August Wilson’s new biography fills in the details of the playwright’s CT years

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August Wilson’s new biography fills in the details of the playwright’s CT years

Connecticut played a major role in the success of August Wilson, considered by many to be one of the greatest American playwrights of the past 50 years and possibly the greatest black playwright of all time.

Most of the plays in Wilson’s celebrated Century Cycle, chronicling the black experience in each decade of the 20th century, were first read at the National Playwrights Conference in Waterford and given their first full productions at the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven.

Wilson’s legacy in Connecticut is protected as major regional theaters continue to revive his works. In 2016, Hartford Stage did The Piano Lesson and Yale Rep did Seven Guitars within a few weeks, just as Denzel Washington’s film version of Fences was released. Playhouse on Park staged “Fences” just last year.

Author Patty Hartigan will discuss her new book, August Wilson: A Life, in a virtual chat sponsored by the Mark Twain House and Museum on August 24 at 7:00 p.m. The event is in the form of a conversation between the author and local theater artist Taneisha Duggan, who has directed plays at TheaterWorks, Connecticut Repertory Theater, and HartBeat Ensemble.

Simon and Schuster

Patty Hartigan’s August Wilson: A Life was published this month, containing new information on the many plays he premiered in Connecticut. The author will discuss her recent book in a virtual chat sponsored by the Mark Twain House and Museum on August 24.

The publisher, Simon & Schuster, calls it “the first authoritative biography” of Wilson. Although there have been many books devoted to him in the 18 years since his death from cancer, most of them have been critical studies. Hartigan’s biography is the most in-depth and rich biography.

August Wilson: A Life portrays a deeply principled writer who, when he became known as one of the most important playwrights describing black history and heritage, felt a deep responsibility to continue until his cycle was complete. He championed other black artists and stalled major film deals because he insisted on using the black directors who would be most sympathetic to his work.

“He made a promise to himself and to the world,” Hartigan said. “He was getting offers left and right to write other things, but he said no to all of them. He put aside the novel he had begun.

Hartigan has been working on the book, which she calls “a quintessential American story,” for six years, and said the silver lining of the COVID shutdown is that she got to stop researching it and start writing it. She had some head start on her research, having interviewed Wilson numerous times when she was an arts journalist for the Boston Globe.

Hartigan also saw major regional or Broadway productions of all of Wilson’s plays, beginning with what became her favorite, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” at the Huntington Theater in Boston. “The theater that night was electric,” she recalls. “This was my first introduction to August Wilson. Shortly afterwards I met him at O’Neill.

The National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford is where Wilson wrote early drafts of several of his plays, including Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Shortly before he died, Hartigan was able to sit down with Wilson for a series of interviews in Washington state for a lengthy magazine article. “Most of the interviews were sitting on the side of the road in a cafe with people coming up to him and saying how much they liked him,” she recalls.

For the book, Hartigan interviewed friends, family and associates from all stages of Wilson’s life, traveling the country to see where and how he lived. “The first time I was in Pittsburgh, I met a guy who went to kindergarten with him. Then he told me about someone else. One interview led to another.”

Hartigan’s book adds much fresh information to what we know about Wilson’s life and work. Very few of the premieres of his plays seem to have occurred without backstage turmoil. A budding producer wants Wilson to rewrite the ending and cut some of the most famous lines from “Fences.” Wilson’s long working relationship with director Lloyd Richards—who, as artistic director of both the O’Neill Center and Yale Rep in the 1980s, was the single most important person in launching the playwright’s career—did not end well. something other theater historians downplay. Hartigan charts the highs and lows, including a few highs that may have been forgotten, such as the long-running success of one of the earliest and least appreciated plays in the 10-play run, the taxi-stand drama Jitney.

James Earl Jones stars in August Wilson's Fences in 1985. Fences is one of several Wilson plays that premiered at Yale Repertory TheatrUser Upload Caption: The original production of "Fences" at the Yale Repertory Theater in 1985.
James Earl Jones played the title role in August Wilson’s Fences in 1985. Fences was one of several plays presented to Wilson for premieres at the Yale Repertory Theatre.

Hartigan assesses Wilson’s landmark productions with a critical eye, revealing a botched revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom starring Whoopi Goldberg and describing two premieres (“Radio Golf” at Yale Rep and “King Hedley” at Pittsburgh Public Theater ) which opens before the scripts are ready. She also cites other critics who have responded to Wilson’s work, positively or otherwise, including several encouraging notes from former Hartford Courant theater critic Malcolm Johnson.

In telling the story of Wilson’s life, Hartigan also reminds the reader that while the playwright is most closely associated with the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (where nearly all of his plays are set) and the state of Connecticut (where most of the plays were begun and first read at voice at the O’Neill Center in Waterford, then had their first full productions at Yale Rep in New Haven), he also called St. Paul, MN and Seattle, WA his home. “Pittsburgh,” suggested Hartigan, “is the artist’s birthplace, but he didn’t hear the voices until he got to St. Paul.”

Now Wilson is everywhere. Not only is the playwright’s legacy protected, he continues to inspire. “This generation brings its own stamp to the plays,” Hartigan said. “It’s great to see these new interpretations.” She is very impressed with the new production of Fences, which is playing this month at Shakspeare & Company in the Berkshires.

Another welcome sign of August Wilson’s lasting influence?

“‘Fences’ was required reading when my kids were in ninth grade,” Hartigan said. “It made me so happy.”

Patti Hartigan, author of August Wilson: A Life, talks with Taneisha Duggan on August 24 at 7:00 p.m. The live stream is presented by the Mark Twain House and Museum. Suggested donations are $2.50 to $10.

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