An Interview with August Wilson
Miles Marshall Lewis
On May 10, 1988, I met my Bronx high school’s black alliance club at the 46th Street Theatre, a shrink-wrapped copy of Lovesexy (released that day) tucked under my arm. Amazingly, Prince was the last thing on my mind after more than two hours of Fences, August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play—a riveting treatise on a father-and-son conflict over their visions of black identity. Fences was my first taste of Wilson’s ongoing drama cycle, which encompasses the black experience in each decade of the twentieth century. Enthralled by Wilson’s blues-tinged voice, I followed his subsequent successes: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, King Hedley II, and revivals of Jitney and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Born Frederick August Kittel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—in an impoverished neighborhood known as the Hill—the playwright was one of six siblings. Dropping out of high school after a teacher’s racist accusation that he had plagiarized a paper, Wilson soon became a poet under the inspirational aegis of Dylan Thomas and Amiri Baraka. He began writing plays in the 1970s after a brief stint with the Black Horizons Theatre. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom caught the attention of Yale Drama School’s Dean Lloyd Richards in 1982, which led Wilson to the Great White Way. He swiftly kicked its ass: the playwright has been awarded Pulitzer Prizes and Tony Awards for both Fences (1987) and The Piano Lesson (1988).
Outdoors at an Au Bon Pain in Boston, the fifty-nine-year-old Wilson took a break from rehearsing a pre-Broadway production of his latest play, Gem of the Ocean. Lighting Marlboro Lights proved difficult under the chilly, gusty wind as we bound from the blues to hiphop, Bearden to Basquiat, and beyond.
—Miles Marshall Lewis
I. “I THINK THAT’S THE CORE OF BLACK AESTHETICS: THE ABILITY TO IMPROVISE.”
THE BELIEVER: Despite the similarities between Fences and Death of a Salesman, and the art of playwriting as a predominantly white discipline, you’ve cited your greatest literary influence as poet/playwright Amiri Baraka. How would you say he influenced you?
AUGUST WILSON: I’m not sure what they say about Fences as it relates to Death of a Salesman. At the time I wrote Fences, I had not read Death of a Salesman, had not seen Death of a Salesman, did not know anything about Death of a Salesman.
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. My interest in Baraka comes from the sixties and the Black Power movement. So it’s more for Baraka’s political ideas, which I loved and still am an exponent of. Through all those years I was a follower, if you will, of Baraka. He had an influence on my thinking.
BLVR: Were you exposed first to his poetry or his plays?
AW: The poetry in particular. The book called Black Magic, which is sort of a collection of several books. That’s ’67—I wore that book out, the cover got taped up with Scotch tape, the pages falling out. That was my bible, I carried it wherever I went. So that in particular. I wasn’t writing plays back then, so I wasn’t influenced by his playwriting, although, to me, his best plays are collected in a book called Four Black Revolutionary Plays, with Madheart, Great Goodness of Life, A Black Mass, and Experimental Death Unit 1. They contributed a lot to my thinking just in terms of getting stuff on the page.
BLVR: How specifically was the blues an influence on your work?
AW: 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. Just like they do with the Egyptians, they piece together all that stuff. And all you need is the blues. So to me the blues is the book, it’s the bible, it’s everything.
BLVR: Baraka himself said that if you want to know where black people are at any point in our sojourn in this wilderness of America, listen to the music of that period.
BLVR: Your characters also often riff off of each other like jazz musicians, particularly in Seven Guitars. Your work in general is like improvising on a theme: the life of Southern blacks who migrated to the North in the twentieth century. How has jazz impacted your creative process?
AW: I think that’s the core of black aesthetics: the ability to improvise. That is what has enabled our survival. I came to jazz late, man. I wasn’t interested in jazz. I remember guys walking around with John Coltrane, Archie Shepp albums under their arm and I go, “Aw, man, it ain’t got no words!” If it didn’t have any words, I wasn’t that interested.
