By Zachary Landau | Staff Writer
As Pittsburgh’s most recognized playwright, August Wilson is undoubtedly an important and influential figure in theater and African-American arts. With the release of the first trailer for “Fences,” the Denzel-Washington-led adaptation of Wilson’s most prolific work, a retrospective on Wilson and his legacy seems appropriate ahead of the film’s Dec. 25 release.
Wilson grew up in the Hill District during the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. After dropping out of school, Wilson took small jobs and went to the library extensively. He was often seen simply observing the world around him, and his observations would later become the foundation for his professional work.
Wilson is most well-known for his group of plays called “The Pittsburgh Cycle.” This collection of 10 plays follow the lives of African-Americans throughout the 20th century in Pittsburgh (except for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which takes place in Chicago and represents his most prolific work.
Indeed, Wilson’s writing was frequently praised in the theater community for being some of the best out there. Director of the Theater Arts program John Lane likened Wilson’s dialogue in particular to “jazz.”
“It’s incredibly poetic, … but that’s the way August Wilson spoke in real life,” Lane said. “So when you read or see an August Wilson play, it’s really him coming to life.”
Of the entries in “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” “Fences” is certainly the most famous. It won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play the same year. That praise is easy to understand even after a cursory look at the text. Toxic masculinity, realism versus idealism, legacy and race are all themes that permeate the play and are still relevant 30 years later.
Kathleen Roberts, director of Duquesne’s Honors College, recalled being “blown away” when she saw it in high school.
“I thought ‘This is so human and so real,’” Roberts said. “I reacted emotionally to a culture that I experienced on an everyday level, but was certainly not my culture.”
The “Fences” movie adaptation has been contentious for some time now. During his life, Wilson was adamant that a film based on his work must be directed by an African-American. Eight years after Wilson’s passing, Denzel Washington announced in 2013 that he would be directing and starring in the adaptation. This is after Washington played the main role in the Broadway revival of the play in 2010.
Despite Wilson’s notoriety, Roberts laments the trend she sees in students recognizing the Pittsburgh icon less and less.
“An unfortunate aspect of the reality that we’re living in now,” Roberts said, “is that [his] plays are not taught as much in high schools, for example, as they were even when I was in high school.”
When asked about the adaptation of “Fences,” Roberts is hopeful that it will boost interest in Wilson, “as it rightfully should,” and that Pittsburgh natives will appreciate the attention to detail.
“At a national level, August Wilson is pretty mainstream. In terms of it being here in Pittsburgh, Denzel Washington and the whole production of that film have gone about [it] the right way.”