African-American playwright August Wilson honored on ‘forever’ stamp

The 44th stamp in the Black Heritage series honors playwright August Wilson (April 27, 1945-October 2, 2005), the “the theater’s poet of Black America,” who brought fresh perspectives and previously unheard voices to the American stage.

The stamp features an oil painting of Wilson based on a 2005 photograph. Behind Wilson, a picket fence alludes to the title of Fences, one of his best-known plays. Eerily, the way the fence is depicted recalls Ku Klux Klan hoods with eyeholes, a subtle reminder that peering over his shoulder, and over the shoulders of every Black American in particular but truly over the entire nation, is the violent history of enslavement and Jim Crow from 1619 onward.

In a cycle of ten plays, called “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” that dramatize the experiences of African Americans during each decade of the 20th century, Wilson focused on the reality of his characters’ hopes and struggles in the face of daunting odds. Using lyrical language, he blended the emotion of the blues with an insistence on the ennobling distinctiveness of African-American history and culture. The series is also referred to as “The August Wilson Century Cycle” and as “The American Century Cycle.”

The Center Theater Group in Los Angeles sponsors an August Wilson monologues contest for young aspiring actors, and one year produced these buttons with one of his most inspiring quotes. / Gordon (PW)

Wilson earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for two of his plays, Fences and The Piano Lesson, placing him among only a handful of American playwrights to receive the prize more than once. Those two plays also won Drama Desk Awards. Fences, which debuted on Broadway in 1987, dramatizes a family’s wrenching conflicts over issues of responsibility and opportunity in the wake of bias and broken dreams. The Piano Lesson, first staged on Broadway in 1990, focuses on a dispute over a piano that represents a family’s shared traditions and painful history.

Wilson’s other plays explore gentrification, the conflicting values of different generations, African-American identity, and the ominous poll of the past. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the only play not set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, reveals truths about the exploitation of African-American musicians and spotlights the blues as a way of understanding African-American life. A recent film version stars Viola Davis as the iconic singer and the late Chadwick Boseman as one of her sidemen. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Wilson’s personal favorite, explores the hardships of African-American migration from the rural South to the industrial North and offers profound mystical insights into the tragic legacy of slavery.

Today Wilson is hailed as a trailblazer for helping to bring non-musical African-American drama to the forefront of American theater. Each new staging of his place is an opportunity to witness his explorations of the ways that history and tradition burden African-Americans while also giving them sustenance in their daily lives.

Films made of Wilson’s plays so far include Fences, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, and The Naked Proof. Actor Denzel Washington, who frequently portrayed Wilson’s characters, has dedicated himself to creating film versions of the entire Pittsburgh Cycle. “The greatest part of what’s left of my career,” Washington has said, “is making sure that August is taken care of.”

The façade of the August Wilson Theatre, Oct. 14, 2006 / Burnley (public domain)

On October 16, 2005, two weeks after Wilson died, the Virginia Theatre in New York City’s Broadway Theater District was renamed the August Wilson Theatre. It is the first Broadway theatre to bear the name of an African-American. He was laid to rest at Greenwood Cemetery in Pittsburgh.

Art Director Ethel Kessler designed the stamp with art by Tim O’Brien. The August Wilson stamp is a “forever” stamp which will always be equal in value to the current first-class mail one-ounce price.

Sources: USPS, Wikipedia.


Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

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