All that changed on an October night in 1966 when I came up on Kirkpatrick and Wiley Avenue in Pittsburgh and saw about two hundred people standing out on the corner, which was unusual. The first thing I thought was that somebody got killed. [Laughter] So I run down there and I say, “Hey, man, what’s happening?” and they go, “Shhh!” And they were listening to John Coltrane out of the Crawford Grill, you see. And the people inside the Crawford Grill—’cause the drinks cost ninety cents, in ’66 that’s a lot of money—the people inside, they don’t even know how to spell John Coltrane’s name. They inside talking about what they gonna do Friday night and so-and-so’s cousin got a new Lincoln Continental, you see. John Coltrane ain’t playing to them, man, he playing to the brothers out on the street, ’cause the music’s coming straight out over their heads and out on the street. And the brothers outside, they prayin. This is their music. This is what has enabled them to survive these outrageous insults that American society has forced on them.
So when I saw two hundred niggas stunned into silence by the power of art in the music of John Coltrane and his exploration of man’s relation to the divinity, that’s when I got interested in jazz. And also, as a young man wanting to be a writer, I said, This is what I want my art to do. I want to accomplish that. I can’t say I went out and found me some John Coltrane, ’cause I didn’t have no record player. [Laughter] But I did perk up and I started paying attention at the jazz club. We had a guy named Kenny Fisher in Pittsburgh, he played saxophone. I just got more interested.
Other than just improvisation and being a master of the power of black aesthetic, I can’t really say I’ve been influenced by jazz, although I’ve come to it late. I’ve been trying to catch up, man. Charlie Mingus?
BLVR: Mingus is a master.
AW: Yeah, baby.
BLVR: I got to see Miles Davis twice as a teenager, at the JVC Jazz Festival at Avery Fisher Hall. Seeing my namesake before he passed away was a very big deal. I know The Piano Lesson was directly influenced by the Romare Bearden painting of the same name, and that also his Miss Bertha and Mr. Seth and Millhand’s Lunch Basket were on your mind in creating Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. How did Bearden come to you?
AW: With Bearden, there was a book called The Prevalence of Ritual. Bearden painted a lot of collages. He was painting a collage of rituals attendant to everyday life: burials, funerals, and things of that sort. Bearden, I know he spent some time in Pittsburgh, his maternal grandmother lived in Pittsburgh then. I look at them collages, I know everybody in there! [Laughter] Ah, there’s my uncle, yeah, that’s Charlie, there’s Dick over there. They even look like em. It was the first time that I’d encountered art that was black America in all its fullness, its richness. And it wasn’t sentimental. It wasn’t that, “Aww, we sufferin.” It was like, “We’re the people, we’re here, we’re vibin and this here.”
I said, I want to make my plays the equal of one of them canvases. Put Bearden here and put Wilson up there. I’m not a painter but I want to be able to hang in the same gallery with him, man. And then someone asked Bearden about his art. He said, “I try to explore in terms of the life I know best those things which are common to all culture.” So I go, the commonalities of all culture within the life I know best—which is black life, that’s who I am—I’m gonna express that. That’s what I want my art to be about. This is the way we do things. We all bury our dead, we all have parties, we all decorate our houses, but we do it different. And it ain’t nothin wrong with it.
I watched, in a bus station in downtown St. Paul, these four Japanese guys have breakfast. They sat there and chatted politely among themselves. One of em got up and took pictures. Now I found out from their conversation that they were taking Greyhound across the country to California to go to college. They can all afford to fly first class but they takin a bus, they havin adventure, to have some fun. So when the bill came, they all reached for their American Express cards to pay the bill. They paid the bill and they left.
So I asked myself, if it had been four black guys in here having breakfast, what would be the difference? The first thing I noticed is that there’s a jukebox there. It never occurred to any of these four Japanese guys to play the jukebox. But four black guys walk in, the first thing they do, somebody going to go over to the jukebox and put a quarter in, right? The other guy gonna come and say, “Hey man, play so-and-so!” “I ain’t playin with you, man. Put your own money in!” So he ain’t gonna play his music, right? The second thing I noticed, nobody said nothing to the waitress. The four black guys, I don’t care what she look like, somebody gonna say something to her. “Hey baby, how you doin?” “Look here, mama, what’s your phone number?” They gonna do that, right? “Nah, nah, don’t talk to him, he can’t read, blah blah.” And then the guy gonna get up to play another song, somebody gonna steal a piece of bacon off his plate, and he’s gonna come back and say, “Hey man, I ain’t playin with y’all, man, quit messin with my food.” Other than that, when the time comes for the bill, it’s that, “Leroy, lend me two dollars, man.” Right? It’s just the way we do it.
