The late playwright August Wilson. "He Really Wanted to be a Poet"
The following is an article by my friend poet Afaa Michael Weaver concerning his experience on a train with the late, great, Afro-American playwright August Wilson. I have seen many of Wilson's plays at the Huntington Theatre in Boston. My brother Donald Holder, is a Broadway lighting designer, and he has worked on many of Wilson's productions, including the seminal "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," when he was a graduate student at Yale Drama. So I have heard a lot about Wilson, and after badgering Afaa for awhile for this article he came through, despite an extremely demanding schedule. Best--Doug Holder
Fastball on the Outside Corner
in memory of August Wilson
by Afaa Michael Weaver
There are magic moments in theater, glimpses of the stage world that never leave you if you truly love theater. Sitting in the audience watching James Earl Jones and Mary Alice play the leads in August Wilson’s Fences was one such moment for me, Jones filling the stage with his largeness, his voice so much his father, Robert Earl Jones, who played Creon in Lee Breur’s Gospel at Colonnus, an adaptation of Sophocles in the setting of a black church. Father and son, the two Jones resemble twins, and that twinning is something akin to the creation playwrights make of characters that most resemble themselves, and so it was the only time I was ever in the presence of Wilson the man, on an Amtrak headed up the northeast corridor as he was making his way to New Haven to the Yale Repertory Theater, where his working relationship with Lloyd Richards, artistic director for the theater, was itself historic.
The Piano Lesson was in production, and he was working on Two Trains Running, but it was Fences that held me spellbound. The long poetic monologues of Troy Maxon are mythic. Wilson’s plays were driven by language, and he was driven by a need to give a mythic portrait of his culture as he knew it, sometimes observing life while sitting in restaurants writing on a pad, a simple presence.
The Amtrak car was nearly empty. It was the middle of the week, and I boarded at Newark, New Jersey, taking the bus there from where we lived in East Orange. Gian Lombardo had invited me to Watertown to give a reading, only my second time in the Boston area. My teaching schedule was flexible enough to allow two days away from adjunct life in New York and New Jersey, along with every other small and part time job I could assemble in graduate school afterlife. I took a window seat in the middle of the car, watching the metal grid of northern Jersey as it melted into Manhattan. After we got out of New York, I got up to go to the café car for a coke to go with my brown bag lunch, and as I went down the aisle I noticed what I thought was a familiar face. It was Wilson, and he seemed to be enjoying his privacy, so I kept going to the car. But when I got back to my seat I felt I had to say something. In my bag I had copies of Water Song, my first book, and I took out a copy to give to him as pretense for saying "Hello."
"Excuse me, but you are August Wilson?"
"Yes," he said quietly, nodding.
"Well, I just finished teaching your play Fences, and want you to know it is one of my favorites. I would like you to have this copy of my first book of poetry, something called Water Song."
He took it smiling, and I took my leave, going back to my seat to chomp on my tuna fish sandwich. In a few minutes, I noticed someone standing next to me. It was Wilson. He was holding all his bags.
"Mind if I sit with you?"
I was starstruck. Not that I had not had my own fifteen minutes, or a few of them by this time. In Baltimore I was the working class hero poet, a published poet and writer with a byline in the Baltimore Sunpapers. Water Song was submitted for the Pulitzer prize, even with its typesetter errors, and there were other laurels, all of which were leveled once I got to Brown with the children of privilege. It was there that I studied playwriting and theater for two years under the tutelage of Paula H. Vogel and the late George H. Bass, but here was Wilson, who was on my graduate school reading list. Here was the man asking to sit with me. I mumbled, "Sure."
There we were, on the tracks under northern stars. For a little less than two hours I had August Wilson all to myself, and he was generous. He told jokes and made me laugh, much of my laughter the joy also of feeling included in this thing called American theater that I so much wanted to move into as a playwright. He spoke, and I knew he was Troy Maxon, the man who tried to explain his adulterous behavior to his wife in the metaphor of baseball, saying he had stood on first base for eighteen years and just could not resist stealing second, the man who responded to his son’s query about whether he loved him by saying he put that "beating heart" in the boy’s chest and that was all he needed to know, the man who told his best friend of how he sometimes felt haunted by the wrongdoings of his father and that his greatest nightmare was that he might become a man just like his father, that most painful anxiety of influence.
