You can’t talk about August Wilson—not really—unless you talk about Frederick Kittel. Kittel’s life was brief, yet in his scant 20 years on this Earth, he was a vortex in which the currents shaping our Union of States churned and crashed. Born as the tide turned in our favor in World War II, he was the child of immigrants, his German father fleeing the Sudetenland, his American mother joining the Great Migration that surged from South to North.
Kittel’s childhood was a site for our nation’s new postwar tensions, among them divorce and integration—in particular, integration as it played out in the North, where unspoken, constantly shifting codes stood in for the Jim Crow laws and brutal terrorism of the South. His parents split and his mother remarried a black man. The family moved, briefly, to a white neighborhood before they were pushed out, like many black families in the North, by threats of violence. A similar fate befell Kittel when he briefly attended a previously all-white Catholic School.
In the new school, the problem was his teachers. They couldn’t believe his ferocious intellect; they suspected the verbosity sparking off him. He was accused of plagiarizing a paper on Napoleon, of all things. He quit in rage, or disgust, or disappointment. Soon he was taking menial jobs to hide from his mother. Soon he found himself absorbing talk, the daily poetry of black working-class life. Soon he was spending all his spare time at the library reading, or in public places, writing on any piece of paper he could lay his hands on.
He was a writer. His family was horrified. They shipped him off to a three-year bid in the army. He lasted just one before fleeing back to the odd jobs, back to the library, back to the scraps of paper.
Kittel’s biological father died. He discovered the blues. Bessie Smith’s voice was the radioactive spider bite in his origin story. He realized what he had to do. Dying to be reborn, he set himself free.
And so, at the age of 20, Frederick Kittel ceased to be, and August Wilson rebirthed himself in Pittsburgh, Pa., writing his first real poem and setting in motion the life of one of the greatest of American playwrights—a life that would end with the completion of a massively ambitious cycle of plays, one for each decade of the 20th century.
That’s the myth, anyway.
Here’s where I am, white lover of the work and words of a black playwright: in a café, Leadbelly in my headphones, thinking about the problem of August Wilson. More specifically, about the problem of writing about him, of trying to contain—or even articulate—Wilson, or Wilson-ness, or what my wife calls That August Wilson Feeling. It’s that mixture of devastated and alive to the world, America, time, history and the possibilities of language; a high that a great Wilson production can leave you haunted by, in much the way the Charles house is haunted by the ghost of Sutter in The Piano Lesson, the way Hedley is haunted by Buddy Bolden in Seven Guitars.
The problem is this: Wilson is impossible. His work is impossible.
How do you encircle in words a man who invented himself, who is literally self-made? Everyone I’ve spoken to who worked with Wilson says the same things about him: that he had the greatest ear of anyone they knew, and that the greatest character he created was himself. A dramaturg who worked on King Hedley II once told me that conversations with Wilson routinely stumbled into territories where it was impossible to tell if he was testing material for the play, reciting something he had overheard in a coffee shop, or simply talking.
Then there is the impossibility of the work itself—the ways his plays actively resist coherent meaning and didactic messages. The way that, for example, if you read Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s central quartet of musicians as stand-ins for strategies of black male advancement during the New Negro Movement—this one signifying art, that one labor, another entertainment, another education—you must also reckon with the play’s stubborn refusal to throw its weight behind any one viewpoint. Or the way that Levee, Ma Rainey’s ambitious, discontented artist—the character closest to Wilson—is easily fooled by a white record-label owner and commits a horrific and unjustified act of violence. Or the way that Fences’s Troy Maxson—likely based on Wilson’s own hard-ass stepfather—still manages to ascend to heaven at the end of a play dedicated to tearing down his own myths of himself.
Nothing Wilson wrote is quite as impossible as Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Widely believed to be his masterpiece, Joe Turner, like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, takes a world rooted in history and the quotidian details of life and weaves through it a latticework of private symbols that throb with hidden significances. Joe Turner is also, like Invisible Man, filled with contradictions. The play ends with a magic-realist act of healing and redemption for Herald Loomis that necessitates his self-mutilation, abandoning his daughter, and returning to wandering the backroads of America as a penniless drifter. Yet Wilson’s stage directions tell us that amid all this, or in spite of it, Loomis has “found his song, the song of self-sufficiency, fully resurrected, cleansed and given breath, free from any encumbrance other than the workings of his own heart and the bonds of the flesh, having accepted the responsibility for his own presence in the world, he is free to soar about the environs that weighed and pushed his spirit into terrifying contractions.”
