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Black Storytellers Matter

Why it's important that August Wilson spoke about the black experience

David Cooper

August Wilson’s Jitney is the first of his ten “Pittsburgh Cycle” plays to be staged, but it is also the only one of them that never made it to Broadway. The closest it came was when, 15 years ago, it opened at the Second Stage Theatre on New York City’s 43rd Street and Eighth Avenue, “off-Broadway” only by a few blocks. I was a young talent agency assistant at the time working with one of the play’s stars. I was invited to the opening and soon found myself standing in front of the Tony and Pulitzer Prize Award-winning playwright, who I’d known more as a local hero.

Though I was born and raised in Cleveland, the city of Pittsburgh has long been my second home. My great-grandparents, a pair of sharecroppers from Dothan, Alabama named William and Willie Pearl Howard, migrated north in the 1920s, settling in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, just north of downtown. Two generations later, my mother, Dr. Rosalyn Howard, was the last Howard to be born while our immediate family still lived on Chauncey Street on the Hill, near Bedford Avenue, where Wilson was raised and observed the lives he’d later put into his plays. He and my late uncle Ronnie had been around the same age.

I wasn’t overwhelmed by Wilson’s physical or literary stature when he turned to me and shook my hand. What I thought of immediately were our shared roots. My first words were a bit embarrassing, but I’m still glad I asked. After all, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.

“My mother’s family is from the Hill District, like you,” I told Wilson. “Any chance you knew the Howards?”

The playwright bemusedly replied that the family name didn’t ring a bell, but I realized what I’d asked was a bit rhetorical. I already knew that he knew my people. They were in his plays.

Last week, PBS premiered a new tribute to Wilson, the American Masters documentary August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand. The film takes its title from a 1996 Theatre Communications Group conference keynote address where Wilson said:

We do not need color-blind casting. We need some theaters. We need some theaters to develop our playwrights. Without theaters, we cannot develop our talents… Black theater is alive, it is vibrant, it is vital. It just isn’t funded.

In an essay later that year, Robert Brustein derided Wilson’s address as a “rambling jeremiad” that backed “subsidized separatism.” In the film, Brustein, a former New Republic theater critic, tried to clarify those sentiments—specifically noting that he primarily opposed Wilson’s view that black actors shouldn’t appear in plays written by white playwrights. Others, however, offered that the critic simply didn’t understand that Wilson’s emphasis on African American culture wasn’t putting down anybody else. As actor S. Epatha Merkerson said in her interview for the film: The playwright just wanted black actors to work. But I’d go further. The documentary underscored just how important it is that people—especially those, like ours, prone to cultural erasure—have someone as skilled as Wilson telling our stories.

The Ground on Which I Stand offers a new lens into how Wilson articulated local experiences into universal themes on the stage. The film visits the Hill District almost immediately, the home of the real-life characters who would later find themselves dramatized in Wilson’s lauded plays. This is the same place where Wilson, who died in 2005, set nine of the ten plays about the African American experience that form his “Pittsburgh Cycle.” He didn’t always name the city, however. Even Wilson’s award-winning play, Fences, set in the 1950s, never specifies the city in which it’s set. But my mother recognized it right away.

“The setting was the back porch of a board house, facing a dirt road alleyway,” she told me of the first time she saw Fences performed. “I felt I as though I was thrust back in time to my grandmother’s and grandfather’s porch on Chauncey Street,” she said. “The set and the script brought back deeply buried childhood memories: The chickens in the backyard that would later wind up on our dinner plate. The scar I have on my knee from the torn screen on the door. Every time I look at it, I think of that house.”

The neighborhood didn’t always evoke pleasant recollections. The Ground on Which I Stand outlines how Wilson became a truant thanks to racism in his school, going on to educate himself for years in the public library. His early playwriting work with the black-nationalist Black Horizon Theater in Pittsburgh was created, as he states in the film, with the explicit goal of politicizing audiences who viewed them. To do that, he wrote in the meter of conversations he heard in local diners and pool halls. And as Wilson himself said in an archive interview featured in the documentary, he saw more success when he “listened” to the fictional characters he created. Soon, he found it difficult to “get them to shut up.”

“Wilson’s articulation of the speech, behavior, and emotions that he heard, saw, and felt in that community brilliantly communicated the pain of unequal treatment in work and in life,” my mother said. She cited the example of African American men being barred from trade unions (and therefore from higher wages), and the wretched gender dynamics in the home that often emerged from that disrespect. She also noted how Wilson took care to depict “the joy at what might by some be considered small things, such as getting the extra money to buy some fabric to make a new dress.”

My mother spent her early years on the Hill, but she is also a cultural anthropologist who recognizes elements of Wilson’s work as a cousin to what she does. “He liked to stand back and listen, but he was also a participating member of the community,” my mother told me, explaining that one of the main ways a cultural anthropologist collects information is through observation. The documentary used interviews with those who found themselves under Wilson’s gaze, from his own family to the owner of a local restaurant where he’d sit for hours in a booth writing. “That perspective allowed him to craft portrayals of the characters that were so realistic and often universal that when African Americans watched these plays, the characters, dialogues, and themes touched them in palpable ways.” Wilson’s observations became intense portrayals, she added, that brought to light obscure elements of black life heretofore invisible to many.

The economic hardship and systemic racism suffered by African Americans were hardly the only subjects Wilson tackled. Seven Guitars deals with black manhood. In King Hedley II, set in the 1990s, actors, such as future Oscar nominee Viola Davis, powerfully brought women’s reproductive choice into an African American arena. Wilson also delved into the paranormal in The Piano Lesson and Gem of the Ocean. In that way, the playwright perhaps helped us see aspects of our lives even we tried to erase.

“He was not adding some supernatural elements for window dressing,” my mother said. “Spiritualism was actually a cultural retention of the belief systems inherent to many African cultures,” she continued. “The ancestors are very much a part of our daily lives.”

The term “blood memory” comes up in the film, referring to that sensation we have when we open ourselves up to sensations simultaneously new and ancient. I have never lived on the Hill myself. But I believe that what I feel when I read Wilson’s plays and see them performed is a kind of blood memory, the ghosts of my own forebears drifting through my life. My late grandmother Odessa, who never missed a Wilson production in Pittsburgh and sometimes came here to New York City to see his plays, felt something much more earthly: pride. “Mom was always proud of the fact that August Wilson was from the Hill and had made a real name for himself,” my mother recalled. My mother’s and my grandmother’s Hill doesn’t exist anymore. It was eventually destroyed by the city itself, which tore down affordable housing to allow room for gentrification to take hold.

That fate only makes it more important that Wilson had been there at all. He told the stories of people who could have otherwise been rendered invisible—or like our older ancestors, been lost to history altogether. And he told them in their contemporary cadence. Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” is executed with such skill and sensitivity that he managed to turn the Hill District into an American Stratford-upon-Avon, shining a light on everyday lives lived and from the places whence we came.

Watch the film in its entirety below.