Now somebody sitting over here would say, “They don’t like each other. The guy didn’t let him play the record, he stole some food off his plate, they harassed the waitress.” So to them, the way you do things is all wrong. If you bring four white guys in, they’ll do it differently than the Japanese and the black guys. What white America does, it accepts the way the Japanese does it. It accepts the way the Czechs from the Czech Republic might do things different. But blacks are supposed to act like them; they say, “Y’all still ain’t learned how to do things.”
BLVR: As a hypothetical, how do you think the artwork of Jean-Michel Basquiat might affect your plays?
AW: I suspect it would be closer to what we moving toward, which is [a] hiphop play. If he had been around in the sixties when I was twenty-three, twenty-four—a young man searching for the world—I’m sure I would’ve embraced that much more than when I was forty-five and coming to know his work. It’s a different person coming to know his work and I’m already trying to absorb these other influences. But I could see somebody being influenced by him and the best way to say what it would be like is: it would look like them paintings. And I’m trying to make my stuff look like Bearden’s paintings, the literary equivalent of that. I hear more and more hiphop plays being written. And they’re written in poetry, they’re written in verse, they’re written in rhyme the same way you do a lyric. Only now, it’s a larger canvas and we gonna tell the story; instead of using the three-minute thing here, we’re gonna use a larger canvas. And I encourage that. There gotta be a future, and it can’t be what it is now ’cause you gotta build on a present and keep moving and going down. It’s supposed to be something that you can’t think of now. That’s part of life, man.
II. “TO ME, HIP HOP IS WHAT I CALL THE SPIRITUAL FIST OF THE CULTURE. THAT’S PROOF THAT THE [BLACK] CULTURE’S STRONG, ROBUST, INVENTIVE.”
BLVR: What do you imagine the influence of hip hop might be on your work?
AW: I don’t think it’s any different than a blues influence or a jazz influence, because it’s just an extension of music. It’s just another way of doing it. You couldn’t have hip hop unless you had Charlie Patton and Skip James and Sun House and all the rest of them. Although it is different; I recognize that, man. I recall when Baraka and the Black Power poets of the sixties tried to wed jazz in poetry. And, see, that didn’t work, because it didn’t have the beat. You have to have the beat. The blues and poetry are closer than the jazz and poetry. To me, hip hop is what I call the spiritual fist of the culture. That’s proof that the [black] culture’s strong, robust, inventive. That’s not saying we ain’t got some problems. I mean, it’s the way we used to do with some of them lyrics and whatnot… [Laughter] But I look past that and I go, yeah, now we’re here, we’re strong, we’re alive, we’re robust, we’re inventive, and we still doin it. That’s proof of that. So, I embrace it.
BLVR: Whose decision was it to put some Public Enemy into your last play, King Hedley II, which took place in the eighties?
AW: That’s the director, Marion McClinton, that was his choice. I think it was not so much they were big in the eighties but what that particular song [“Fight the Power”] said as a relationship to the character, King.
BLVR: I’ve got a quote from you here that says, “If I were going to write a play set in 1980, I would go and listen to the music, particularly music that blacks are making, and find out what their ideas and attitudes are about the situation, and about the time in which they live.” What music did you eventually listen to while writing King Hedley II?
AW: Blues. [Laughter] I said that, but I did not do that. All the ideas and attitudes that hip hop generation people in the eighties had, that’s where they got it from. They got it from they daddies, it was rooted here. So I really didn’t have to do that. I listened to Tupac. Relative to my blues collection, I got a small hip hop collection, or what I call “rap collection.” It’s not my favorite music; blues is favorite. I pay attention, keep my ear to the ground. I do recognize what’s going on. I’m trying to think: I know I listened to Tupac back then, but still, basically, I thought the core impulse of people is still coming out of the blues. So I tried to make the other elements of my play reflect the eighties more.
People say, “Well, you writin a play in 1911 and you weren’t alive in 1911. Did you do any research?” I say, I don’t do research. They say, “Well, how do you know?” Because the plays ultimately are about love, honor, duty, betrayal—what I call the Big Themes. So you could set it in the eighties and make use of various things, but you’re telling a story that is using the Big Themes. It’s a love story, King Hedley II. It’s a lot of things. It’s really jam-packed, with King as a Christ figure, there’s a lot of little ideas that I was working on in there, or echoes and suggestions of.
