August Wilson’s words came straight from his soul
Stage and film legend James Earl Jones once said, “It’s hard for an actor to go wrong if he’s true to the words that August has written.”
As an actor and writer, I have found that statement to be true of only a few playwrights. There is usually at least a grunt or two to be added or taken away when attacking most text. The notion that the writer is God and the script is more like scripture is reserved only for our most sacred of playwrights. One thinks of Tennessee Williams, Amiri Baraka, Arthur Miller, Shakespeare.
The first time I was overcome with August Wilson’s words I was about 10 years old. I was an athlete, not a thespian. My older brother was the dancer and actor in the family, and I had been dragged to his practices and rehearsals since I was a baby. In this instance he was doing a dramatic interpretation of a scene in “Fences”: Troy Maxson bashing his soul against the dreams of his son Cory.
My brother was given a taped excerpt from the Broadway production of “Fences,” for which James Earl Jones won a Tony. A hurt Cory asked his father, “How come you ain’t never liked me?” and Troy answered, “Like you? Who in the hell say I got to like you? What law is there say I got to like you? Do you want to stand in my face asking some damn fool ass question like that. Talking ‘bout liking somebody. Come over here when I talk to you.”
I was instantly captivated by the familiarity of the harsh sternness of this father. I knew well what it was to have a strong male figure in my household. And although Troy Maxson’s railings exceeded the real-life version I knew, this was what tough love from a man’s man felt like. I was familiar with how the weight of worry on big blue-collar hands felt when scolding and protecting.
Although I did not have a trained ear or an understanding of aesthetic to fully appreciate the poetry and the analysis of script, it was the first time I had seen something written that captured the richness of how people I knew spoke. As Jones also said about Wilson, “You don’t always hear people talk like that in real life, but you wish you could.”
By the time I actually met Wilson, I’d been bitten by the writing bug. I studied as a director and was smitten by the energy exchange that you get from acting on stage.
Wilson had only two plays to finish in his 10-play cycle, his decade by decade exploration of the African American experience over the course of a century.
It was November 2004, during the last week of rehearsals for Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean.” Being fortunate enough to have a friendship with the assistant director, I found myself spying on the process from the back of Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre while the cast smoothed out the kinks at a dress rehearsal.
What an unforgettable experience for a burgeoning artist. Renowned stage director Kenny Leon assembled a cast that made the stage heavy with legends. The open and honest John Jelks was Citizen Barlow. The intimidatingly precise Ruben Santiago-Hudson was Caesar. The masterfully raw and raspy Anthony Chisholm was Solly Two Kings. The dynamic Lisa Gay Hamilton was Black Mary. The majestic Phylicia Rashad was so fittingly Aunt Esther, the 285-year-old keeper and transmitter of African wisdom.
What was more incredible than spying on these actors at this delicate and intimate stage in their processes was watching how August engaged the director and cast. Within five seconds of hearing him voicing his notes it became clear to me that he hadn’t just written these words, he had heard them. He was the type of writer who listened to his characters speak rather than manipulate the story as he sees fit. He was a scribe of his soul. He endured the double agony of bearing that soul on the page and performing it to test how it might play on stage. He had performed these roles before, lived these lives before, which is not often the case with playwrights. He cried over it, laughed over it as an actor, so he had the actors’ respect. Wilson was known for saying that when he wrote he left a little blood on the page. “You can’t get that stuff out of yourself without hurt.”
No one else was in the theater but staff and some tech crew, and the actors stopped only a few times to make adjustments, so I watched in awe and amazement a performance that was meant for the shadowed empty seats.
The musicality and sensibility of Wilson’s work are the blues, filled with parables, folklore and mother’s wit. It is the type of poetry that any actor worth his salt craves. The trained actor’s tongue savors the complexities of such speeches, taking note of what spices and hints have been distilled in it. Filling one’s nostrils with the emotionally charged breath to recite an August Wilson monologue can be transformative. The blood spilled by Wilson’s quill made living words that have the power to inhabit the devoted actor and light a spark inside his breast so that inhalations taken for their utterance make the soul of the character blaze up and take shape in the actor’s body and face when he/she exhales them in speech.
