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August Wilson is Dead

October 03, 2005
By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe

August Wilson, one of the greatest playwrights the United States has ever produced, died in Seattle, Washington, on Sunday, October 2, 2005. I remember August Wilson well. Last fall I took my students to see one of his last plays, "Gem of the Ocean," at the Huntington Theater in Boston. I teach a course on Black Drama every other year and always include one of Wilson's plays. A student must know Wilson's plays if she hopes to understand African-American Drama. Once I heard Wilson was ailing I decided to do something in his memory. On October 1, 2005, I called Albert Laveau, Director of the Trinidad and Tobago Workshop Theatre, to invite him to Wellesley College to read from the works of Derek Walcott. Linda Brothers, a colleague here at Wellesley, would read from and interpret Wilson. Walcott and Wilson are two of best contemporary playwrights in the world.

My connection with Wilson goes back over the years. In 1978 when I taught at Harvard University one of my students, Courtney Vance, came to see me to seek advice on his choice of career. He was a student I had cultivated while he was at the university. Usually he would go horse back riding with Frances, my first daughter, and we had become very close. It was only natural that he would come to me for advice.

"Professor Cudjoe," he said, "I am thinking of going to Yale Repertory Theater to follow a career in drama. What do you think?"

To my shame, I replied: "You do not come to Harvard to do drama."

He was respectful. He said "Thank you" but it did not go down well with him. Fourteen years earlier I had arrived from Trinidad and still carried the seeds of a colonial education. "You do not go to Harvard to do drama. You come to Harvard to study Law or Medicine. Not drama."

I had not learned the ways of the world. I had not become an enlightened scholar of the twentieth century in which there were so many bourgeoning careers with young people of talent.

In 1986, I began to teach at Wellesley and Wilson's play, "Fences," opened at Broadway a year or so later. It stared James Earl Jones and Courtney Vance.

I took my students to see the play. After the play, I went backstage to see Courtney. He was courteous. I wanted my students to see Courtney and what a big star he had become. Later, he went on to star in "The Preachers' Wife" with Denzil Washington.

However, that evening backstage was another matter.

"Hi Courtney! How are you doing?"

"Fine and how are you Professor Cudjoe." We started talking. Then he reminded me of our Harvard conversation of eight years earlier.

He wasn't especially harsh but he reminded me of my short sightedness and silly academic pretensions. "You do not go to Harvard to study drama."

That evening I met Wilson for the first time. I also met him a few times after that.

I spoke with August Wilson for the last time in October last year when his play, "Gem of the Ocean," played at the Huntington Theatre. I did not know it was the last time I would speak with him. I told him that I loved his plays and always saw them when they came to the Huntington in preparation for Broadway. In fact, Wilson used the Huntington to work through the myriad problems he had with his plays before he took them to Broadway.

At Boston his plays were incessantly long and sometimes repetitious in terms of their themes. Some of them last for as long as three and a half hours. When they got to Broadway they would be ready. They would be no more than two and a half hours and they would be a gem theatrical sophistication. I saw many of his plays--Fences, Jitney, The Piano Lesson, and King Headley II--at Broadway. However, "The Piano Lesson" remained my favorite.

Needless to say, I never managed to get Wilson to come out to Wellesley. I was either lazy or inept. I never did the necessary paper work to get him to come to Wellesley. After Derek Walcott, he remained my favorite playwright. There was something about the originality of his vision, the force of his dramaturgy; the raw truthfulness of his rendition of African-American life that made him and engaging dramatist.

There was nothing abstract about his work. It chronicled the African-American experienced through a series of ten plays. Each play tried to capture the essence of each decade although they were not done in a chronological fashion. When Frank Rich, a New York Times critic and one of my favorite columnists, saw "Ma Rainey," one of Wilson's plays, he said: Mr. Wilson "sends the entire history of Black America crashing down upon our heads. This play is a searing inside account of what white racism does to its victims."

Wilson depicted the struggles of African Americans with a lyrical beauty and captured the lives of those who lived on the edges of the society with a dignity that was worthy of the titanic power of any character in Greek drama. What New Orleans dramatized in live and living color, Wilson depicted with raw power and fierce memorability. For his dedication and his artistry, Wilson collected seven New York Drama Critics' Circle awards, a Tony award, and two Pulitzer Prizes for "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson."

Wilson was fiercely black and believed that only those persons immersed in Black culture could capture the essence of his work. When Hollywood tried to make a film version of "Fences," he insisted that it be directed by a black director. The studio objected. Wilson observed: "I am not carrying a banner for black directors. I think they should carry their own. I am not trying to get work for black directors. I am trying to get the film of my play made in the best possible way. I declined a white director not on the basis of race but on the basis of culture. White directors are not qualified for the job. The job requires someone who shares the specifics of the culture of black Americans."

In the coming days much will be written about Wilson. We, too, in Trinidad and Tobago should honor this great playwright. However, the New York Times said it best: "In dialogue that married the complexity of jazz to the emotional power of the blues, he also argued eloquently for the importance of black Americans' honoring the pain and passion of their history, not burying it to smooth the road to assimilation. For Mr. Wilson, it was imperative for black Americans to draw upon the moral and spiritual nobility of their ancestor's struggles to inspire their own ongoing fight against the legacies of white racism."

To that I say, Amen! And may he

rest in peace. His works will live on to inspire millions of people around the world.

Professor Cudjoe's email is

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