Admirers of playwright August Wilson vowed Oct. 8 at his funeral to ensure that future generations are exposed to the Pulitzer-prize winner’s tales of Black struggle in 20th century America. Wilson died of liver cancer Oct. 2 in Seattle. He was 60.
“You will not be a footnote in American history. We guarantee the young kids will know who August Wilson is,” Kenny Leon, artistic director for Atlanta’s True Colors Theater Company, told the hundreds of people gathered for the service here.
The Broadway theater, the Virginia, will be renamed for Wilson on Oct. 17.
Wilson was a master storyteller — an American Shakespeare — who fashioned his tales of the Black struggle during 20th century America into a monumental 10-play cycle, one of the most ambitious in modern drama. The series included such dramas as “Fences,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The Piano Lesson.”
It took Wilson more than two decades to complete his cycle, one play for each decade. His dramas dealt with the legacies of slavery and the genius that has sustained people under horrid conditions. “This work is about the purchase of freedom,” he once said. “You have to buy it with your wits, your mettle, your fight.”
Born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945, Wilson was one of six children of Frederick Kittel and Daisy Wilson. Kittel was a German immigrant and baker, and Daisy Wilson was African American and worked as a cleaning woman. When his father died in 1965, Frederick August Kittel changed his name to August Wilson.
After a racist accusation forced him out of high school, Wilson took to the public library, which became his university. Studying Black culture from recordings of Bessie Smith and Jelly Roll Morton, the paintings of such artists as Romare Bearden, and the writings of Amiri Baraka and Jorge Luis Borges, Wilson found inspiration. Many of Wilson’s ideas were formed in the crucible of the 1960s, when he drew inspiration from poet Baraka and other practitioners of the Black Arts Movement. He saw himself primarily as an activist poet whose work had to respond to the urgent needs of African Americans.
“When I read ‘The Piano Lesson,’ I realized it encompassed the entire African American experience,” actor Charles Dutton said after the funeral. “August Wilson’s legacy is as important as Martin Luther King’s legacy, as important as Malcolm X’s legacy and as important as Nat Turner.”
During the funeral, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis played “Danny Boy,” moving the audience to tears. Minutes later, he broke into a jazzier, upbeat number, bringing people to their feet to dance, clap and tap their shoes to the beat.
Actors Dutton, Phylicia Rashad, Anthony Chisholm and Ruben Santiago-Hudson read passages from four of Wilson’s plays.
“Death ain’t nothing but a fastball on the outside corner, and you know what I’ll do to that,” Dutton said, reading from “Fences.”
Michael Kuchwara, Rohan
Preston and Ramesh Santanam contributed to this story.
For more on Wilson’s legacy read “A tribute before dying,” by Dee Myles (PWW 9/17-23).