Photo from usinfo.state.govThe first and only time I met August Wilson was in 1995, for an interview about the premiere of his play Seven Guitars at the Mark Taper Forum. I don't remember much about the interview because Wilson didn't say anything particularly revelatory or memorable. It wasn't because he lacked articulation, intelligence or opinions—to the contrary: he was a master of elocution; his mind was all over politics, history and literature; and any black playwright who condemned color-blind casting and championed the creation of an autonomous African-American theater was, then and now, certainly controversial.
No, the interview blew because I was a green reporter way out of his league, far more accustomed to interviewing bland planning commissioners and distraught mothers of recently killed children than a man of his considerable stature. From his immaculate choice of words to his rather detached, bemused demeanor, which suggested I was asking the kind of questions a 9-year-old asks his father, Wilson was flat-out intimidating. The memory of that sonorous voice remains intimidating even in death.
Wilson died earlier this month from complications of liver cancer. He was 60. He left behind the most formidable legacy of any contemporary American playwright, a 10-play cycle charting the history of the African-American experience in the 20th century. The final play, Radio Golf, premiered in August at the Taper. Each play was set in a different decade, and all but one was based in the Pittsburgh neighborhood where Wilson grew up. Though the canvas was epic, and ideas of race, spirituality, community and history infuse the language, Wilson's subjects were mostly the anonymous working class or poor, subjects that most of us—certainly our media—find pesty intrusions on their notions of the American Good Life.
Wilson was much more than a playwright. He started public life as a poet and ended it as an artist/intellectual of the first order. He was hailed by Ivy League educators and interviewed by the Paris Review, his opinions and statements concerning cultural segregation helping to frame the debate over one of the major skirmishes in the culture wars of the 1990s. He was a darling of the liberal intellectual elite and media, his death drawing front-page articles in nearly every major American newspaper. The American theater hasn't received this much attention since the death of Arthur Miller.
It's good Wilson had more than plays in his quiver. He was a great writer, undoubtedly a great thinker and possessed great conviction. But a great playwright? I'm not so sure. His plots are sparse, his characters tend toward thin representations of fairly recognizable types and his plays tend to ramble. But Wilson's ability to give voice to a terribly underrepresented part of the body politic, as well as his ability to take a European art form—the well-made play—and infuse it with African-American cadence and context, makes him a very important playwright, one warranting great attention and respect, if not immediately deserving of canonization.