Because February is set aside for the national recognition of African American culture and history, where overt acknowledgment and examination of the many unique contributions of African Americans to our nation’s unique cultural history, I will be focusing the next several weeks on films by African American filmmakers. Begun nearly 100 years ago in 1926, African American scholar Carter Woodson felt the necessity for a serious, focused recognition of Black culture and established a part of each February as “Negro History Week”. Sometime thereafter the entire month was then called Black History Month.
If Mr. Woodson were alive today I’m sure he’d give much praise to director Sam Pollard’s excellent 2015 documentary “August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand.” Wilson was the outstanding playwright, who has been called by some “America’s Shakespeare” and whose amazing, simply unique 10-play cycle chronicled the distinct experience of African Americans, each set in Pittsburgh, in each decade of the 20th Century. One contemporary playwright called him a visionary storyteller and “distiller of the Black experience.” Shortly after his death on October 16, 2005, a Broadway theatre on West 52nd Street in midtown Manhattan was named in his honor.
The film contains numerous interviews with Wilson from various times in his career, rarely seen videotaped production scenes from several of his plays and interviews with actors who knew and worked with him, including Viola Davis, James Earl Jones, Laurence Fishburne, Charles Dutton, and Phylicia Rashad. Directors Lloyd Richards and Bill Partlan add their unique connections with Wilson, too. The genius of Wilson’s work is examined and remembered with the fondest passion.
Wilson was born in 1945 to a Caucasian father, Fred Kittel, a pastry chef originally from Bohemia and Daisy Wilson, an African American mother. August’s name at birth was Frederick August Kittel. He was raised in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. His father was an alcoholic and rarely around.
August began his career as a poet. August would observe people in his Pittsburgh neighborhood—in diners, pool rooms, and barbershops. He frequently wrote longhand while sitting in bars and restaurants. During the Black Power movement in the 1960s, he started the Black Horizons Theatre working with Rob Penny in hopes of educating and politicizing the community. Later in St. Paul, Minnesota his first play, “Black Bart and the Sacred Hills” was performed by the Penumbra Theater
Later he joined the O’Neill National Playwright Conference and joined forces with Lloyd Richards, the dean of Black Theatre, also the man who would direct many of Wilson’s greatest plays.
Pollard’s documentary includes extensive excerpts from his early plays “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, where certain characters are noted to act in rhythm, like instruments in a jazz band. Then in “The Piano Lesson”, the symbolic nature of a 125-year-old piano is used to reflect the history and struggle of a people over that same time period. And in the powerful scenes from “Fences”, the story of garbage man, and former Negro League baseball player, Troy Maxson, a man who missed his opportunity for sports fame due to racial prohibitions, the stunning James Earl Jones is shown in clips from recreations of the original production.
Later still Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero discusses August’s writing process, which includes multiple drafts of notes taken from various venues, on writing tablets, scraps of cardboard and even a Burger King bag. She states, he “worked like a collagist pasting parts together” from all the sources.
Wilson himself notes sometimes a line of dialogue comes to mind and from there he developed a character with goals and desires. As in the opening line of “Two Trains Running”, a character simply says. “When I left Jackson, I said I was going to buy me a V8 Ford, and I was going to drive by Mr. Henry Ford’s house and honk the horn. If anybody came to the window I was going to wave.”
In Wilson’s short 60 year lifetime his work captured the spirit, the struggle, the hopes and aspirations of the African American people with such clarity and compassion. Two of these 10 plays in the cycle, “The Piano Lesson and Fences”, won Pulitzer Prizes for drama and Fences won the Tony Award for best play.