August Wilson: “So to me the blues is the book, it’s the bible, it’s everything.”

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of playwright August Wilson, born in 1945 in Pittsburgh. His lifework included a series of 10 plays, known as The Pittsburgh Cycle, that explored the African-American experience, mostly in Pittsburgh. Two of the plays, Fences and The Piano Lesson, won Pulitzer Prizes, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom also received critical success. About playwriting, he said:

“I once wrote a short story called ‘The Best Blues Singer in the World’ and it went like this: ‘The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean, and Balboa was drowning.’ End of story. That says it all. I’ve been rewriting that same story over and over again. All my plays are rewriting that same story. I’m not sure what it means, other than life is hard.”

Wilson grew up in a poor Pittsburgh neighborhood called “The Hill.” He had six siblings, and his father, a German baker and pastry cook, was often absent. As a teenager he was always in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh reading. After a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a paper on Napoleon he dropped out and decided to just go to the library every day, where he devoured Dylan Thomas and read every book he could get his hands on. He spent so much time in that library that after he became a famous playwright, the Carnegie Library awarded him an honorary high school diploma.

Wilson spent three years in the Army, worked as a short-order cook, a porter, a dishwasher, and a gardener, before deciding to try and make it as a writer. He bought a stolen typewriter for $20 and began pounding out poems. He liked to write on napkins in bars, cigar stores, and cafés, listening to the way people spoke and what they talked about.

Wilson founded a theater company called Black Horizons Theatre in The Hill district in Pittsburgh. He didn’t know anything about directing plays so he took out a theater-directing manual from the library and learned. The group performed his first play, Recycling, in 1968 in schools, public housing community centers, and small theaters.

Years later, when Wilson’s play Fences opened on Broadway, it made $11 million in a year, setting a record. Other plays in The Pittsburgh Cycle include Jitney, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and Radio Golf.

In the early 1960s August Wilson discovered the blues, in particular the music of Ma Rainey. The sound and syncopation of blues music would have a profound impact on his writing.

“Blues is the bedrock of everything I do. All the characters in my plays, their ideas and their attitudes, the stance that they adopt in the world, are all ideas and attitudes that are expressed in the blues. If all this were to disappear off the face of the earth and some people two million unique years from now would dig out this civilization and come across some blues records, working as anthropologists, they would be able to piece together who these people were, what they thought about, what their ideas and attitudes toward pleasure and pain were, all of that. All the components of culture….

“So to me the blues is the book, it’s the bible, it’s everything. My greatest influence has been the blues. And that’s a literary influence, because I think the blues is the best literature that we as black Americans have.”

Wilson died in 2005. Last year a film adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by screen-writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson and director George C. Wolfe was released.

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