In the middle of the summer, American Theatre magazine asked me if I would interview August Wilson for an article that would accompany the publication of Radio Golf, the last play in his unparalleled epic 10-play cycle. I’m a fan of Mr. Wilson’s and was grateful I’d been asked. I began to prepare: rereading his plays and taking deep breaths. Although I’d met him several times, now I was actually going to have an in-depth conversation with one of my literary heroes.
On the day of the interview, just an hour before I was scheduled to talk to him, I got a call from a friend telling me that Mr. Wilson had just announced to the press that he was ill and had been given only a few months to live. An hour later, when we spoke, my heart and mind were clouded with sadness. I could hardly keep from crying, but Mr. Wilson was clear, focused, funny and, as always, brilliant as hell.
SUZAN-LORI PARKS: I just want to say for the record: You are our king. And your work is so thrilling and delicious and dazzling and funny.
AUGUST WILSON: Well, thank you.
I loved Radio Golf. I saw it at the Taper; it’s a great, great, great production.
I wasn’t able to see it, but I’m pleased with the work that’s gone on with it. We have a great cast there.
You always get great actors. Everybody is jonesing to work with you.
I’ve been fortunate in that regard. Absolutely.
Seeing Radio Golf was such a pleasure because we were seeing the end of your great 10-play cycle, but also a whole new beginning. It’s like a brand-new day at the end of the play.
Hey, you have to go forward into the 21st century. I figure we could go forward united.
You say “we.” Who’s “we”?
I’m talking about the black Americans who share that 400-year history of being here in America. One of the things with Radio Golf is that I realized I had to in some way deal with the black middle class, which for the most part is not in the other nine plays. My idea was that the black middle class seems to be divorcing themselves from that community, making their fortune on their own without recognizing or acknowledging their connection to the larger community. And I thought: We have gained a lot of sophistication and expertise and resources, and we should be helping that community, which is completely devastated by drugs and crime and the social practices of the past hundred years of the country. I thought: How do I show that you can go back and that you can’t—nobody wants to be poor, nobody wants to live in substandard housing. No one is asking them to do that. But I think that here again we have resources.
For instance, the NAACP is concerned with middle-class issues. I thought if you rename yourselves the National Association of Black People, you get in that community, you can solve some of those problems, provide some of those people with free legal services, lobby the government, the school boards, the communities. Put that expertise that we’ve gained to some use. But you can still be middle class; you can still live the life you want to; you can still be contributing to where you came from. If you don’t recognize that you have a duty and a responsibility, then obviously you won’t do that. Some people don’t feel that responsibility, but I do, so I thought I would express that in the work. In the 21st century we can go forward together. That was my idea behind the play.
Is there resistance to going forward together because some black middle-class people define themselves as “successful” by the distance between where they are and where their not-so-fortunate brothers and sisters are?
Yeah. Because that’s the way society defines success now. In other words, they have adopted the values of the dominant society and have in the process given up some of their cultural values, so in essence they have different cultural clothing. Some people make that choice; it’s certainly not only black people—a lot of ethnic Europeans have made that choice completely. They have been so anxious to become Americans that they’ve changed their names, forgotten the old ways and don’t want to be reminded of them. Other people go, “No, I want to go live in Little Italy. I’m Italian and I’m an American too.” You can be both. It’s as simple as that.
Why do you think that in our society success is defined by how much you can leave behind while you climb the ladder?
I think we’re all trying to imitate the British to become lords and aristocrats, have a bunch of servants and a gardener, all that kind of stuff. We were founded as a British colony—that’s a large part of it. We’ve managed to be immensely successful in pulling the energy and the brilliance of all those European immigrants that came here and worked hard. Their imagination—Carnegie coming up with the new way to make steel, all that stuff—and we’ve become the most powerful and the richest country in the world. So we’ve adopted those materialistic values at the expense of some more human values. There are ways to live life on this planet without being a consumer, without being concerned with acquiring hundreds of millions of dollars. I think, God, you have $100 million; don’t you think that’s enough? But a guy that has $100 million is trying to get $200 million.
(Laughing) You’re right, you’re right.
