Some quick thoughts about August Wilson:
In the early nineties, I was part of a class trip to the Pennsylvania Stage Company, a professional troupe in Harrisburg. They were performing "Fences." I was 15, maybe. 16 at the oldest. I'd never heard of it.
This wasn't a production with James Earl Jones. This was workmanlike performers, given fantastic roles, doing what might have been some of their best work. My memory is hazy. But the play lives with me. I will always believe that "Fences" contains the ideal ending for a play. The ultimate climax. If I can end a play with something even approaching Gabriel shouting open the gates of heaven, in the midst of all spiritual doubt, the loss of his firmest crutch; if I could approach that power, history and poetry is one moment, if I could...
I would be August Wilson.
A great deal will undoubtedly be written about his epic masterpiece, a 10-play cycle of the African American experience. But even now, I feel that the masterpiece of that is a partial success, as time never ends, and when he stopped exploring that piece of history, it kept moving forward, past him, and will keep going. Until his 10-play cycle appears to be 1% of a larger mosaic of time and eras and oppression and rebirth.
What will never be 1% of anything are the works themselves, in the singular. Alone, "The Piano Lesson" and "Fences" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" are masterpieces, and deserve their cannonical place among the greatest American plays ever written. Wilson, in his death, stands next to our finest, and rises above many of his contemporaries. Where Mamet writes in moment and snippets and strains for philosophical relevance; Wilson soars in broad strokes. Where Albee, even in his genius, berates our culture for its lost arts and lost artiface; Wilson embraces the uniqueness of the American voice without jealousy for European styles or affectations. Where Miller carved out new morality plays; Wilson carved out generous helpings of a blood-filled breast. Where O'Neill wrote in single play epics; Wilson wrote with an eye to something larger than himself.
Now that August Wilson is gone, we can look at his life and judge it as a whole, as a summation of work completed. That judgement, those eyes, will be kind to August Wilson and to the America he left richer for loving it.
- Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.