piano Lesson” is part of the Mark Taper Forum’s 1987-88 season. And “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” has just opened at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Tonight, “Fences” is up for six awards at the Tony Awards ceremony in New York (airing at 9 p.m., on CBS, Channels 2 and 8).

In person, the Pittsburgh-born Wilson, 42, is direct, friendly and low key; he appears to be someone not easily ruffled. “All those prizes, all of that,” he said benignly during a recent visit to Los Angeles for a series of publicity interviews and to look in on “Ma Rainey” rehearsals, “just adds fuel to the fire--and makes me write better.


“No, I don’t feel any expectations. I sit down and write the best play that’s ever been written. Period. Pulitzer Prize or no Pulitzer Prize, people like it or they don’t. I’m gonna try to pull this stuff out of here,” he said, pointing to his heart, “and get it on paper the best way I know how.”

And how does he tell when it’s good?

“I think you know when you’ve done your best,” he said. “I’ve always refused to let others place their values on what I do. Picasso goes and paints his stuff--and it’s good, man. What makes it good? Who said it’s good? Picasso thinks it’s good, and that’s all that counts. It’s his painting to express.

“For me, my background is poetry, and that’s the foundation on which I approach my plays: the sound of the word, the idea of taking concepts and pressing them into 14 or 22 lines and making a whole, complete statement about something.”

The confidence, he added, “comes from 22 years of writing--even longer than 22. I’ve been doing this since April 1, 1964, when I got my first typewriter and began to write poetry. But because I had read everyone out there, it took me a long while to write the kind of poem I was supposed to write, not the John Berryman kind. Once you find that surety you don’t look back, because you know yourself as an artist.

“See all these plays on the shelf?” he said, gesturing around a book-filled office at LATC. “I haven’t read any of them. When I started writing plays in 1979, I didn’t want to read plays ‘cause I wanted to do it my way. I knew what a terrible time I had trying to find my voice as a poet after reading all that poetry. So I came to it fresh.

“I think an artist has a responsibility to (address) whatever he feels. I’m an artist first, a playwright second, and a black third. But art is always first. So when I sit down to write a play, I’m sitting in the same chair as Shakespeare, confronting the same problems as Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill: ‘How do you bring a character on stage? How do you make him do this?’ Everyone has their own way of solving the problems. But you start with the same set of tools.”

And the origin of those tools? Not formal sources (Wilson quit school at 15) but an empirical education in the world. “I’ve been running against the wind since I was born,” he explained. “When I was 5 years old, I looked around and saw that society had no use for me. I was unwanted as a black in (white) society, and I still am. It’s also why I could write for another 100 years and never run out of material. I’ve got a large story--the 400-year autobiography of the black experience in America--and there are all kinds of ways to write about it.”

But can he presume to speak for all blacks?

“I can only speak for myself, August Wilson, and anybody who may think as I do,” he said. “I don’t try to speak for nobody else. But the whole foundation of Western art, African art--I can claim all of that. Then I put it in the black experience--and I can claim that, too.”

That black experience, he feels, differs greatly from the white one: “It’s cultural. Blacks, see, we do things differently from whites. (Actually, his father was a white man, a largely absent figure in Wilson’s growing-up.) We have different ideas, different approaches to the world. We came to America with one way of thinking--and have had to short-circuit every instinctual impulse to get along in society.

“I’ll give you an example: a popcorn counter at a movie theater. Blacks will crowd up to the front, ‘Hey, man, gimme two boxes.’ It starts to look like chaos. Then the whiteman says, ‘Hey, there’s a line back here.’ The black guy says, ‘What? I didn’t see no line.’ But now another white man is standing behind the first one, then another, then another. And suddenly there’s a line--and the black guy who lost his place at the counter is forced to stand in line.”

The disparity of experience, Wilson feels, is reflected in audience reaction to his work.”Blacks recognize it as the cultural context in which they live; they understand all the nuances. The whites will be more observers. But, sure, they can be moved. ‘Fences’ is a perfect example of that. There is a definite, black specific--but then you’re able to read in that a universality: ‘My God, he’s not that much different than I am. That’s the way I relate to my son. He’s having an affair on his wife. I had one on mine. I know what that’s about.’

“Ultimately, it’s the story that all art tells: the human condition, father/son, husband/wife, family, betrayal, honor, duty. I put it in the specific of the black experience because that’s what I know best.

“In ‘Ma Rainey,’ I wanted to write about the exploitation of early black performers,” he added. (The story is set in 1927 Chicago). “Blacks made tremendous contributions to this society, but the only thing everyone recognizes is their blues and jazz--the music. And it’s a contribution that blacks haven’t been able to control. If blacks controlled and owned the music, collectively as a people, we’d be in a very different economic situation in America.

“This is stuff that beats in my heart,” Wilson said, thumping on his chest for emphasis. “It’s what I feel. I don’t do research. I figured the best way to learn more about Ma Rainey (a real-life ‘20s singer) was to listen to her music. But that was it. I’m not writing about accuracies. I was glad to find out Ma Rainey had a sister ‘cause I gave her one in the play. But I didn’t stop when I was writing to find out if she did. I wrote a play about bullfighters. I don’t know anything about bullfighters.”

One thing he’s always known was the written word. Dialogue was something else.

“For many years,” Wilson acknowledged, “I didn’t know how to make characters talk. I asked a friend of mine, ‘How do you make this guy talk?’ and he said, ‘You listen to people.’ I found out I wasn’t listening. I was trying to force words into their mouths--my ways, a way that was artificial to them as blacks.

“I hadn’t valued the way they spoke, I didn’t respect it. I didn’t hear . Once I began to listen, I made a very important discovery: that language describes the ideas of the one who speaks it. There’s a thinking process in the way we talk--and blacks talk differently.”

His definition of good writing?

“I’ve seen poems that weren’t very well written, but there’s a heart beating in there and it has an effect on you. I know a lot of playwrights. And I’m always surprised that there are very few that have anything they feel passionate about. They’ll pick up a newspaper, read an article: ‘Two kids break into a house and kill an old woman. Hmmm. I’ll write a play about that.’ It isn’t anything they care about.

“There are a lot of good craftsmen whose plays are hollow and empty because they don’t have anything to say. And conversely, I’ve seen (less talented) people wrestle with something they care about and rise to the occasion.”

What if all that passion turns into a message play?

“I haven’t written one yet,” Wilson said firmly. “ ‘Ma Rainey’ isn’t about ‘This is what you took from us’ but ‘This is so valuable what you’ve taken from us,’ and discovering that value. . . . Yes, a personality informs the work--and in that sense, they’re all very personal plays. But remember, art is always first. And as long as you keep that first, you can’t go wrong. You cannot write a polemical play, you cannot write a didactic one. You will be true to the art.”