I just find that mind-boggling, personally. These people that stack it up, man.
What’s he going to do with it?
He’s going to die! And what always amazed me is your children have to wait till you die before they get hold of it. Why don’t you give it to them while you’re living? It’s a crazy society. In many ways, again, it’s immensely successful, it has some wonderful values, it’s able to create some great works of art. And we’re moving toward this art being American art—that means being influenced by all of the different ethnic groups that make up America—and further and further away from the old, old Western conventions of Europe. We’re turning out novelists whom you can only describe as American novelists. They’re not building on Western convention anymore, but on this amalgam of ideas and thoughts and necessity and struggle of all the various ethnic groups in America. Eventually we are going to become an American culture, an American society unlike any other.
Yeah, hopefully a little more Left, you know?
We have to find our way and we’re still in the process, I believe, of defining what “American” is. It’s not all bad and it’s not all good, either.
When you wrote Jitney in 1979, did you see the whole plan of the 10-year cycle from the jump?
No, I did not. I was taking one decade at a time, and looking where that decade left us, and then I would look at the whole thing and see what was missing. So, for instance, in King Hedley, I had to deal with the ’80s, and I realized that I had written these plays, but hadn’t really dealt with what I call a “male play,” even though I have a bunch of male characters. So I needed to have King and Mister and Elmore at the center of that, and to deal with the absurd conditions of the ’80s—kids out there murdering each other over $15 worth of narcotics or a pair of tennis shoes. That became the male play—the aspect I think was missing from the cycle.
But what’s amazing is that, in the middle of what you’re calling a “male play,” you have Tonya, who gives that beautiful, excellent, perfect, perfect speech about why she doesn’t want to have another child. In the middle of this “male play” you have this bloom of a beautiful woman who totally expresses the hope and the despair at the same time, which is so mind-blowing. You sure you weren’t writing a female play too?
When you have the males, you have to have the females. What happens is the male goes off to the battle, if you will, and when he comes home, the woman nurses his wounds, binds him up and sends him back off into the battle. That’s the role defined by this relationship that has enabled us to survive. The women are the ones who go to the funerals and bury these men and bear up under all of that, and provide them with the strength, whatever their battle is, to continue it. You have to have the Tonya character, because she’s the flip side of the coin, she’s part of the male. They would not be able to survive without her. So I wanted to give expression to that at the same time.
Oh, God, I love that. Everybody must tell you how much they love that speech. It’s frightening, and it’s absolutely perfect. When did you know you were doing a 10-play cycle?
After I’d written Joe Turner…because I’d written three plays that were all set in different decades. Why don’t I continue to do that?
Was it like a red carpet unrolling? Was that a scary moment?
No, it kept me safe, in the sense that I was never finished. I never had to worry about what my next play was going to be and come up with an idea. I would just pick a decade and go: Okay, the ’60s—and I would think about stuff from the ’60s. Because I hadn’t finished, I was never scared about anything, it was just: Okay, let’s move on to the next one. It was all one work, and I hadn’t finished, so I couldn’t stop and rest on my laurels or be satisfied or wonder about where it’s gone. I didn’t know what was going to happen in the play, I just started with a line of dialogue or with a feeling. I work like this—in collages. I just write stuff down and pile it up, and when I get enough stuff I spread it out and look at it and figure out how to use it. You get enough stuff and you start to build the scene and you don’t know where the scene’s going, and you don’t have any idea what’s going to follow after that.
But once you get the first scene done (or it might be the fourth scene in the play), then you can sort of begin to see other possibilities. Just like working in collages, you shift it around and organize it: This doesn’t go here; that speech doesn’t really belong to that person, it belongs to this person. So, very much like Romare Bearden, you move your stuff around on the pages until you have a composition that satisfies you, that expresses the idea of something and then—bingo—you have a play.
I’ve never heard anyone say they work like that.
I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but I remained confident that it would all turn out.
Where does that confidence come from, man?