Wilson mastered the ability of consistently reaching such hypnotic incantations in his writing that, in my opinion no other playwright rivals him, including Shakespeare. Although it was just rehearsal, some of these actors were already in that place, that coveted zone of inspired performance, “their mouths on fire with song,” particularly Rashad. Others had been to that place before in Wilson’s work, “that city made of bones,” and I could tell they were making their maps, marking the steps to get back there again.
When the rehearsal was done, I emerged from the shadows and assistant director Derrick Sanders found the appropriate moment for me to meet the man, the great August Wilson. I was introduced as a playwright and director, not an actor. At the time I had written a couple of plays that had been produced and had been recently commissioned to write a third. In the similar way that Wilson’s work was influenced by the blues of Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters and W.C. Handy, my plays were infused with Tupac, Biggie and Black Star.
Derrick had previously spoken of me to Wilson, which was embarrassing and humbling. Like Wilson, I was a poet turned playwright, but there was a lump forming in my throat and I had no words, memorable or profound, to offer except compliments for what I’d seen on that day and adoration for all his previous work.
Strangely, he became shy from my flattery, and I felt stupid for not knowing how to engage him better. So this man who had gifted the theater with so much poetry had only these words for me, “Keep your hands moving. Writing is rewriting.” And that was it. First impressions can be everything, and I wished I had this mark to make again.
“Gem of the Ocean” would run until February 2005. I attended three performances; opening week, in the middle of its run and closing night, where I met with Wilson again at the closing-night party. I caught him outside when he slipped away from the throngs to smoke a cigarette in peace. I felt bad about interrupting his quiet moment, but I might not have another chance to sit up under him.
What surprised me was that he remembered me, and instead of being annoyed by my presence he was intent on having a moment with me as well. He mostly uttered the same message, expounding only a little more than his first offering. But his intent was more deliberate, more focused. He seemed to partially look at me and partially look back over his experience, over his body of work. “Keep your hands moving. Writing is rewriting. Trust me and see.” But this time I could hear the blues in his repetitions. I could feel a monologue bubbling from beneath that he wished he could say.
What I noticed more was that he was noticeably slimmer and slightly more fragile than how I had remembered him just a few months before.
After “Gem” closed, August finished the 10th and final play in the cycle, “Radio Golf.” Meanwhile I spent the next six months developing the commissioned play, keeping my hands moving, rewriting, and in doing so I began to understand August’s words, the power of repetition, doing a thing again, and then again and again 10 times and over. The commissioned work opened in September 2005 and would eventually go on to earn a prestigious Jeff nomination in Chicago. The next month, August Wilson passed on to the other side and took his place in the constellation with the greatest of deceased authors.
What can be said about an artist who makes it his life’s work to complete a project and then passes when that work is done? Wilson’s body of plays revisits a history that an oppressive culture hid, altered, distorted and defamed. He rewrote it with a love for the salvaged African mystical tradition, Christian sermon and the history of slavery. He made a Romare Bearden-like collage out of those blues, cherishing what many failed to see value in and made masterpieces that are nothing short of epic and classical.
For the songs, rituals and folklore that were lost in slavery’s middle passage, his plays are those forgotten songs remixed for the struggles of adapting to these shores — what Herald Loomis of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” describes as “the bones rising up out of the water taking on flesh and walking on land.”
Wilson’s text has outlined a passion, a ceremony of sorts, in which the actor, if he digs deep enough to make a connection, can move the audience to a catharsis.
The character of Bynum speaks of the “shiny man” — a guide who becomes transfigured and disappears after he leads Bynum on the road to the secret of life — in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” The ancestral spirit of his father, Bynum says, told him “there was lots of Shiny Men, and if I ever saw one again before I died, I would know my song had been accepted and worked its full power in the world and I could die a happy man.”
Certainly Wilson’s song has been accepted, and his living words still make Shiny Men of those of us who dare to excavate the text he’s left us. He gave us a “shiny city of bones” we can return to.
More personal, he helped me to realize “I have these great big old hands” and “showed me how to get back to the road ... to find my song.”
Boseman is an actor, director and playwright. He portrayed Jackie Robinson in the movie “42.”
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