BLVR: What else is in your rap collection?
AW: Wu-Tang Clan. I got Snoop, his first album [Doggystyle]. People give me some over the years. I got some Biggie.
BLVR: There was a controversy in 1990 over an article you wrote about turning down director Barry Levinson to direct a film of Fences. You wanted a black director, which raised the question: can whites master a black style? That said, what’s your opinion, if any, of Eminem? Do you think he’s capable of mastering the black aesthetic of hip hop?
AW: Yeah. He’s imitatin, he ain’t creatin. There’s a very big distinction. He’s not an innovator. He can’t create in that style so everything he do is just imitatin. Anybody can imitate anybody.
BLVR: I’ve read someone say, “Sure, whites can box like Muhammad Ali, once they see him do it.”
AW: The same thing with jazz. Benny Goodman could play jazz, but they ain’t creatin no music, they not innovators. So the music, it’s gotta be there for you to step into it. I wanna see you create it; it would be something different. Different aesthetics at work. But you can be influenced by, you can imitate anything. Got some Japanese guys that play some great jazz. Man, they really good, too! It’s already been done, man.
BLVR: Many of your plays deal with the disconnect between the vantage point of different generations, in their respective ways of reading society. Do you find a correlation between that and this year’s controversial comments from Bill Cosby that were critical of black youth?
AW: Let me say, first of all, I did not hear the comments, I hear people talking about them. My understanding of it is that he went on a tirade against poor black people. I say, if you want to go on a tirade, there’s a whole lot of things to go on a tirade other than poor black people, starting with the systemic conditions that create these poor black people. I have an uncle who lived in America and died in America, seventy-three years, was born a poor man and died a poor man. How is this possible when they comin over with two cents and become multimillionaires?
There’s a reason why. Of course, the reason is he’s black and the opportunities, truncated possibility, et cetera. Let’s go on a tirade about the United States Department of Agriculture, which admittedly discriminated against black farmers by denying them loans over the course of sixty years. So it’s not one individual secretary of agriculture. It happened to be the same sixty years while this other hand [of government] over here is signing laws against discrimination, this other hand over here is fighting war against poverty, while they over there systematically denying these black farmers loans until the farms come down from $1,200,000 to $3,000. They go, “Oh, we’ve been discriminating against you, here’s what we’ll do: we’ll offer you a settlement,” which the Washington Post called a mere pittance, of $50,000. The average value of the farm is $500,000. And then, you look up two years later, they gotta fight like hell to get their $50,000. They’ve denied over 50 percent of the claims, they spent over $13,000,000,000 fighting the claims. Let’s go on a tirade against that. Let’s see what happens. Because you take the white farmer who was given the loan and track him down: his farm is now worth $5,000,000, he’s now a productive member of society all them years. The black guy has to go drive a truck, drive a cab, do something to stay alive, and all because of discrimination.
Now was the secretary of the Department of Agriculture fired from his job? No. Was there an outrage about this? No. When they said they were gonna change the anchor on NPR, 17,000 people called up and they were mad about it because they’re getting a different anchor on the goddamn radio. It’s America—why didn’t 17,000 Americans step forward and say, “No, we don’t want that in America, we don’t want discrimination”? Let’s go on a tirade about that. And after we finish going on all these tirades, eventually we gon get to wanna tirade about the way niggas act and the way they don’t speak correct English and et cetera. My point is, there are systemic causes for that, so let’s look at the causes. I have a special problem with a billionaire beating up on people because they poor.
III. “I CAN’T APPROACH [MY FEMALE CHARACTERS] ANY DIFFERENT THAN I HAVE, MAN, ’CAUSE ALL MY WOMEN ARE INDEPENDENT.”
BLVR: What is Gem of the Ocean about?
AW: Love, honor, duty, betrayal. [Laughter]
BLVR: Well, how about a “plot synopsis”? [Makes sharp quotation marks in air with fingers.]
AW: There was a man who arrives at Aunt Esther’s house seeking. He’s in spiritual conflict. Then you find out that there’s a man accused of stealing a bucket of nails from the local tin mill; he runs and jumps in the river and stays there till he drown. The people in the mill is upset about it, right? The whole plot point is about this bucket of nails and why the man drowned in the river rather than to come out the river and take his thirty days and admit to something he didn’t do. He’d rather die in truth than live a lie.
