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Writer is stilled, but not his song

In his landmark plays, August Wilson captured the sorrows and joys of African Americans.

October 04, 2005|Charles McNulty | Special to The Times

His ending had the kind of stinging resonance we've come to expect from his plays.

After delivering to the world the last installment of his 10-play cycle -- a decade-by-decade grappling with 20th century African American life -- August Wilson disclosed in August that he had been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer.

The news stunned the American theater community. And in Los Angeles, where "Radio Golf," the culminating work of his epic project, was playing at the Mark Taper Forum, a sense of historical gravity surrounded what seemed likely to be Wilson's final dramatic offering.

For a writer who stressed the necessity of African Americans reclaiming their cultural song -- a song of sorrow and rejoicing emanating from the embrace of the dislocated past -- the timing of the news had uncanny force.

In "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," the character of Bynum, a "conjure man" in his early 60s who binds lost souls together, waits expectantly for a supernatural sign that his "song had been accepted and worked its full power in the world," for only then can he "lay down and die a happy man. A man who done left his mark on life."

It took a quarter-century for Wilson to complete his song, which he began in 1979 with an early version of "Jitney," the play that gave him the courage to declare himself a playwright. But there's no doubting the magnitude of his accomplishment: two Pulitzer Prizes, a Tony Award and seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards.

Wilson, who died Sunday in Seattle at age 60, stands alongside the foremost 20th century American dramatists, Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Though some may argue that Wilson never wrote a play as great as "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "Death of a Salesman" or "A Streetcar Named Desire," his finest works, "Fences," "The Piano Lesson" and "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," have become pillars of modern American drama.

Even more impressive is the high quality that runs throughout the cycle, a consistency that separates Wilson from his illustrious predecessors. Their highs may have been higher, but their lows were definitely lower -- and more frequent. O'Neill's boundless ambition resulted in some tone-deaf drama; Miller never equaled his early masterpiece, "Death of a Salesman"; and Williams' late career remains more or less a car wreck.

It's true that Wilson never had the international reputation of his nearest contemporaries, Sam Shepard and David Mamet, whose work, feeding off the alternative energies of the off- and off-off-Broadway movements, helped refashion the form and texture of contemporary playwriting.

Indeed, there's nothing revolutionary about Wilson's dramatic style. His work found a comfortable home on Broadway in the '80s and '90s in large part because of its familiar theatrical form. One could argue that the realism of his typically one-set plays might have seemed quaint had the characters been white and the subject matter something other than the tinderbox of America's racial politics. But, then, that is to imagine a very different playwright, one whose content was not the breakthrough that his undeniably was for African Americans unaccustomed to seeing their lives represented so faithfully on Broadway.

Wilson often referred in interviews to James Baldwin's call for a "profound articulation of the black tradition," and this imperative fueled his artistic journey with a sense of public mission. "I am trying to write plays that contain the sum total of black culture in America, and its difference from white culture," he explained to an interviewer. "Once you put in the daily rituals of black life, the plays start to get richer and bigger. You're creating a whole world in the process of telling your story, of writing this character. Once you place him down in his environment, you have to write about his whole philosophical approach to life. And then you can uncover, from a black perspective, the universalities of life."

Wilson was first and foremost a master storyteller, though not in the sense that his plots are so compelling. Characteristically, the dramatic action of his work stagnates before lurching violently forward, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes unconvincingly. Instead, the narrative drive stems from the presence of so many natural raconteurs in his plays, men and women whose life experience demands communal sharing and who find relief if not pleasure in the act.

Generous to a fault with his characters, Wilson allowed them ample opportunity to give voice to their hard-won experience. The plays were composed as a series of verbal arias, written not in high-flown poetic language but the idiomatic music of the street, which for Wilson (with the exception of the Chicago-based "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom") was Pittsburgh's Hill District, where he grew up and educated himself into being a poet.

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