The Public Humanist

August Wilson’s 20th Century

“Hold up. You’re not done yet,” the woman in the corner told August.

“Who are you?” August asked, blinking.

“My name is Vera, and I belong in that story you’re telling,” she said. “That play is about me. You got it set right in my back yard, and you won’t be finished telling the whole of it until you get me right. So put down that glass of wine, put down that cigarette, and get back to work.”

This scene happened not in a play, but in real life. That’s what Benny Ambush, who is directing the October 21 reading of Wilson’s Fences at Central Square Theater, shared after the October 7 CST performance of Seven Guitars, which was greeted with resounding applause. Summer Williams of Company One directed that performance, which attracted a big house of over a hundred. Wilson’s ten-play cycle depicting the ups and downs of the 20th century from an African American perspective is being staged in five theaters across Boston, first and third Monday evenings through December, in tribute to the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation (

Re-Visioning Tomorrow: Emancipation for a New Century is a companion program, a series of six public forums exploring themes that Wilson addresses, which still matter today. The sixth forum, scheduled at Boston Center for the Arts on January 13, is not drawn not from Wilson’s work, but from his life. When he was fifteen, Wilson left school after a teacher accused him of turning in a paper he had not written. It was too good, she felt, and a boy of his background was incapable of excellence. August Wilson left the classroom and went to the library. He would educate himself, and he was consistent in his devotion to learning. Not all the young men and women who are discounted because of complexion and circumstance are incapable of achievement. The education conundrum has not yet been solved, but it is key in Boston history. In the abolition era, for which Boston is well-known, a once captive community fought to extend educational rights and then in the 1970s, the schools in Boston were again at the center of the fray in the busing era. What educational legacy will Boston claim for the future?

August Wilson was a baby boomer, born in 1945 as one war ended and another accelerated. The second one, not usually referred to as a war, although full of fight and skirmish, was domestically enacted, and it continued struggles that had a much earlier beginning, going back, in the northeast, to the third decade of the seventeenth century, when a ship named Desire arrived in the Bay Colony with African bodies for sale. Those earlier times have passed and reconciliation is afoot. Through community dialogue, a new convening might render new insights and initiatives. That is the hope.

Back in the 1960s, when Wilson was a young man, he went shopping in a thrift store and bought a record. He took it home and its sound and message took hold. He listened to it over and over. On it, a woman was singing the blues, and her name was Bessie Smith. He was mesmerized. Her voice talked to him. He heard rhythm. He heard tale. He heard feeling. She told of history and living day to day.

After much trial and error, he became a playwright. He left his mother’s house in Pittsburgh and went north to another city. He started fresh in a place where he could create a different future, like his ancestors had done when they walked out of the south to create a new covenant of change. But he took grounding with him, and he studied and learned his craft, painstakingly.

His first play to sprout wings was about a woman recording a blues song. It wasn’t Bessie, but Ma knew Bessie, and gave her a start in the business before they parted ways. Ma Rainey, a southern traveling performer, recorded for Columbia in Chicago and knew her worth. As a public character, she was big and bold and outrageous, risqué. She sang about a dance craze that predated the Charleston, and she resisted the constraints that her manager and the studio boss used to control her. She was her own woman, and she found favor on Broadway.

Wilson wrote another play, which was about baseball, the segregated kind. Fences went to Broadway too, starred James Earl Jones, and earned Wilson a Pulitzer. A third Wilson play, about a man wrongly jailed and haunted by loss, also made its way to the star-making avenue. It was set in 1911. The big mama blues play was set in 1927 and the baseball play of a different stripe was set in the 1950s, when a quiet woman named Rosa bucked custom, a community campaigned long for change, and a boy named Till went to visit relatives in Mississippi and lost his life and his face for whistling.

Wilson noticed a pattern. He was setting his plays in different decades. Why not go all the way, he asked himself. He could write a play for each decade of the twentieth century, and, if he did that, he would be investing pattern and worth in a mold-breaking time, revealing trends and themes.

So he continued his push to Broadway, and a development circuit emerged, which included New Haven, Los Angeles, and Boston, among other cities. Then, early in the 21st century, he learned he had liver cancer. With months left, he used his energy to finish his last play, set in the 1990s, and retired his pen.

His suite of dramatic song expressed his individuality inimitably. No one could take that away. As he wrote in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, his 1911 play, staying intimately attuned to the inner self and joining personal voice to others in harmony ennobled a life. Owning and commanding one’s song was the ultimate freedom, he believed, and Wilson, bard of a once captured people, dedicated his poetic genius to achieving that distinction.

Last year, as I puzzled over what to do to celebrate and mark Emancipation’s sesquicentennial in Boston, I immediately thought of Wilson. He had friends and admirers here. The Huntington Theater consistently produced his plays, and there were Boston actors and directors who knew his work intimately.

Besides, the book was not yet closed on Boston and its racial past of abolition and busing. What was going to be its new 21st century legacy? Revisiting Wilson, his words and his people, and taking both across the city to new as well as committed audiences might just set off a spark, might start a vigorous, healthy conflagration of change. So learning about Vera, the truth teller who would not be silenced and came forward from the dark corner of a room to let Wilson know she deserved her moment in the public ear and eye, was a welcome revelation. For me, it was a harbinger that history’s tale is not yet done and we, the wielders of the living hands that signify approval and ratification, have another role to play.

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