Then we come to find out that the guy who arrives at the house of Aunt Esther, Aunt Esther takes him on a journey on a magic boat to a place called the City of Bones in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, which is a half-mile by half-mile. It’s a beautiful city, unlike anything you’ve ever seen. The city is built of the bones of the Africans who were lost in the Middle Passage. So he traces his journey back on a boat, essentially on a slave ship, to the City of Bones, where he discovers a way for him to redeem himself. He takes that road to redemption. I don’t want to say anymore ’cause I don’t wanna give the plot away [laughter], but that’s what it’s about.
BLVR: You set Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in 1911 to take advantage of the African retentions of the characters. How do those retentions play out in Gem of the Ocean?
AW: When I set Joe Turner in 1911… in school, I was taught to start counting [decades] at one. So I put 1911, I’m working on my 1920s play, and my wife said, “What about the aught years?” And I go, What? And she say, “The aught years, the zero years.” Then I realized I had another decade to do [laughter] and it was even prior to 1911. That would be the one that was closest to Africa, so I had to find a way to do that, and that’s where Aunt Esther—who is 285 years old at that point—and the City of Bones come from. Because anyone who was like forty-seven years old in 1904 was born in slavery.
For instance, one of the cats is a runaway slave and he made it up to Canada. Instead of staying up there, he joins the Underground Railroad. He took sixty-two people there and now he’s walking the streets of Pittsburgh trying to find something to do. He actually collects dog shit and he sells it, it’s called “pure.” The shoemakers use it to patent leather and all that kind of stuff too. He found a way. So this is what’s happening in 1904. You got a lot of people wandering around who were ex-slaves, born in slavery—he was twenty years old when he ran away—so it’s very close.
BLVR: Is that true? Did Africans escaping enslavement sell dog shit?
AW: The pure collectors? Well, in Europe they did that. There were pure collectors in Europe. I don’t know about the United States, but I figured…
BLVR: Do you have an opinion about hip hop actors on Broadway? In the past few years we’ve seen Sean Combs in the revival of A Raisin in the Sun, Mos Def in Topdog/Underdog, and Mary J. Blige off-Broadway in The Exonerated.
AW: They were actors, right? They were actors who were hired to do the role and they did that, right? I don’t have any problem with that. As a matter of fact, they did the Def Jam Poetry on Broadway. So when you look up there’s gonna be like forty, fifty of em. Somebody should put them in the same play.
BLVR: Somebody should. [Laughs]
AW: I am aware that some of the actors have a problem: “They’re in our thing and they just come in and do this…” That’s who they hired to do it, man. Let him stand or fall based on his talent, not on who he is.
BLVR: What’s your opinion of playwright Suzan-Lori Parks?
AW: I like Suzan-Lori Parks, I like her work, man. I saw Topdog/Underdog. I was on a panel once that selected an award for her, wrote her a citation and everything. It was the Laura Pels Award that’s given by PEN.
BLVR: Essayist Sandra Shannon has criticized the women in your plays, saying, “His feminine portrayals tend to slip into comfort zones of what seem to be male-fantisized roles.” Feminist critic bell hooks said of Fences that “patriarchy is not critiqued” and “sexist values are re-inscribed.” I was wondering if you’ve given thought to this in relation to approaching the final play in your cycle, which takes place in the 1990s, a time when women are arguably their most liberated and independent.
AW: I can’t approach them any different than I have, man, ’cause all my women are independent. People can say anything they want, that’s valid, they’re liable to say anything they want. I don’t agree with that. You gotta write women like… they can’t express ideas and attitudes that women of the feminist movement in the sixties made. Even though I’m aware of all that, you gotta be very careful if you’re trying to create a character like that, that they don’t come up with any greater understanding of themselves and their relationship to the world than women had at that time.
As a matter of fact, all my characters are at the edge of that, they pushing them boundaries, they have more understanding. I had to cut back and say, “These are feminist ideas.” My mother was a feminist, though she wouldn’t express it that way. She don’t know nothing about no feminist woman and whatnot but she didn’t accept her place. She raised three daughters, and my sisters are the same way. So that’s where I get my women from. I grew up in a household with four women.
