Monday, October 03, 2005

August Wilson RIP

Play it: August Wilson - Plays and Music

2-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwrite August Wilson died yesterday, age 60, here in Seattle, where he's lived the past 15 years.

August Wilson, over the past 20 years, undertook and completed a project where he wrote a play for each decade of the 20th century, and one a Pulitzer prize for two of them, and much acclaim for all. This coming from a high-school dropout (after a teacher accused him of plagiarizing.) Growing up in the in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Wilson had to pull himself up, spending hours in the library pouring over great works.

Wilson attributes the birth of his writing style to listening to Bessie Smith the first time, and specifically the song "Nobody In Town Can Bake A Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine." There he heard a story, and he heard it written in the street vernacular around him and knew he could do that in a play. He went on to write blues-specific plays, which included Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and Joe Turners' Come and Gone, both of which, took their title from specific songs (Ma Rainey's song of the same, and a song by W.C. Handy.)

In recent years, he's been a giant in Seattle theater, recently putting on a one-man play. I saw him opening night for his play King Hedley II, which was his play set in the 90's, and the man was an absolute class act, and everyone revered him. That play struck me in it's use of music, specifically a scene which juxtaposes Big Joe Turner's "Red Sails in the Sunset" with Ice Cube's "The Wrong Nigga to F*ck Wit," telling more with music the generation gap between a man and his grandchild then an hours-worth of dialogue ever could. He often frequented the Mecca Cafe, a bar/cafe near the Seattle Center (and Repertory Theater) and would spend hours riffing on his youth and time in Pittsburgh, as many a Seattlite can attest.

Wilson's plays have also been home to such well-known actors as James Earl Jones, Laurence Fishburne, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Charles S. Dutton, and S. Epatha Merkerson.

In two weeks, Oct. 17th, Broadway's Virginia Theater will be renamed the August Wilson Theater.

Favorite quotes:
When you look at a fellow, if you taught yourself to look for it, you can see his song written on him. Tell you what kind of man he is in the world.
- Bynum, in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," 1988

Style ain't nothing but keeping the same idea from beginning to end. Everybody got it.
- Toledo, in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," 1984

I might be a different kind of fool, but I ain't gonna be the same fool twice.
- Toledo, in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," 1984

A billionaire attacking poor people for being poor. Bill Cosby is a clown. What do you expect? I thought it was unfair of him.
- August Wilson on Bill Cosby's recent controversial speech
NPR on August Wilson's passing

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drake leLane said...

August Wilson's Plays and Music

* "Nobody In Town Can Bake A Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine" - Bessie Smith
* "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" - Ma Rainey
* "Doctor Jazz" - Jelly Roll Morton
* "Hear Me Talking To You" - Ma Rainey
* "See See Rider" - Lightnin' Hopkins
* "Joe Turner Blues" - W.C. Handy Preservation Band
* "Joe Turner Blues (Louis Ford, Vcl)" - Muddy Waters
* "Walking Blues" - Robert Johnson
* "Samson and Delilah" - Reverend Gary Davis
* "What's Going On" - Marvin Gaye
* "Red Sails In The Sunset" - Big Joe Turner
* "The Wrong Nigga To F@ck Wit" - Ice Cube
* "Columbia, The Gem Of The Ocean" - The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, The Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy
* "Old Black Joe" - Douglas Jimerson

J Shifty said...

Thanks for this. With the post and playlist you certainly provided me with some valuable perspective on Mister Wilson's life and death I didn't see anywhere else.

drake leLane said...

Yeah, you know if it weren't for the fact that my wife worked for the Seattle Repertory Theater for a few years, I might've missed out on him altogether, as theater had always been under my radar.

He's debuted a lot of his work there in the past fifteen years, which is great for a theater-starved (and traditionally black culture-starved) city like Seattle. I'm just so thankful to have had a chance to get to know some of his work, up close.

drake leLane said...

The Village Voice has a great eulogy for him today.