Wilson explained to me that he had always wanted to be a poet and that he once took a workshop with Jerry Barrax. As he explained this, he pointed to Jerry’s name on the back of my book where it appeared in the list of poets who had been published in this series, the Callaloo series. He said he revised his poems using an index card to go through the poem a line at a time. He was meticulous in the way self-made men are meticulous, all bets on the long shot, the artistic representation coming from places that have been deemed incapable of art.
A few years later in a conversation with Jerry Barrax, I asked if he remembered August Wilson as a poetry workshop student, and he said he indeed remembered. Barrax went on to explain how Wilson wore a tweed jacket to class.
"He really wanted to be a poet."
In Fences, Troy Maxon explains how he wrestled with Death.
The middle of July, 1941. It got real cold just like it be winter. It seemed like Death himself reached out and touched me on the shoulder. He touch me just like I touch you. I got cold as ice and Death standing there grinning at me…I wrestled with Death for three days and three nights and I’m standing here to tell you about it.
Art speaks of how it defies death and claims a longer life. I sat watching James Earl Jones perform as Troy Maxon while remembering Jones’ father was in Langston Hughes’ play Don’t You Want to Be Free? , a Depression era piece staged by Hughes’ Harlem Suitcase Theater, so named because all they owned fit into a suitcase, again making art from unexpected places, and that is so much the heritage of this thing called Black American Theater, which Wilson celebrated publicly and was so proud to be a member of, a tradition going back to Anita Bush, founder of the Lafayette Players, a woman who was known in her lifetime as the Little Mother of Negro Theater, a tradition that has its origin in a man we know little of except that he founded the African Grove Theater in what is now the Washington Square neighborhood of New York University, in a building that once stood near the corner of Bleeker and Grove Streets. That man was the mysterious Mr. Brown.
My lunch was not so important to me at this point. Wilson talked more about the city he loved, Pittsburgh, of people he had known, and I could sense when he was extending biographies in the way mythmakers do, constructing lives so that they rise up from the factual patterns of their actual lives, as subjective as facts come to be. His gestures were embellished by his working class argot, and I could see the figure of one of his mentors, another African-American playwright by the name of Robb Penny, whom I got to know in the ten years I worked with him as a member of a Chicago-based think tank on black theater known as PDI, the brainchild of Abena Joan Brown, founder and director of ETA theater, an institution that has become an icon as one of the remnants of black theater. In its thirty years of operation, ETA has been a working base for many of the great achievers in black theater, including Ron Milner, Woodie King, Vantile Whitfield, Eleanor Traylor, Don Evans, Jaye T. Stewart, and many more, several of whom have lost the wrestling match with Death.
We met two or three times a year in Chicago to see plays in production at ETA and to spend the weekend dissecting the script and all aspects of production, all the way to excruciating details and heated discussions of what works and does not work for black theater and black culture. It was this belief in the necessity of a vital theater for a vital culture and the need of black Americans for a special vitality that Wilson embodied, as is evidenced by his oeuvre, his completion of his cycle of plays, full as they are with characters of mythic proportions.
Rob Milner passed several months before Wilson, and Robb Penny passed away three years ago, in springtime, just four days before my own father gave Death a left hook that failed to push the giant specter of endings away. Penny, a man who had been a surrogate father to Wilson, toward the end would walk out at night under the Pittsburgh sky and gaze on the stars, at the end of a lifetime given to serving the tradition of African-American artists, of honoring what he saw as a need for continuity. He and his wife Betty spoke fondly of Wilson. Once when we were discussing a play of Wilson’s that was not a favorite of Betty’s, she spoke out of the linguistic quilt that so much made the language of the Wilson’s plays.
"I can say anything I want about that boy’s plays because I fed him spaghetti in my kitchen."
By the time we got to New Haven I had forgotten about my tuna. It was the only
time we ever met or talked, although he did tell Robb once that he did remember me and that ride. He was a writer of memories and assembling. He was the poet he wanted to be.
Death ain’t nothing to play with. And I know he’s gonna get me. I know I got to join his army…his camp followers. But as long as I keep up my strength and see him coming…as long as I keep up my vigilance…he’s gonna have to fight mto get me. I ain’t going easy.
Every goodbye ain’t gone. Every shut eye ain’t sleep.
Afaa Michael Weaver’s Multittudes is one of his recent books of poetry. Rollback is his new play. He teaches at Simmons College.