AUGUST WILSON: A Life, by Patti Hartigan
In 1986, David Mamet published his best book, a slim and semi-hardboiled treatise on theater and life titled “Writing in Restaurants.” This was decades before he became “the Kanye West of American letters,” as The Forward put it last year. Alas, the book was only vaguely about restaurants.
Mamet’s title came back to me while I was reading Patti Hartigan’s biography of another essential American playwright, August Wilson. Wilson, who died in 2005, spent so much time lingering in diners that “Writing in Restaurants” is a plausible alternative subtitle for Hartigan’s “August Wilson: A Life.”
Wilson was a large, bearded man, often in tweeds and a pageboy cap. He’d sit in the back with a cup of coffee and an overflowing ashtray. (He smoked five packs a day and didn’t pause while in the shower.) He’d write on napkins or receipts, whatever was handy.
He wrote one early play, “Jitney,” in an Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips. As his fame grew, he’d find a place in each city where his plays were staged. He’d call this joint “the Spot.” In New York City, he liked the seedy charm of the Hotel Edison’s coffee shop, known to regulars as the Polish Tea Room. In Boston, it was Ann’s Cafeteria. In Seattle, Caffe Ladro. He’d bring newspapers, and sometimes a friend. Over breakfast he’d hold court for four or five hours at a time. It was his daily slice of experimental theater.
Wilson was a raconteur, with an autodidact’s darting curiosity. He was born in Pittsburgh in 1945, to a single Black mother who raised him and his siblings largely on welfare checks. He mined that city, especially its historically African American Hill District, as if it were coal; he was tapping a seam. The family’s first house had no hot water and an outhouse in the backyard. Wilson dropped out of high school and had a brief stint in the Army. He educated himself in Pittsburgh’s libraries the way Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that he did at Howard University: “three call slips at a time.”
He thought he might be a poet. His early verse was ornate and indebted to Dylan Thomas; it made him a figure of gentle derision. He discovered Bessie Smith and the blues, and he fell sideways into theater. Amiri Baraka was a key influence; the poet, playwright and activist had come to Pittsburgh in 1968, at the height of the Black Power movement, and delivered a galvanizing speech. Wilson was 23 at the time.
Baraka had founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School in Harlem in 1965. Wilson and his arts-world friends decided to start their own theater, which they called Black Horizons. No one volunteered to lead it, and Wilson was chosen by default. Material was needed, and Wilson began to write it. The words were simply there; the African American voices of an entire city came pouring out of him. His was a self-replenishing vision.
This is the first major biography of Wilson, whose 10-play Century Cycle (also called the Pittsburgh Cycle) made him arguably the most important and successful playwright of the late 20th century. These plays, one for each decade of the 1900s, include “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson,” both of which won Pulitzer Prizes, as well as “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and what might be his most electric play, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”
“Fences” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” became films starring, respectively, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, and Davis and Chadwick Boseman. His plays provided career-boosting roles to Angela Bassett, Delroy Lindo and Samuel L. Jackson, among many others. They luxuriated in his language. He had a special gift for lowlife dialogue and camaraderie — the cries of characters craving to be understood.
Hartigan is a former Boston Globe theater critic. Her book is an achievement: It’s solid and well reported. But it’s dutiful. It lacks ebullience and critical insight. The writing is slack and, by the second half, the clichés are falling so heavily you need a hat. A play is “a diamond in the rough” or “a well-oiled machine.” An event is, to grab just one example, “as likely as snow in July.”
Yet Wilson’s story carries you along. Hartigan describes the then-novel system that Wilson and his most important director, Lloyd Richards, developed to nurture his plays. Before arriving in New York, they would open at a string of nonprofit regional theaters, in Minneapolis, Chicago, Seattle and elsewhere, allowing Wilson to make cuts (his early drafts tended to be unwieldy) and hone his material.
Frank Rich, then the theater critic for The New York Times, was an essential early champion. This biography’s best set piece might be the lead-up to a public debate in the winter of 1997 at Manhattan’s Town Hall, between Wilson and a less generous critic, Robert Brustein of The New Republic. (Standing outside the theater, Henry Louis Gates Jr. called it the “Thrilla in Manila.”) The evening was moderated by Anna Deavere Smith. Even before the event, Wilson and Brustein had tangled over, among other things, color-blind casting, which Wilson had declared “an insult to our intelligence.” He thought developing Black playwrights was more important.
Wilson never got over certain childhood racial slights. In one Pittsburgh store, only white shoppers received their purchases in paper bags. For the rest of his life, Wilson asked for anything he bought to be placed in one. He had a temper. He hated it when a waiter would say something like, “What’ll you have, boys?” He was light-skinned. His absent father was a white man. He disliked having this fact mentioned.
Wilson was married three times and had two daughters. He was not an attentive father or husband; his work came first. His second daughter grew up referring to him as “the slippery guy.” He was also, Hartigan writes, a lifelong womanizer, a sexual locavore.
Critics have noted the relative lack of strong women’s roles in his work. Some other Black playwrights felt his overweening success left them in the shadows — that American culture had room for only one of them.
This book couldn’t have been easy to write. Wilson tended to have three or four projects going at once: a play in New York, one in development somewhere, a third he was starting to write. Hartigan is adept at keeping the lines straight.
Wilson argued with his directors, and often with his actors. He delivered rewrites up to the last minute. He procrastinated. Everyone was forced to live on what they called “August Wilson time.” He never learned to drive.
Wilson mostly avoided Hollywood. He knew too many talents who disappeared there. He turned down an offer to write the film “Amistad” for Steven Spielberg. He was a complicated man and, even in an imperfect book, it’s a pleasure to make his company.
AUGUST WILSON: A Life | By Patti Hartigan | Illustrated | 531 pp. | Simon & Schuster | $32.50
Dwight Garner has been a book critic for The Times since 2008. His new book, “The Upstairs Delicatessen: On Eating, Reading, Reading About Eating, and Eating While Reading,” is out this fall. More about Dwight Garner
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