August Wilson is about to join an exclusive club.
The playwright, who wrote his most memorable work during the 12 years he lived in St. Paul, will be celebrated Friday in a new edition of “American Masters,” the long-running PBS series that puts the spotlight on the very best in arts and entertainment.
“Took ’em long enough,” said Marion McClinton, the renowned Twin Cities director who is interviewed as part of “August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand,” a 90-minute special. “Really, when you look at the impact he had on American theater and on African-American artists, it’s about time.”
When Wilson died in October 2005, the New York Times said his series of plays about life in the 20th century will stand up as a “landmark in the history of black culture.”
The documentary, directed by Spike Lee’s frequent editor Sam Pollard, doesn’t spend quite enough time on Wilson’s Minnesota years, focusing instead on Pittsburgh, Wilson’s hometown and the setting for his most beloved dramas, including “Two Trains Running,” “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson,” all part of his 10-play cycle that covered each decade of the 20th century.
But McClinton said underestimating St. Paul’s role in the Wilson biography would be a mistake.
“The whole idea of that cycle happened here,” McClinton said. “He loved a neighborhood-driven city like St. Paul, which was much like Pittsburgh, but without the racism. It was easier for him to maneuver here.”
While the PBS documentary might shortchange the Twin Cities a bit, it does give screen time to the Penumbra Theatre, the first major stage to embrace Wilson’s work. Co-founder Lou Bellamy, who is also interviewed for “Masters,” said he hopes that the exposure will help attract more national interest and funding.
“We’ve had some great coverage by everyone from [NBC anchor] Brian Williams to the New York Times, but we’ve never really been able to capitalize on it,” said Bellamy, whose theater shut down temporarily in 2012 for financial reasons. “We’ve always had a reach beyond our grasp. Hopefully we can use this opportunity to get more attention.”
Penumbra has not done a Wilson production since the 2011-12 season. That will change starting in 2016, Bellamy said, when his daughter, co-artistic director Sarah Bellamy, will begin re-exploring Wilson’s catalog.
Searching for Wilson
Until then, Twin Citians who want to see full productions of his plays will have their work cut out for them. With the exception of a 1995 CBS production of “The Piano Lesson” that starred Charles Dutton and Alfre Woodard, none of Wilson’s plays has been made into a film, largely because Wilson was so picky about directors and ceding control of his projects. Rumors continue to float around Hollywood of a “Fences” movie, directed by and featuring Denzel Washington, who starred in a Broadway revival of that play in 2010.
Wilson’s work remains much in demand in the world of regional theater, however. Chicago’s Goodman Theatre is planning a seven-week celebration in March and April, with plays and tributes scattered across the city. The annual August Wilson Monologue Competition, in which high school students bring his characters to life, will hold its national finals in New York in May.
Audio recordings of all 10 of his plays, taped by major celebrities in 2013 at WNYC public radio, are expected to be available by on-demand streaming and through public radio stations this spring.
Those who want to make the trip can check out taped Broadway productions available at the New York Public Library. That’s where Pollard did much of his research.
Pollard did some recording of his own, recruiting such actors as Laurence Fishburne, Viola Davis and Keith David to recite some of Wilson’s finest dialogue, much of which is included in the documentary.
A lifetime of listening
One of the strongest voices in the film is Phylicia Rashad. She may be best known as Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show,” but she’s also an avid Wilson student, earning a Tony nominee for her role in “Gem of the Ocean” and earning critical praise last year for directing a New Jersey production of “Fences.”
“August Wilson’s work sensitized me to rhythms and speech in a way that I had not been sensitive to before,” Rashad said. “If we miss a word or interpolate a phrase, the audience may not know it, but you know they’ve been robbed of something.”
Wilson’s attention to detail was an integral part of his genius, including the time he spent eavesdropping in diners and bars in St. Paul.
“August spent his entire life listening, not just with his ears, but with his intellect and with his heart,” Rashad said.
Not that Wilson always traveled a smooth road. The documentary points out that he was all but booted out of school as a teenager, amid accusations of plagiarism, and ended up educating himself at the local library.
“I think August had a lot of struggle trying to find his own song, not being accepted in school, having racial trouble, teachers who couldn’t accept that his brightness was legitimate,” said executive producer Darryl Ford Williams. “Everything he talks about that is symptomatic of his life, he expresses in word, in music and in movement. All those are elements that make up Wilsonian theater.”
Wilson’s years in St. Paul may not play a huge role in the documentary, but Bellamy thinks the film does give the city and Penumbra their proper due.
“Even though he was writing about Pittsburgh, I think he got a clearer view of his home when he was away from it,” Bellamy said. “There was an atmosphere in the Twin Cities that gave him the support and personnel that were hungry to work on good stuff. It’s clear that St. Paul had a pretty profound effect on him.”