The plays that compromise Wilson’s American Century Cycle chafe at the limits of the dramatic form. The ground they want to cover—the famous ground on which Wilson stood—often feels too vast for one play. To some, indeed, they appear messy, or poorly crafted, or unrestrained. Some audience members may sigh when the action of Seven Guitars stops for a full two minutes so a character can explain to another the best way to make collard greens, or for the long and detailed scenes of transactional commerce that arise in most of Wilson’s plays. Or they might see Two Trains Running as a play in which people sit around talking for three hours until one of them rouses himself to rob a grocery store.
It’s true that Wilson’s gifts—like Chekhov’s, like Shakespeare’s—are the gifts of a stylist rather than a plotter. His remarkable achievement is the way he captured (as Chekhov did) an experience, ensnaring and embodying in language the Great Migration and the people swept up in it. Like Shakespeare, Wilson took the language of his particular milieu and wove it into music. Take, for example, this moment from Seven Guitars (a play so titled because Wilson imagined each of its characters as a guitar playing a blues solo) when Vera confronts Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton about his infidelity:
You never showed me all those places where you were a man. You went to Pearl Brown and you showed her. I don’t know what she did or didn’t do, but I looked up and you was back here after I had given you up. After I had walked through an empty house for a year and a half looking for you. After I would lay myself out on that bed and search my body for your fingerprints. He touched me here. Floyd touched me here and he touched me here and he touched me here and he kissed me here and he gave me here and he took me here and he ain’t here he ain’t here he ain’t here quit looking for him cause he ain’t here he’s there! There! There! There!… He’s there. In Chicago with another woman, and all I have is a little bit of nothing, a little bit of touching, a little bit of myself left. It ain’t even here no more, what you looking for. What you remember. It ain’t even here no more.
This is spoken text turned into music (or maybe vice versa). The way “after,” “here” and “there” shift valence and meaning is akin to the ways that composers use suspension and reharmonization to shift the context, and thereby the meaning, of held notes and phrases. Like much of Wilson—and much of Shakespeare—it must be performed not only with an eye toward the actor’s questions of intention, obstacle and tactics, but also with an eye toward the musician’s questions of tone, timbre, pitch and rhythm.
Wilson, in other words, is hard. And this is the third layer of his impossibility: the difficulty of realizing his texts on stage. An actor I once spoke to, who first worked with Wilson on the early one-act Black Bart and the Sacred Hills and has played every single male role in Fences over the course of his career, told me that workshops and out-of-town tryouts were keys to Wilson’s early success. Not only because the scripts were refined in that period, but because the actors needed to do a full run of the show in front of an audience before they could learn how to fully integrate both the musical and the actorly sides of their job.
All this impossibility is the key to That August Wilson Feeling, and to its rarity. That August Wilson Feeling is the moment in a production when all the churning forces come together, when the musicality of the language combines with the specificity of the world and the clarity of the performance. It often arises at the point when all the jawing from the assembled characters shifts and we find ourselves in the territory of the blues.
That August Wilson Feeling is the moment in Act 1, Scene 2 of The Piano Lesson when the men sit around drinking, and gradually their shared experiences of prison in the South turn into chain-gang songs. It’s the moment when Levee unburdens himself of the story of his father’s lynching in Ma Rainey and Slow Drag—who up until then has valued only pleasure—beats on the body of his upright bass and sings, “If I had my way/ I would tear this old building down” as the lights slowly fade. It’s Sterling finally taking action at the end of Two Trains Running; or Floyd—whom we know will be murdered in a matter of days—confessing in Seven Guitars, “If I could hear my mother pray again, I believe I’d pray with her”—a line as simple and devastating as Louis Armstrong asking what did he do to be so black and blue.
In these moments and countless others, we see a world summoned up at the intersection of righteous fury and boundless love. We feel the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, but we also feel awake to history, to the world and its possibilities in a new way. While the American Century Cycle is never explicitly Christian, there is something religious about this moment—something akin to a transfiguration, a rebirth. Something, perhaps, akin to the moment when Frederick Kittel renamed himself in honor of his mother, whose maiden name was Wilson, and set about, as he later wrote, treating his “mother’s life—her myths, her superstitions, her prayers, the contents of her pantry, the smell of her kitchen, the song that escaped from her sometimes parched lips, her thoughtful repose and pregnant laughter,” as a subject “worthy of art.”
Is it possible to access this feeling, to connect audiences to what Wilson alone can do, in a reading? This is the question at the heart of the recent collaboration between the Greene Space at WNYC, radio station WQXR and the August Wilson estate, who joined forces to present and record the entire American Century Cycle last fall.
Here’s how it worked: Each play in the cycle was briefly rehearsed and then performed twice—once in the afternoon and once in the evening—for different audiences, with the actors sitting behind music stands and utilizing canned sound effects. The two recordings of each play will eventually be mixed together to form a definitive “live” audio version of each text; these recordings are slated for a release this year, via online streaming and radio broadcasts across the country. (Video clips from the readings are available here.)
