Review: ‘August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand’ on PBS’ ‘American Masters’

Playwright August Wilson's work will be spotlighted in "The Ground on Which I Stand," an edition of the series "American Masters" on PBS.
(Family photo)

August Wilson, a great American writer of great American plays, and a great African American writer of great African American plays, gets the “American Masters” treatment in “The Ground on Which I Stand,” an edition of the series “American Masters,” premiering Friday on PBS.

Directed by Sam Pollard (longtime Spike Lee editor, producer of not literally innumerable but impressively many TV documentaries), it’s the usual mix of talking heads, including colleagues, scholars friends and relations, and archival clips, including interviews with Wilson, who died at 60 in 2005, and performances of his plays on stage, and on film.

But it has an unusual power, for being so full of powerful language, powerful feelings and powerful ideas. Even excerpted and without much context, scenes from “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and “Two Trains Running” among others, are terrifically exciting and moving and musical.

A metaphysical realist who started his writing life as a poet, Wilson’s plays came out of the place where the voices he heard around him merged with the voices he heard in his head. (“Once I got the characters talking,” he says here, “it was difficult to shut them up.”) He would begin with a line, which would become a person, which would become a question about the person and the line, and wrote exchanges out of order on whatever scrap of paper was at hand, wherever he might find himself, from a Burger King takeout bag to the empty spaces on a magazine subscription card.


The film, too, is a kind of collage; it follows Wilson’s career chronologically, but as his “Century Plays” -- one for each decade of the 20th century and all but one set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where Wilson grew up -- were written out of chronological order, it also skips around in time, giving you at once a sense of the plays, the world of the plays, and the people putting on the plays.

Past the biographical sketch of the artist as a young man (single black mother, absent white father, surrogate father a professional boxer from across the street; self-schooling in the Carnegie Tech library -- “I actually thought that they had any book that had ever been printed there”), the focus is on the art. Only the third of Wilson’s three wives is seen, or mentioned.

Although Wilson’s success came fast, and was lifelong, it was not without controversy or cost. Pollard details the fraying of Wilson’s relationship with director-mentor Lloyd Richards, who ran the National Playwrights Conference where “Ma Rainey” had its first sensational reception, and Wilson’s opposition to colorblind casting, and his calling for more black roles for black actors, which put him into a print battle (and ultimately a Town Hall debate) with New Republic critic Robert Brustein, one of the few skeptical voices here.

Actors interviewed and/or seen in performance include Viola Davis, Laurence Fishburne, Charles Dutton, Alfre Woodard, James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, S. Epatha Merkerson and Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who says of Wilson, “He wrote the frustration and the glory of being black.” Some may be most familiar from, meaning no disrespect, “lesser” works (Merkerson from “Law & Order,” Santiago-Hudson from “Castle,” Fishburne from those “Matrix” movies, with Davis currently the star of ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder”), and it’s good to see them in these deeper waters. And to be reminded that those deeper waters are out there, beyond the shallows.

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd