June 28, 2011

August Wilson

If your education was anything like mine, the only plays you were exposed to in high school were the Shakespeare you read in English class (Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, maybe King Leer or Macbeth) and whatever your school performed for the yearly musical (Guys and Dolls again?). Maybe around senior year you got yourself a Death of a Salesman and/or Glass Menagerie. Once you got to college you picked those two up, some more Shakespeare, maybe Our Town or Die Fledermaus.

You know what, they're all good plays and there is a reason they are timeless (well, aside from that last which is technically an opera). But I will admit that I went through all of high school and all of college (earning a theatre degree!) and I never read a play written by a black playwright.

A couple years ago I saw Fences by August Wilson and was blown away. I mean, blown. away. I went from the Huntington all the way to North Station without speaking (and really, me anywhere not speaking is a bit of a big deal) because I was still reeling from the play's impact.

It is one of ten plays Wilson wrote, each representing a different decade in the 20th century and he African experience of that decade. Fences is set in the fifties after Jackie Robinson and World War II where America is beginning to integrate but hasn't yet reached the civil rights movement.

I wish I had read/scene this play in college. Hell, I wish I had scene/read it in high school. It was the single most powerful bit of theatre I have ever been exposed to and I think I would have approached my college experience entirely different if I had scene it first.

If you are in the New York area or will be traveling there, there is a play written by a black playwright while she was in residence at the Huntington. It's called Stickfly and I saw it when it ran in Boston. It's about black families on Nantucket island. It has some hard hitting dialogue and doesn't just sing a "I'm so persecuted" song. It challenges all its characters and is finely done. Give it a try if you have the opportunity.


  1. I've never seen Fences, but I did catch Gem of the Ocean (his earliest, chronologically) a few weeks ago. Powerful stuff indeed, although it lost me a little in the second act. Until I see Fences, I can only imagine what Wilson is like at his best.

  2. A lesson I learned the hard way is just how much impact a director and actors can have on a written play. A particular interpretation or decision in direction can completely change the tone of a given scene or an entire play. Another friend doesn't like Fences, but we did not see the same show or even the same production, so while the written play was the same, the actors, the director, and the designers were all different.

    If I had seen his performance, I might not have been that impressed either. But I saw mine (before it moved on to Broadway and replaced the actors with larger marquees like Denzel Washington--which I think wouldn't have been as good as the casting choices I saw, quite frankly) and it was an amazing event.