"Fences" and August Wilson's legacy

It's all been written down. We all have our hands in the soup and make the music play just so. But we can only make it play just so much. You can't play the chord God ain't wrote. He wrote the beginning and the end. He let you play around in the middle but he got it all written down. It's his creation and he got more right in it than anybody else. He say, "Let him who have wisdom understand."... The story's been written. All that's left now is the playing out.

(August Wilson, King Hedley II)

In the new issue of Commonweal, I reviewed the current Broadway revival of August Wilson's play Fences. I encourage you to see it if you can before it closes July 11 (although the tickets are scarce). I can be as disdainful as anyone of the movie-stars-on-holiday approach to Broadway casting, but this is one occasion when the fans who turn out primarily for an up-close look at Denzel Washington get a terrific performance, and an excellent play, for their money. Here, for the interested, a few more thoughts on August Wilson -- who, I regret to say, is no relation.

As I wrote in my review, August Wilson dedicated himself to creating a voice for African Americans on the American stage. He also insisted that the theater establishment had to work harder to create opportunities for black artists -- and not just in "colorblind" roles. He did his part, writing some of the greatest roles for contemporary black actors, and he insisted on having his his work staged by black directors. (The planned movie version of Fences reportedly foundered because Wilson wouldn't budge on that requirement.) There was a stir about this last year when Wilson's play Joe Turner's Come and Gone was revived by Lincoln Center Theater and helmed by their (white) resident director, Bartlett Sher. The New York Times ran a front-page article about that decision (approved by Wilson's widow), which noted that "Wilson himself felt that black directors best understood his characters, and he saw his plays as chances to give them high-profile work." I saw Sher's production of Joe Turner before that article appeared, and in my opinion it helped make the case for Wilson's position. Sher played the characters broadly, for laughs, but they weren't as relatable as they should have been, and when the play took a turn for the mystical and profound at the end the audience wasn't ready to go along with it. There was something faintly distasteful to me about the tone of the second act, where a distinction seemed to emerge between the sophisticates in the audience and the rubes on the stage.

In contrast, this production of Fences -- directed by Kenny Leon, who worked on the Broadway premieres of the last two plays Wilson wrote -- communicates perfectly what I love most about Wilson's work, the rich humanity of his characters. And it has brought black audiences to Broadway in greater numbers than usual. The audience I saw the show with was full of people who clearly recognized some part of their own experience onstage, and responded with enthusiasm. It rang true, as any good drama should.Writing this review gave me the opportunity (or excuse) to revisit the entire Century Cycle in print -- and although reading is always the second-best way to experience great drama, August Wilson's writing comes across very well on the page. It's lyrical and worthy of reflection, and often laugh-out-loud funny. And having the texts to compare makes it possible to trace the common threads and follow the recurring characters from one play to another, whether you read the plays in the order they were written or in the order they take place (or at random).

I mentioned in my review that I used to work for Theatre Communications Group -- an organization that supports American not-for-profit theatres. I was an assistant in the books department, which is dedicated to publishing and promoting "dramatic literature," and to treating the work of playwrights (generally published on the cheap, if at all) as worthy of respect. In that capacity I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Wilson at a TCG conference in 2005, just a few months before he died. The conference was in his hometown of Seattle, and he made an appearance to sign copies of his play King Hedley II, which TCG had just published. I had recently seen a newer play of his, Gem of the Ocean, in its Broadway premiere, and I was simply in awe of his genius. I didn't know that he had just been diagnosed with liver cancer, which would prove to be untreatable. (That announcement came a couple months later.) I noticed that he seemed frail and tired, but he painstakingly inscribed my book.


I see that same signature now every time I pass the August Wilson Theater, just a few blocks from where I live. It's the first Broadway theater to be named in honor of an African American, and Wilson lived to hear about the honor, although he had died by the time the marquee was dedicated. I can still remember waking up to the news that he had passed away. (You know that mournful cello music they play on "Morning Edition" to prepare you for something sad? I heard that and my heart sank.)

"I've had a blessed life. I'm ready," Wilson told reporters when he announced that he was dying. But I wasn't ready -- I had just discovered him for myself, and now I knew his next "new" play would be his last. It seemed miraculous that Wilson had just enough time to complete Radio Golf, the final play in his Century Cycle. But it was impossible not to mourn the plays he would never go on to write. He wrote, presciently, about a young black politician in Radio Golf, and by the time I saw the play on Broadway in 2007 the character reminded me and everyone else of presidential hopeful Barack Obama. But what would Wilson have said about Obama's rise? How would he have framed this century for the stage? We can only speculate. His dying left me feeling as bereft as the characters mourning the death of Aunt Ester in King Hedley II. Who will tell the story now?

Wilson knew TCG was working on a box-set edition of his plays (one of my last tasks there was preparing some of those texts to be typeset), but he did not live to see it published. I think he would have been pleased with the result. The Century Cycle is challenging and rewarding, whether you read it or see it on the stage, and I encourage you to take advantage of any opportunity to do either. I also recommend this remembrance of August Wilson by Michael Feingold, the Village Voice's excellent theater critic, who worked with Wilson as a dramaturg. Feingold expresses perfectly what makes Wilson's plays -- especially their mystical elements -- so fascinating: "What he was really about was what all great tragic poets are about: the transfiguration of reality." August Wilson, RIP.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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