Well…I don’t know. It comes from an interior life, and as Bearden said, “Art is born out of necessity.” So the thing wills itself into being because it has to. Because this is part of your survival, the necessity, the urge to live. It’s all part of all of that together. Confidence is a part of it, and you have to believe that you could dive off a cliff and that you’ll be okay, that you’ll sprout wings and you’ll fly, otherwise you’ll never dive off the cliff. So, once you do that the first time, and you do sprout wings, it becomes easier to do that the second time. There’s no guarantee; it might be the end of it all. But unless you have confidence, you simply cannot do the work.
There’s that line in Radio Golf, “You score too many points they’ll change the rules.” Do you ever feel like there are the rules of the game of theatre, and then there are the rules of writing—that after you write two plays, three plays, four plays, winning your Pulitzers, your Tony, being the great writer that you are, did you feel like you were scoring too many points, that the muse would change the rules up on you?
No, largely I was driven by things like this: I remember after I wrote Piano Lesson, I was doing an interview with a guy and he says, “Well, Mr. Wilson, now that you’ve written these four plays and exhausted the black experience, what are you going to write about next?”
That’s exactly what he said.
I said, “Wait a minute, the black experience is inexhaustible.”
Oh, Lord have mercy. Did you hit him?
No, no. I didn’t.
You were cool.
I just told him I would continue to explore the black experience, whether he thought it was exhausted or not. And then my goal was to prove that it was inexhaustible, that there was no idea that couldn’t be contained by black life. That’s part of the thing that drove me—I would go: Well, if that’s all I have to do, then I’m confident I can do that. A lot of confidence was given to me by people negating the idea—what Albert Murray would call “antagonistic cooperation.” They’re cooperating with you in their antagonism. They are enabling you to do the work. I took that as fuel for confidence.
Sometimes I tell the younger kids to use shit for fuel, you know, because in the right package…
Yeah, same idea.
You can explode something! It’s like, who do you call him, the guy in Gem of the Ocean who collects the dog-doo?
Solly. They had dung collectors in Europe. There were guys that would go around and do that. I don’t know what use it had.
They would sell it.
I’ve been to India a couple of times. In some places they use cow dung for fuel—it makes a good fire.
And at the same time you keep the streets clean. Solly’s part of a long European tradition.
What’s great is you say there is no exhausting the African-American experience, and the architecture of your cycle of plays was never at odds with its subject. It’s like Shakespeare’s writing about kings in those great histories. You’re writing about African Americans, and you’re putting us in this brilliant cycle, suddenly we can see ourselves in the constellations. It’s such an empowering thing you’ve done for so many people.
Well, thank you again. I’m glad it worked out that way; it didn’t have to, but I was sure trying hard.
It did have to work out right, it was written in the book, man. It’s a necessity. I wonder about the architecture, the renovation in the Hill District in Radio Golf, and the structure of the play. Were they ever at odds? Like, you’ve got the architecture of the play which has certain demands—and then there’s that moment about bread pudding. It’s this beautiful digression. That’s not part of the traditional structure of a play, kind of like the house on Wylie Avenue, the remnant of something old and powerful. But somehow you have found a place for it. Was the subject matter of Radio Golf ever at odds with what the play has to do?
I hope not. I certainly don’t think so. For me it had to have a certain smoothness, a different kind of language, like that of my characters Harmond and Roosevelt—but at the same time, we’re talking about a 100-year history. So the bread pudding is simply representative of some of those houses that are still standing—the old way, the parts of the community that we’re giving up. Miss Harriet, the fried chicken—these are all the things that were part of this Pittsburgh community that are being changed because of this slickness with the new building and Barnes & Noble and Whole Foods and Starbucks, simply to entice middle-class people to move back to the Hill, which is only a four-minute walk from downtown. That’s prime real estate, and now what you’ve got is this slum sitting here. Now if we can get black and white people to move back into this area, we will have reclaimed this prime real estate for a better use. But the bread pudding is saying, “Wait a minute, there’s a history here and it doesn’t fit in with you guys’ stuff.” The bread pudding is not part of the traditional structure of the play, but it’s part of the structure of this particular community backed up against change.
