COVER STORY : He Types Only on the Blue Keys : August Wilson has the blues in his soul, and so do the African Americans whose lives he dramatizes. Latest case in point: ‘Seven Guitars.’
August Wilson is on his way to dinner. As he passes a street corner in the hilly Union Square neighborhood where his most recent play, “Seven Guitars,” is being performed, a young black man stops him, eager to shake his hand.
As Wilson’s companions walk on ahead, the inveterate listener lingers, soaking up what the young man has to say and, perhaps also, the rhythms of his speech.
“He wanted to take his father to see ‘The Piano Lesson,’ ” Wilson reports, with a smile of pride and a bit of bemusement, when he rejoins the group. “He says he’s going to take his family to see ‘Seven Guitars.’ ”
That matters to Wilson. For although he is one of the most acclaimed playwrights of his time--with two Pulitzers and as much mainstream success as any of his contemporaries--he finds it particularly satisfying when people like that young man come to see his work.
A chronicler of history as re-imagined through the poetics of African American culture, Wilson has written a cycle of plays that includes “Jitney,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Fences,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “The Piano Lesson” and “Two Trains Running.”
These dramas, each set in a different decade, take as their theme black alienation in the wake of the great migration north. Sensual, spirited and spiritual, Wilson’s plays are to the stage what the blues are to music: the affirmation and voice of a people.
His seventh work in the series, “Seven Guitars,” opens at the Ahmanson Theatre on Wednesday. Directed by Wilson’s longtime collaborator, Lloyd Richards, the play tells the story of seven men and women who come together in a backyard of a run-down house in Pittsburgh’s Hill district in the spring of 1948.
It is one more entry in a body of work that has not only struck a chord with American theatergoers--especially since there are virtually no other black playwrights who have achieved such widespread success--but also inspired a generation of artists.
African American writers in particular look to Wilson as a role model and actors yearn to speak his words. The best of today’s black actors have been seen in his plays: James Earl Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Roscoe Lee Browne, Delroy Lindo, Charles S. Dutton, Courtney Vance, Alfre Woodard, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett and others.
Like audiences, they are drawn to the verity and the craftsmanship. “If you want to reduce it to one word, it’s ‘truth,’ ” Richards says. "[Wilson’s characters] are true to themselves. They are true to their time. They are true to their history. And that is the key ingredient.”
“The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second sight in this American world. . . . One ever feels his twoness,--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings. . . . “
--W.E.B. Du Bois
“The Souls of Black Folk” (1903)
Wilson is of average height, with lively eyes, gentlemanly charm and a tendency to mumble. In cap and overcoat, he slips quietly past a theater crowd, going almost unnoticed. Later, he appears genuinely surprised when autograph-seekers approach him.
At home in Seattle, where he lives with his third wife, costume designer Costanza Romero, he listens to the blues when he works--mostly pre-1940 musicians, with notable exceptions such as Muddy Waters. Their songs are the soundtrack for his creativity.
“August has been very affected by the blues,” Richards says. “It is indigenous to his work, and very much a part of him.”
The blues is also the music of the men and women who populate Wilson’s plays. Many of these characters are blues musicians, some just listeners, but they all seem to live their lives like the songs, felt through to the bone and soul.
Like the blues, Wilson’s plays give voice to a culture’s collective memory of life viewed from behind Du Bois’ veil. “It comes out of the theater of black life,” Richards says. “That is its purest antecedent.”
It is a theater of recognition and identity, an attempt to make the unseen visible and the silent heard. “What I choose to do is demonstrate that this culture exists,” says the soft-spoken playwright over a pre-theater dinner, the quickness of his words betraying his passion for the topic. “I’m fashioning the play out of this cloth which is black culture.
"[My plays] deal with the manners and rituals which, in James Baldwin’s both eloquent and elegant phrase, ‘can sustain a man once he leaves his father’s house,’ ” Wilson continues. “You are fully clothed in manners and a way of life, so that you have something that is uniquely and particularly yours--black or white or whatever culture.”
The blues owes a debt to both African and European musical traditions, yet it is an archetypal made-in-the-U.S.A. genre. Similarly, Wilson draws on both European American and African American traditions in creating his distinctly American drama.
“He certainly has been affected by Western culture and theater,” Richards says. “But he does bring ancient and spiritual aspects to it that come from his own culture.”
Like a musician with a 12-bar blues, Wilson takes good old-fashioned American stage realism and riffs on it. “As a black artist, I chose to work in that genre of Western theater to articulate ideas about black culture,” he says.
