August Wilson: A Life by Patti Hartigan

Simon & Schuster

Review by Brian Tanguay

August Wilson’s cycle of ten plays, one set in each decade of the 20th century, which include the critically acclaimed Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars and Fences, left an indelible mark on the American theater. The “Pittsburgh Cycle” centers the experience of African Americans like nothing that had been done before. When Wilson passed away in 2005 at the age of sixty, he was a towering and influential figure. 

Patti Hartigan first interviewed August Wilson in 1987 and her last interview with the playwright took place in 2005. In between, as a critic and arts reporter for the Boston Globe, Hartigan interviewed Wilson numerous times. She knows her subject, and despite not having the cooperation of the August Wilson Estate, Hartigan didn’t lack for sources. In addition to Wilson’s prodigious body of work, Hartigan interviewed dozens of Wilson’s friends, family members and artistic collaborators. The book is hefty, nearly 450 pages, but readers will come away with a rounded portrait of a complex man of staggering talent and strong opinions. 

Although I had read a few of Wilson’s plays and seen the movie version of Fences, I knew relatively little about Wilson the man or what was fundamental to him as an artist. One thing I discovered is how much he revered his mother, Daisy, even though she was often displeased with the choices he made, like dropping out of high school and writing poetry instead of finding a more suitable occupation. August was Daisy’s eldest child, and because he was precocious (he was reading fluently by the age of four) she had high hopes for his future. Consequently, Wilson always aimed to please Daisy and make her proud. After his mother’s death from lung cancer at age sixty-three, Wilson hosted an annual celebration in their Hill District neighborhood to mark her birthday. 

Wilson won multiple Pulitzer prizes and Tony awards for his work, along with an impressive list of grants and honorary degrees. Two of his plays ran on Broadway at the same time, a rare feat for a dramatist. His long and productive collaboration with director Lloyd Richards was legendary. Broadway’s Virginia Theater was renamed the August Wilson Theater a few weeks after Wilson’s death, the first time a Black person had been so honored. 

Wilson had a lot to say about the American theater and his stature was such that people listened to him. In a 1996 keynote address to the Theater Communications Group conference, an annual gathering of a who’s who of top shelf directors, designers, producers, actors and arts administrators, Wilson made a memorable and controversial speech that directly confronted topics like funding equity and color-blind casting. Wilson was the product of a white father but had always identified as Black, and with the stories and culture he absorbed in his mother’s kitchen and in the neighborhood. His work reflected a fierce belief that art by and for Black people, art that reflected their innate self-worth, was necessary for their spiritual survival. One of Wilson’s demands was for equal opportunity and funding so that Blacks might operate their own professional theaters. As Hartigan documents, though Wilson’s speech upended the entire conference and kickstarted important and overdue conversations in the theater community, the long term results were mixed. 

I came away from this book with a renewed appreciation for how tortured the journey from printed page to stage can be, as well as the routine calamities that can stall or sink a production. Mounting the production of any play carries a steep degree of difficulty, but ten plays about Black people — whose culture and history are essential to a full understanding of what it means to be an American, but whose collective person still strikes fear and loathing in millions of us — make Wilson’s achievements all the more astounding.  

As Hartigan demonstrates through diligent research and clear writing, Wilson experienced his share of false starts and reversals, conflict with actors, directors and producers, all of which led him to be very particular and protective of his plays. His creative process was exhausting and each play took something out of him and his collaborators. Perhaps this was because man and artist merged in August Wilson with a rare kind of integrity and reverence for beautiful and tragic truths.