BLVR: My grandfather was a numbers runner in Harlem, Amsterdam Earl they called him. You wrote a numbers runner into Jitney—I wondered if you had any numbers-runner stories from Pittsburgh.
AW: At a bar, a guy put a gun to his head and was gonna shoot him unless he paid him fifteen dollars. And the guy didn’t have no fifteen dollars, so Harvey stepped forward—he’s a number runner—and said, “Man, here’s your fifteen dollars.” “No, Harvey, I don’t want it from you. I want it from him.” And Harvey said, “C’mon, what kind of sense that make? He don’t have anything.” Finally he say, “Okay, Harvey, I’m doin this for you.” So he took the fifteen dollars and he kicked the guy, he didn’t shoot him. The police are standing across the street watching the whole thing.
I wrote a poem about a friend of mine, Ahmir Rashid. Ahmir is like everyman. I’ma try to say my poem. “Ahmir has big days / Standing on the corner of 125th and Lenox / Thin lips curled around a reefer / He is waiting for the number man / So he can go to Hackensack to see the woman in the red dress / The edge of impatience rides his upper lip / The loaded .45 tucked in his pants.” Aw, shit, something about the loaded .45. [Laughter] “Makes a soft bulge under his coat / The number man is late / Ahmir knows he will either be in Hackensack tonight / Or booked for murder in the 4th Precinct / The number man knows this also / Which is why he is, right now, on a train to Atlanta.” I hope it wasn’t Amsterdam Earl. [Laughter] That was “Ahmir Rashid #1.” I just got an idea. I might write about twenty more Ahmir Rashid poems and put me out a book, man.
IV. “YOU CAN WORK SO HARD AND REWRITE SO MUCH THAT YOU GET CONFUSED OR CAN’T REMEMBER WHAT’S IN HERE, AIN’T IN THERE, OR WHY HIS PARTICULAR THING IS IN THERE. THEN YOU’RE LOST.”
BLVR: What ever happened with a film of Fences?
AW: In 1987, when I wanted to make the movie, I told them I wanted a black director. In 1990 they agreed to hire a black director and then for a long time we battled over who that black director should be. Once it was a black man, “It can’t just be anyone. Now let’s find the right one.” So we stood there a while. Eddie Murphy was a producer and then they got another someone to take over from Eddie Murphy. I just finished a rewrite, a draft of the script. We ready to do it whenever we ready to do it but I don’t sit by the telephone, man. [Laughter] I just keep moving, doing my things. If it happens, it happens. It’s gotta happen the way I want it to happen because I gotta look in the mirror, face myself.
At the time, they told me there were no black directors, and about a month after that the New York Times put about thirteen new black directors in a photo. I sent it to them after I told them it was criminal that the guy didn’t know no black directors. At the time, there was Gordon Parks, Bill Duke, Spike Lee. There were a bunch of black directors; he didn’t know any. Marion McClinton, who is the director of this play, Paramount Pictures actually hired him and I’ve been working with Marion on the script. When we get the green light, we’ll go ahead and do it.
BLVR: Baraka told me that Bill Duke directed Hoodlum—about Harlem numbers runner Bumpy Johnson—from a screenplay he’d written, but he went uncredited. Will you eventually write some screenplays for Hollywood?
AW: Yeah, I got ideas for about four of em. When I finish writing my plays, then I can do that. I’m not gonna do that and interfere with what I’m doing. If I did that, I would only have three plays written, man. When that’s done, I’ll write my book of poetry, do my paintings, I might even start singing, I don’t know. [Laughter]
BLVR: At a writers’ retreat, black playwright Woodie King Jr. told me that poets make better potential playwrights than writers because of their mastery of the economy of language. He was criticizing Toni Morrison’s play Dreaming Emmitt, saying that writers’ plays tend to be too verbose. As a poet, do you agree?
AW: I would agree with him, but I wouldn’t say that’s the reason why. I think poets deal with ideas of metaphor, they deal with the idea of story. Every poem is a story but it’s condensed in a small space. What’s lacking mostly in American playwriting is the idea of metaphor, storytelling, et cetera. It’s the way poets think that would lend themselves to dramatic structure. They’re used to condensing ideas into small spaces, that’s true.
