When you think of August Wilson, you quickly recall images from his amazing canon of plays that made him the best and most successful Playwright in the modern American theatre.
August Wilson was born and bred into The Blues and he used that life experience as a Black Man in America to bring forth the totems of his generally ignored and underrated culture of musical touchstones to give light to the minority experience on the live stage:
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
The Ground on Which I Stand
Gem of the Ocean
The Piano Lesson
Those plays are all divine examples of just how August Wilson listened to The Blues and then created lyrical speech styles for his characters on stage.
His people spoke The Blues on the page and when actors gave life to those spoken words on stage, there was a whole new wild mix of musicianship in the lights, sets and rhythm of the staging.
Watching an August Wilson play is like watching a masterful Blues turnaround in a Two Act structure.
August Wilson know how to construct a play and the evidence of that argument is in the inability to successfully redact an August Wilson play.
In one of my theatre courses, I give students the task of creating a 20 minute version of a play to make them learn just how a play is constructed. You deconstruct the masters to learn their style and structure. Students have to “cut out the fat” from the play that doesn’t directly and linearly follow Aristotle’s Poetics. Students must defend every editorial choice.
Students are able to cut down any ancient or modern play into its 20-minute “essence” without any trouble… except when they come to an August Wilson play. When they tried to cut down or remove one scene, they found a later scene made no sense. When they tried to remove a character or combine two characters into one — you couldn’t do it in an August Wilson play — because the familial relationships were messed up.
The greatest compliment any student of the theatre can give
to August Wilson is the public recognition that his plays are so
perfect that they are untouchable — and I can’t think of another
Playwright who commands that same respect and attention.
That’s real brilliance, David. Show the essence without any unneeded material. We should all strive to be that great.
We lost August Wilson much too soon, Gordon. We miss his mind and his spirit of innovation. He led a whole new Golden Age of the Playwright.