What’s so great about you including this bread pudding in the play is that this is not a speech that would survive the test of a thousand dramaturgs! They’d say, “Cut the bread pudding.” The renovation project says, “Tear down the house.” Yet you let both live in the play and create this beautiful moment. I think that’s radical dramaturgy; you’re radical in ways that people aren’t even hip to. People think, “August Wilson, he’s the great August Wilson and he’s on Broadway” and shit, but you’re not a Negro. I mean, in line with what Sterling Johnson says to Roosevelt Hicks: Mr. Wilson, you’re not a Negro. You’re totally not a Negro, and a lot of people think you are. A lot of people have got to get hip to the fact that you’ve got a lot of bread pudding going on, you know what I’m saying? It’s thrilling.
Part of that is I saw my first professional play in 1976, and I didn’t know much when I started writing plays in ’79. I didn’t even know what a play was. I had only seen two plays in my life; I had not read Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams; I had not read the literature of playwriting. I sat down and questioned whether I could do that. And I thought: Yeah, man, do anything you want; do it your way. From the beginning I didn’t pay attention to any rules—I just did whatever I thought was appropriate for a particular play. Of course, I immediately heard from all the people when I first went to the O’Neill, “This is not right, you should cut this, you should cut that, you can’t have this speech there, it’s got to follow a certain throughline.” And I go, “Yeah, well, I see what you’re saying, but this is the way I do it.”
How did you survive?
Some things I changed because I was able to see where they were correct, but for the most part I would just say, “No, this is my play and this is the way I think it should go, and I trust the audience will sit for that speech—it may be long, but there’s a lot of stuff in there and it’s different than they’re used to so they’ll survive because there is a story.” One of the things I discovered early on is that I was giving the audience too many things to hold onto at one time, so I started giving them less at the beginning of the play, because I could see where it was too much for them to digest and remember so that the rest of the play would pay off. I wasn’t totally disregarding the stuff I had learned about traditional playwriting, but I was sort of mixing and matching them together.
That’s being a revolutionary. If you had just followed the rule book—
I wasn’t trying to start a revolution or anything. It was just the way I did it, and I didn’t go around insisting this is the way it should be done. I just go, “This is me and that’s you, and I like your play and the way you did it, that’s cool, but this is the way I do it.” So many people said I couldn’t do it that way, but I just persisted. Like I say, it turned out good. It didn’t have to turn out that way, but people saw a value in it.
It had to turn out good. It had to turn out great, man.
The reception of the plays emboldened me to continue to do it that way.
I heard this rumor that you don’t go to the theatre much.
I don’t go very often. I didn’t grow up on theatre. Along with that, I always say that I don’t go to the movies either. I’m not that kind of person—11 years, I didn’t set foot in a movie theatre. I just simply wasn’t interested. I’d rather read a book, but then again, I saw a lot of bad movies when I did go. Even on a Saturday when the rest of the kids would go to the movies, I’d shoot marbles in my backyard instead of wasting all that time watching these cowboys and Indians or whatever—which all seemed to have the same storyline anyway.
Were you good at marbles?
I was excellent at marbles and those kinds of games, because I played a lot by myself. I enjoyed that. I got good at that kind of stuff, entertaining myself.
Did you have a lot of friends growing up? I would think you were really popular.
There were always the kids in the neighborhood. That was important in my life and growing up. I still remember all of them. Here again, I was sort of a loner, kept to myself, would rather read a book. I played basketball, I played baseball. I was the home-run hitter on the team. I was good.
What position did you play?
I played left field.
Of course you played left field!
I wasn’t a great fielder. I played prep league from ages 16 to 19. I was the only 16-year-old in the league who was on the starting team.
So you were good!
I had 11 home runs in 14 games—they weren’t all over the fence, but all you had to do was hit it over the outfielder’s head, and I was good at that, with one exception—I couldn’t hit a curveball. Most of the guys couldn’t throw curveballs anyway. My secret was to crowd the plate. They were scared to hit you, because that was a big no-no. So when they had to throw a strike, they were going to throw a fastball. I would step out of the batter’s box, and when I got back in I didn’t get quite as close as I had been before, and all you had to have was timing and reflexes and hit the ball. A lot of times I would just smash these long drives, and sometimes it went over the fence.