I read somewhere that poetry is the enlargement of the sayable. In other words, the impulse to write the poem, that impulse is a great dramatic impulse. But hell, anybody could write a play. [Laughter] I do know this: all writers are not dramatists. You may be a great writer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a dramatist. Very few people have done both. I’m writing a novel when I finish my plays and then we’ll find out. I know I’m a dramatist; we’ll find out if I’m a novelist.
I always say that any painter that stands before a canvas is Picasso until proven otherwise. He stands before a blank canvas and he takes his tools. Paint, form, line, mass, color, relationship—those are the tools, and his mastery of those tools is what will enable him to put that painting on canvas. Everybody does the same thing. His turn out like that because he’s mastered the tools. What happens with writers is that they don’t want to learn the craft. That is your tools. So if you wanna write plays, you can’t write plays without knowing the craft of playwriting. Once you have your tools, then you still gotta create out of that thing, that impulse. Out of necessity, as Bearden says: “Art is born out of necessity.” Most writers ignore the very thing that would get them results, and that’s craft. And how do you learn craft? In the trenches. You’ve got to do it. You got to get in there, you got to write. I say write and then write and write and write some more and go write some more.
Charles Johnson is a friend of mine in Seattle. Charles threw away 2,500 pages! It blows me away to this day. I said, How many? That’s like ten books, just to get to that one. And that’s work, but he wasn’t afraid to do the work. And that’s how you learn it, in the trenches. Do it, do it, and do it.
BLVR: I know you do a lot of rewriting—your plays may change substantially between their first production and the Broadway run. How much rewriting is excessive/obsessive? How do you know when it’s done?
AW: First of all, let me say, I’m blessed to have the opportunity to go back into rehearsals with a play and get it right. Sometimes you sit there opening night and go, “Oh, man.” You don’t see it until you see it. You can’t make yourself see it, but when you see it… Sometimes opening night, I see something I could’ve done that could’ve improved the play. I don’t write with a hammer and chisel. It’s not set in stone.
How much is too much? At a certain point, you can overwork something. I’ve seen painters overwork a painting. I’ve done some drawings and my wife, I’ll go show her the drawings, she’ll go, “It’s overworked.” I’ll go, yeah, I worked real hard on that. And working hard, I missed my original idea that I started with. That can happen in the plays, too. You can work so hard and rewrite so much that you get confused or can’t remember what’s in here, ain’t in there, or why this particular thing is in there. Then you’re lost. That’s too much. But as long as you can have control of your material and you’re working to make the story clearer, working to improve it… As long as you don’t get lost up in the rewrites, you’re okay. Once you get lost and you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, you’re in trouble.
BLVR: The New Yorker once reported that you’d only seen two movies between 1980 and 1991: Raging Bull and Cape Fear. From 1991 to now, have you managed to hit the cinema?
AW: I just don’t enjoy movies. It’s not my thing. Even when I was a kid, I went to movies and stuff but I never became a movie person. That’s true, I didn’t step into a movie theater in them eleven years, but during them eleven years there was this invention of this thing called the VCR. So that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen any movies. I saw a few. To this day, I got DVDs now, I still don’t see that many movies ’cause it’s not my thing.
One year, I went twenty-three times. Me and my wife said we’d go every Wednesday. [A young black man staying in a homeless shelter approaches with quarters for dollar bills. I give him the dollars, August Wilson gives him some more. He walks off and we don’t mention it.] Amores Perros, I liked that. Memento, I saw that too. Master and Commander—a piece of junk, man, I didn’t like nothin about that. I saw Sankofa in a movie house in Baltimore with my daughter. I loved that. I’ve seen Spike’s stuff. I saw Barbershop, that was fun. I just would rather read a book or listen to some records.
BLVR: When I was four years old, my mother took me to The Wiz on Broadway, and at thirteen, my grandmother took me to The Tap Dance Kid. But seeing Fences at seventeen really helped cultivate my love for theater. It seems my peers don’t really bother. So thanks a lot, Mr. Wilson.
AW: You’re welcome. We’re gonna change that with your peers, man. We workin on it. I think Puffy had a lot to do with that. He brought a lot of people in there that otherwise wouldn’t have went to see the play. And if they come to see him as opposed to the play, that’s okay. They come to see him and discover the play. People came to Fences to see James Earl Jones and they discovered the play. “This is a good play, too, but I saw James Earl!” All that helps, man.