“You’ll see a proscenium [and] a Western-style drama based on Aristotle,” he says. “It is not based on African concepts of theater and ritual.”
Yet for all the dramaturgy Wilson may share with Europeans like Ibsen or Americans like Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, he has remade the kitchen-sink drama in his own image, suffusing it with African American cadences and mysticism.
“Having been a poet, he writes with a sense of rhythm and meter,” Richards says. “He hears the language of his people.”
He also knows what’s behind it. “You see elements of black culture through the characters’ way of being in the world,” Wilson says. "[Blacks and whites are] not the same. We have different ways of relating to one another. It’s just different.”
Wilson may not want to judge those differences, but neither does he want to deny them. “People will say, ‘Well, I don’t see black,’ but I think that’s one of the most horrible things you can say,” he says. “What if I withdraw my recognition of you as a white person? You would panic.”
Above all though, Wilson stresses craftsmanship as the means to true communication. Like the bluesman that he is, he lets calculated variations on a theme and the meter of the language matter as much as the words:
Ma Rainey: The blues help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain’t alone. There’s something else in the world. Something’s been added by that song. This be an empty world without the blues. I take that emptiness and try to fill it up with something.
Toledo: You fill it up with something the people can’t be without, Ma. That’s why they call you the Mother of the Blues. You fill up that emptiness in a way ain’t nobody ever thought of doing before. And now they can’t be without it.
Ma Rainey: I ain’t started the blues way of singing. The blues always been there.
--"Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Born Frederick August Kittel in 1945 Pittsburgh, Wilson, now 50, was the fourth of six children born to a black mother and a white German father, who was a baker. The father for whom he was named wasn’t around much when Wilson was young, so he grew up identifying with the culture that filled and warmed the home of his mother, Daisy Wilson Kittel.
Raised in a crowded apartment in the Hill district, Wilson quit high school at 15 and moved out of his mother’s house. He continued to study while supporting himself with jobs like dishwashing.
He also collected 78 rpm records. When he came upon one by Bessie Smith, he says he found in her blues a voice he heard as his own.
That newfound sense of commonality fed the poetry Wilson was then writing. And it wasn’t long after that, in 1965 at the age of 20, that he bought his first typewriter and started to go by the name August Wilson.
Living the life of a young bohemian, Wilson roomed in a downtown Pittsburgh boardinghouse frequented by artists and others. Continuing to get by with odd jobs and the occasional trip to the pawnshop, Wilson pursued his poetry.
He also began to get involved with civil rights and other ‘60s political causes. Wilson co-founded a community theater called Black Horizons, where he directed a few dramas and tried his hand at playwriting, albeit with no particular success.
At 33, Wilson left Pittsburgh and moved to Minnesota. “I didn’t want to die in Pittsburgh,” he says.
Wilson married, took a job as a cook at a social service agency and turned in earnest to playwriting. “I wanted to explore the articulation of the black tradition and make it profound,” he says.
While on a visit back to the Hill district, he hit upon the idea for what was to become his first major play, “Jitney,” about the men who drove the semi-legal cabs in that area during the 1970s.
Still, he wasn’t in any hurry to circulate his plays. “I wasn’t honestly interested in getting produced,” Wilson says. “I wasn’t averse to it, but I wasn’t going to bang on doors.”
At a friend’s suggestion, however, he did begin to submit scripts to the respected Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, in Waterford, Conn., in 1980. Among them was “Jitney” (which, although it never received a professional production, Wilson considers the first installment in his cycle of plays). It took five tries before “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” caught the attention of Richards, the O’Neill’s artistic director.
Ever since he directed the original production of Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking “A Raisin in the Sun” in 1959, Richards has had a reputation--not only in the rarefied world of professional theater, but also in the black community. He’s known as a man who wants to bring African Americans into the theater by offering plays that speak to their experience. “Ma Rainey” fit the bill.
“I was intrigued by the characters,” Richards says. “I understood them. They spoke my thoughts. They were rich. They were real.”
In 1982, Richards invited Wilson to the National Playwrights Conference held at the O’Neill each summer. It was the first of several summers that Wilson was to spend at the retreat.
Then Richards, who was also artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre and dean of the Yale School of Drama at the time, staged the premiere of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at the Yale Rep in April 1984.
That night, the gently sloped interior of the Yale Rep--a remodeled but still slightly rickety brick church on the Chapel Street edge of campus--was filled with its usual mix of drama students, subscribers and other New Havenites both young and old, white and black. Theater world heavyweights were in attendance at the premiere as well, since there had been some advance word about Richards’ “discovery.” Yet few in the house could have foreseen the impact the Wilson-Richards partnership was to have on the American theater over the next decade.
