Could Josh Wilder be a new August Wilson?
He hopes so. Just a year out of Carnegie Mellon University, the energetic, well-spoken and promising playwright has moved to the Twin Cities to pursue his dream.
Wilder arrived in Minneapolis in July on a $12,500 Jerome Foundation fellowship administered by the Playwrights' Center. Wilder and Yale-educated playwright Janaki Ranpura of Columbus, Ohio, are winners of this year's Many Voices awards, which support playwrights of color who have had no more than one production of their work.
"Some writers carry fear in their writing, or they become so polished they lose their voice," said Jeremy Cohen, producing artistic director at the Playwrights' Center. "Josh's writing is really raw. You sense this bold forwardness, this confidence. And though he's a young writer, he has a huge vision, so he imagines these plays as part of a body of work. There's a lot of hope in this guy."
Wilder grew up in Philadelphia. It was there, as a ninth-grader, that he first read Wilson's "Fences" for an English class. He was enthralled by the African-American vernacular that Wilson used so deftly in his drama about baseball, father-son relations and dreams circumscribed by America's racial caste system.
"I literally ignored everything else that was going on around me, including all my other classes," Wilder said last week in his first press interview. "I would put it between the textbooks for math and science and read it in those classes. I laughed and screamed and cried. It was like, 'Whoa, these are people that I know.' August Wilson's words changed me."
A solicitous young man with a taut build and close-cropped hair, Wilder, 23, looks like one of the many military men in his family. But his tattooed biceps betray his literary bent. He has the words of Langston Hughes' "Dream Variations" inscribed in his flesh:
"To fling my arms wide / In some place of the sun, / To whirl and to dance / Till the white day is done. / Then rest at cool evening / Beneath a tall tree / While night comes on gently, / Dark like me."
Wilder, the middle son of a single mother who works as a tailor, wrote his first play at 13. He credits his mother with recognizing his interest in the arts and submitting his name to the lottery for Philadelphia's performing-arts high school.
He got a lucky spot, and soaked up the arts there. Wilder later won acceptance to the prestigious drama program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He became his family's first college graduate.
"The first thing I did when I got to Carnegie Mellon was print out a map of the Hill District [Wilson's old neighborhood, and the setting for most of his plays] and went to visit these places that are all in the plays," Wilder said. What he found both saddened and inspired him.
"The neighborhood was all decimated or being gentrified," Wilder said. "So many stories were here, and now they're all just dirt."
The visit to Wilson's turf reminded him of home.
"When I walk around my neighborhood in Philadelphia, it's the same thing," he said. "But there's life in this dirt and in these shards of broken glass. There are stories in these empty lots. And they live forever in August Wilson's plays. That's what I want to do for my neighborhood."
In Minnesota, Wilder is plunging into the community, meeting with directors and actors and working with mentors, including playwright Christina Ham. He had a reading of his urban coming-of-age play, "Leftovers," at Pillsbury House Theatre.
Wilder also is steeling himself for struggle, especially after a recent conversation with a representative of a regional theater.
"The upshot was that she thought my writing was great but she said my play couldn't be marketed to white audiences," he said. "It's too black. I know they told August similar things, but this is 2013."
Wilder said he is grateful to Wilson for leading the way for black playwrights. He also points to other influences such as Anna Deavere Smith; Tony-winning actor and director John Kani, whom he met on a trip to South Africa, and fellow Philadelphian Quiara Alegria Hudes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of the "Elliot" trilogy. He and Hudes' younger sister, Gabriela Sanchez, are friends.
"He is a precocious and visionary young writer," Hudes said. "He seems to hold a story in his heart that must be told."
"His writing feels like that of someone who has been at it for many years," added Ham, program coordinator for Many Voices. "He has a strong writing style, competency with structure and engaging stories."
Far from being overwhelmed by social upheavals and the rapid change wrought by technology, Wilder said he wants to witness that history in his plays, and do so from a perspective not well represented in theater.
"You know, sometimes people think of the inner city as these damned places," he said. "All you have to do is turn on the news and you see the burdens that we carry, the struggles. But we have the same dreams as everybody else, and the same joys. That's what I want to do, to shine a light of understanding, care and love on my little corner of Philadelphia."