My career ended when the coach’s son and I both struck out twice at a home game, because the pitcher could throw a curveball. Then the coach’s son (who shouldn’t even have been on the team, because this guy can’t play at all) came up to me and said, “I’m batting for you, my dad said.” And I go, “No, you’re not.” So we both went up to the plate at the same time, and I’m telling the pitcher to throw the ball. The coach is yelling, telling me to sit down, and the umpire is confused—and then my hometown fans, who came to see me hit these home runs, began telling me to sit down. I was absolutely going against the rules of the game and I knew it, but I couldn’t stop myself. Then eventually I just dropped the bat and started walking toward the pitcher’s mound, and I remember the pitcher running out of the way thinking I was coming to get him, but I couldn’t even see the pitcher because I was crying. And I walked all the way through the field, and all the way home, crying. It was a long walk. And when I got there, my mom said, “The coach wants your uniform.” And I said, “He can have it.” That was the end of my baseball career.
I’ve got to say, I’m glad you didn’t have a professional baseball career.
I was going to hit 756 home runs. It was going to be me and Hank Aaron.
Oh, that would’ve been cool.
If I did become a baseball player, I was going to have as spectacular a career as I had imagined in my mind. If I learned to hit a curveball.
I think you would’ve.
Look what you did instead! So, 1839 Wylie Avenue, is it always going to be standing?
Probably not. Matter of fact, I’m not even sure what’s going to happen with it by the end of the play. I think that the bulldozer might come and the police will come to move all the people that are painting the house and tear it down. That’s usually the way it goes. It’s sort of a can’t-win situation. Like the cat pissing on the sofa—he pisses on the sofa because he doesn’t want you to sit there, but what happens is he gets snatched up and taken to the vet. Life goes on as usual, and the couch gets fumigated, and the cat has lost the battle. I figure it’ll pretty much end up like that.
But, symbolically, 1839 will always be standing, as part of our repository of all our wisdom and knowledge that we as an African people have collected over the hundreds of years that we’ve been on the planet Earth. We haven’t lost all of that stuff, because when we came here we did have a history, we did have customs, we did have a culture. And all that would have been lost, except they made a mistake by extending the slave trade over those hundreds of years. They were always bringing in fresh, new Africans who managed to keep that stuff alive.
And we managed to stay alive. I mean because, shoot, we make do and can do.
Well, it’s the community. You can’t survive by yourself. Look at the Eskimos. They live a very harsh life up there, and in order to survive they have to be a community. They have to share everything, even share their wives, because there’s no way you can survive by yourself in that harsh environment. In order to survive you need a community of people who can support you. And we’ve always been those people that rise up in the face of adversity. And a lot of times it’s the power of song that will get you through whatever situation. I’ve found that black Americans, whenever their back is pressed against the wall, so to speak, they always go to an interior light that connects to this African spiritual strength. They ultimately, in whatever way it comes out, sing a song, because when the old folks sing, “Everything’s gonna be all right…” it was all right—that’s what made it all right. They braced up under whatever the conditions were and managed to survive them and move forward to the next experience. The more experience you have of survival and the more adversity, the stronger you become. Jane Hirshfield, who’s a poet, said in one of her poems: “Flesh grows back across a wound more strong than the simple, untested surface before.” It’s a test; the flesh grows across the wound and is stronger than it was before, because you have managed to survive the test.
I just have one more question, sir, and I don’t want to keep you too much longer. What are you writing these days?
I’m not writing anything now. I had a wonderful idea for a comedy about coffin-makers and undertakers, with cameo appearances by Queen Victoria and Fidel Castro and Benny Goodman. All of these things would come up on this coffin-maker’s radio, and they would give discourses, like a discourse on British Imperialism given by Queen Victoria, and a discourse on socialism by Castro, a discourse on music by Benny Goodman. In the midst of this, these coffin-makers and undertakers have each hired guns to do battle in their disputes over the coffins. It was just a zany idea. I’m not going to be able to finish that. It’s just one of those things that fell by the roadside. That would’ve been…that was my next project.
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!