If you had to choose one quintessential August Wilson actor, Anthony Chisholm would be near the top of the list. Chisholm has appeared in more than 20 productions of August Wilson’s plays, including Broadway stagings of Radio Golf (for which he received a Tony nomination), Gem of the Ocean, and Two Trains Running, and many others in resident theatres all across the country. Among his many accolades are Drama Desk and Obie Awards for Wilson’s Jitney, the NAACP Theatre Award, the AUDELCO Award, the Ovation Award, and the IRNE Award.
I sat with with Chisholm in May to talk about Wilson; in our conversation Chisholm was quick to get “in character,” instinctually inhabiting everyone he referenced, from characters in Wilson’s plays to August Wilson himself.
NATHANIEL G. NESMITH: When did you first learn that August Wilson was writing “The Ground on Which I Stand”?
ANTHONY CHISHOLM: August and I were walking up the street in the Hill District in Pittsburgh toward a cab stand when a man stopped August. I backed off to let them talk privately. The man started to talk and he went on and on, and August went into his pocket and pulled out a wad of bills and gave the man money. The man walked away, stopped, and went back to August again and said a few more words, and August gave him some more money. I saw that. We finally caught a cab and went back to Allegheny Square where we were working on the play Jitney. And August said, “I got my batteries charged now. Got to get back to writing.” I thought he was talking about writing on the play Jitney, because when we started on Jitney it was only 90 minutes long, and he wrote it to make it three and a quarter hours. He wrote another hour and 45 minutes on Jitney during the rehearsal period.
I thought he was talking about that writing, but he was talking about a famous speech he made that was coming up that hadn’t happened yet, “The Ground on Which I Stand.” He was writing that. I said, “Man, you ain’t got to write no speech—just say it from the top of your heart.” He said, “Oh, no, no, I can’t do that. I can’t do that.” I see why, because that is a famous speech. And I have my own—I own the original copy. He mailed it to me, typewritten, with scratched-out words and other words written above the scratched-out words. He mailed it to me in a brown envelope.
When you got that speech in the mail, what did you think? Did you open it and read it?
I’m going to be honest with you. I did not read it in depth. I received it and looked through a few pages and I put it somewhere in the house. I don’t even know where it is now.
Do you know how valuable that is? Scholars and editors would love to have a copy of that.
I got a lot of stuff like that. My apartment is like a museum of treasures. I am not a polish-and-place type of person. I pile it up and keep moving with my present-day situation. One day I may take the time to polish-and-place.
But were you aware enough of what was in the speech to have an opinion?
I would say “The Ground on Which I Stand” was the doctrine of how August conceived theatre in America. And his beliefs of theatre in America culminated in a big debate at Town Hall in New York City between him and Robert Brustein. August believed that a black man should not be playing a white man in Death of a Salesman or in A Streetcar Named Desire, or in any of those plays. He was firm in the way he saw that. Brustein had another perspective about it. If you ask me my perspective, I think that an actor is an actor; he can play a rattlesnake or an alien from outer space or a garbage collector in the neighborhood. It is all about imagination and good writing. I have my own feelings about it, as we all should have our own feelings about it, not just because August said it. August did not believe in that. He believed that we should play stuff that is closest to us—as our own people.
When he wrote Fences, which was the first full screenplay that he wrote, in 1987, the year it was on Broadway, he wrote it for Eddie Murphy and for Paramount Pictures. That was a full screenplay. And he turned down a dozen famous directors because he wanted a black director. And even the black directors that were placed in front of him—like Spike Lee and John Singleton—he turned them down. He turned down a lot of directors. One day he told me he was going to let Laurence Fishburne direct it. And I said, “Fishburne, he ain’t directed nothing.” August said, “I know, but it is his way, his temperament.” I said, “Maybe you need more than temperament. You need some skills to direct a big movie.” So Fishburne didn’t do it.
What do you think encouraged Wilson to write that speech?
I don’t know exactly what encouraged him to write the speech other than people trying to define him. And so he decided to write a piece to define himself to the world: “If you want to define me, read the doctrine of ‘The Ground on Which I Stand’ and you will get a closer understanding of who I am.” So he used that speech so that people could define who he is. August was a very fair-skinned man, and you may want to factor that in. He wrote “The Ground on Which I Stand” to let people know “who I am and what I stand for once and for all.”
Do you think Wilson had any sense that it would become as important as it is? It certainly created quite a stir at the time.
Well, once again, he had to define himself: Where am I coming from? It incorporates the politics of the ’60s, along with the history of our people and the community he grew up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh—all of those things are included in that speech. You could teach a college course on just that speech alone.
Do you recall him ever having any regrets about giving that speech?
I don’t recall him being a regretful type of person, period! He wrote for the whole 15 years I knew him. He was always writing. He did not have extracurricular activities going on, like playing golf here or hanging out over there. He was one of the most single-minded people I have ever met. He was writing all the time.
Any final thoughts on “The Ground on Which I Stand”?
Well, I would say keeping his legacy alive; it fills out who this man was. It fills out the writing that he left for us as humans. I think there should be mandatory courses on the speech from elementary school through college.