There’s an old director’s adage that holds that plays are at their best when they’ve been rehearsed either just once or over the course of months. It’s a recognition that the rehearsal process is often about getting to the place where the spontaneously profound choices of a first table-read can become deeply rooted and technically repeatable. The American Century Cycle recordings—the four I was able to hear, at least—bear this adage out. What you hear in the performances is the freedom of actors who can focus on language, text and musicality, while leaving blocking and physicality aside. Their choices are simple, direct and forceful, and the text is given free rein to live in breath and air and imagination.
It helps that many members of the company reprised roles they’d already played, or worked on shows they’d been in before. Much of the cast of The Piano Lesson at New York City’s Signature Theatre in 2012, for example, returned to perform the recording of the play. Ruben Santiago-Hudson reprised his career-defining role as Canewell in Seven Guitars. Wilson mainstays Stephen McKinley Henderson and Anthony Chisholm appeared several times.
The recordings benefit, then, from another curiously Shakespearean aspect of Wilson: the way that actors and directors who specialize in his plays act as an informal national touring company, appearing in or helming many productions of his plays. By codifying a company and performing the plays in the order they were first produced, this rendition of the American Century Cycle also demonstrates the ways Wilson created and developed his own mythic archetypes and themes over the course of the plays.
We hear, for example, the lost young(ish) man looking for his place in the world and some scrap of dignity to call his own. We hear him as the young trumpeter Levee, as the lost drifter Loomis. We hear him trying to return south with some money in his pocket to buy land and be free from the white man in The Piano Lesson, or trying to get a job and keep out of prison in Two Trains Running. We hear him trying to finally be a somebody and live up to his promise in Seven Guitars, or find his father’s love in Jitney, or assert, despite a world that doesn’t care if he lives or dies, that he is a man in King Hedley II, before returning to the search for self in Gem of the Ocean.
We hear too the elder mystic who might be a madman, who first appears as Bynum in Joe Turner, and is a symbol of stubborn justice as Hambone in Two Trains Running, only to turn into the drunken wreck of Hedley in Seven Guitars, the Christian prophet Stool Pigeon in King Hedley II, the nearly immortal sage Aunt Esther in Gem of the Ocean, and Elder Joseph Barlow, the remaining connection to Pittsburgh’s Hill District history in Radio Golf. We hear the entrepreneur trying to stay afloat, the overbearing and mythically uncompromising father. We hear the long-suffering and oft-wronged woman cautious about loving again.
We hear as well, particularly in the second half of the cycle, how various characters fare as they are buffeted by the Hill District’s rocky trajectory. Of all of these, the most personally heartbreaking for me is the way King Hedley II’s newspaper-collecting crackpot, Stool Pigeon, reveals halfway through the play that he is, in fact, Seven Guitars’s Canewell—a man cast aside by the woman he loves when his best friend returns from jail.
Finally, we hear in these Greene Space recordings about the best possible case imaginable for Radio Golf, the much-maligned final chapter in the cycle. Radio Golf is Wilson’s Timon of Athens, an under-revised draft of a play that reveals Wilson’s genius through what’s missing rather than what’s there. But when viewed as an epilogue, you can feel the presence of the full cycle beating like blood in its veins, and Radio Golf attains a different, elegiac power.
And, yes, we hear similar motifs and devices cropping up time and again, and Wilson circles the cycle’s handful of themes repeatedly, diving in and out of them like a hawk. We hear the epic speeches and the magic realism, the oddly businesslike discussion of romance alongside the actual business shoptalk. And, of course, we hear the cycle’s lurking threat of violence done to and by poor African-American men as they seek to assert their dignity in a world rigged against them.
Ultimately, though, the recordings are unlikely to summon That August Wilson Feeling in all of its power. Among other things, any time onstage action is necessary—from Sterling’s hoisting of the ham above his head to Hedley’s death at his mother’s hands—the decision to use prerecorded sound effects rather than read at least some of Wilson’s titanic stage directions feels inadequate to the task. And not every actor can plumb the depths of these characters with just a few scant hours of rehearsal.
Asking a staged reading to do something that few productions of Wilson are able to achieve is unfair, of course. What will make the American Century Cycle recordings indispensable will be the new doorway into his work they will come to represent—the way they make the sheet music of his scripts come alive, revealing some of the melodies and counterpoints dormant therein. They make Wilson, or at least his work, a little less impossible. They make it easier for all of us to access Wilson’s song of freedom, to cast aside all encumbrances other than the workings of his characters’ hearts and the bonds of their flesh.
As my people are fond of saying on the night we remember our own bondage and journey to freedom: dayenu. It is enough.