Almost every year for the next 10, Wilson would have a play premiering in New Haven or opening on Broadway, while others toured regional theaters with almost clockwork regularity. (For instance, “Two Trains Running” was seen in L.A., in the Ahmanson series at the Doolittle, before its Broadway run in 1992; “The Piano Lesson” came to the Doolittle in 1990; “Joe Turner” was at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1989; and “Fences” at the Doolittle in 1988, and smaller productions were seen in 1988 and 1994.)
And the accolades were as constant as the plays. In addition to Pulitzer Prizes for “Fences” (1987), which also won the Tony Award, and “The Piano Lesson” (1990), Wilson has been the recipient of five New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards. He also has been awarded Rockefeller and Guggenheim fellowships and an honorary degree from Yale.
All of Wilson’s plays share a stylized vernacular--the rhythm that Richards spoke of, as well as a unique vocabulary--that has come to be recognized as one of the playwright’s trademarks. Its flowing grammar may seem casual, but it is anything but.
His creative process is unusually nonlinear. “The basis is character, as opposed to story,” Wilson says. “If you have a particular issue, then you create characters to articulate the issue.”
Wilson’s characters may occur to him first in the form of a speech, or even just a turn of phrase. “They all come from here,” he says, gesturing toward himself. “Some are from deeper inside than others, but they’re all different aspects of my personality, I suspect.
“They’re not modeled after anyone that I know,” he says. “They are voices of the black community.”
Wilson simply lets those characters tell him their stories, weaving the strands together as he goes. “I work somewhat as a collagist in that I put pieces together to make a whole,” Wilson says. “I work in a way that is different, I suspect, than the way most people would work.
“Some things may appear to be extraneous to the plot line,” he says. “But if you start pulling things away, you take away the field of manners and ritual intercourse. All of the things in the play are very necessary, but they all appear to be quite unnecessary. If you take something out, the structure will fall down.”
So exacting is his concern with structure that, when it came time for a televised version of “The Piano Lesson” (shown in 1995), Wilson chose to write the teleplay himself. Because of “The Piano Lesson’s” filming schedule, Richards (who retired from Yale in 1991) wasn’t able to direct the premiere of Wilson’s most recent play. “Seven Guitars"--the first major Wilson play that did not premiere at Yale--was first seen at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in January 1995 in a production directed by Walter Dallas.
Reviewing the Chicago production, the New York Times’ Vincent Canby hailed a “big, fine, tragicomic new melodrama . . . [with] an almost biblical richness of language and character. . . . “
“Seven Guitars"--which Richards is slated to direct on Broadway in March 1997--opens with a group of three men and three women sitting around talking, having just returned from a funeral. The action then flashes back to retell the events of the final week in the life of a blues musician who was part of the group.
It is, in Richards’ estimation, a good example of the extent to which Wilson has honed his craft. “I’ve seen him become more aware of the techniques of the stage,” the veteran director says. “He is a more accomplished playwright, more knowledgeable.”
Yet Richards, to whom Wilson’s “Fences” is dedicated, also concedes that as far as he and Wilson have traveled together, and as far as they may still have to go, there are people they have yet to reach.
From the start, the emphasis on getting the plays produced regionally was no accident. “It has been a conscious effort on my part to acquaint the nation in total with his work,” Richards says. “Hopefully the theaters that we went to [will] do a follow-up, not only one event that would attract a black audience. No, one is never satisfied with that.”
Still, although mainstream theater audiences may remain overwhelmingly white, Wilson’s texts will now be around to serve as an example for future generations. Says Richards: “That’s one of the important things about August’s work, that it fills the shelves in the library, that they are a part of that literature and it reflects American life.”
And perhaps Wilson will eventually turn his ear toward the strife of the mid-1990s--even if, or maybe because, as W.E.B. Du Bois observed half-a-century ago, “what was true in 1910 was still true in 1940 and will be true in 1970.”
For the time being though, he’s not yet ready to do that. “I suspect the things that are happening at the moment will find their way into my work much later,” Wilson says.
“That’s enough responsibility as an artist, to be true to your art, without thinking that you’re writing something for posterity.”
“Seven Guitars,” Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays (through Feb. 18), 7 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m., and Feb. 22 and 29 and March 7, 2 p.m. Through March 10 (dark Feb. 12-16). $15-$50. (213) 365-3500.