Book Review: ‘August Wilson: A Life,’ by Patti Hartigan

5/5 - (10 votes)

Patti Hartigan’s biography of August Wilson, titled “August Wilson: A Life,” sheds light on the essential American playwright and his extraordinary life. Wilson, who passed away in 2005, was known for spending a great deal of time in diners, making “Writing in Restaurants” a fitting alternative subtitle for Hartigan’s book. Wilson, often seen in tweeds and a pageboy cap, would sit in the back of diners with a cup of coffee and an overflowing ashtray, jotting down ideas on napkins or receipts. He had a daily routine of seeking out a local diner in each city where his plays were staged, engaging in conversations and soaking up the atmosphere. This became his version of experimental theater.

Born in 1945 in Pittsburgh, Wilson was raised by a single Black mother and relied on welfare checks to support the family. He found inspiration in Pittsburgh, particularly the historically African American Hill District, which he saw as a rich source of material. Wilson dropped out of high school and educated himself in the city’s libraries, much like Ta-Nehisi Coates described his own education at Howard University. Initially pursuing poetry, Wilson’s early verse was ridiculed, but he eventually stumbled into theater after discovering Bessie Smith and the blues. Influenced by poet, playwright, and activist Amiri Baraka, Wilson and his friends started their own theater called Black Horizons, with Wilson becoming the leader by default.

August Wilson’s most significant contribution to American theater is his 10-play Century Cycle, also known as the Pittsburgh Cycle, which consists of one play for each decade in the 1900s. His plays, including “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson,” both Pulitzer Prize-winners, as well as “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” propelled him to become one of the most important and successful playwrights of the late 20th century. Many of Wilson’s plays were adapted into successful films, starring actors such as Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, and Chadwick Boseman, and provided career-defining roles for various actors. Wilson had a unique gift for capturing the voices of marginalized characters, giving them a platform to be understood and heard.

While Hartigan’s biography of Wilson is solid and well-researched, it lacks depth and critical insight, often relying on clichés and falling short in its writing style. However, Wilson’s compelling story still manages to captivate readers. Hartigan details Wilson’s collaboration with director Lloyd Richards and their innovative system of developing plays by debuting them at nonprofit regional theaters before refining them for the New York stage. Frank Rich, a theater critic for The New York Times, played a crucial role in championing Wilson’s work. One of the biography’s highlights is the lead-up to a public debate between Wilson and critic Robert Brustein, which was mediated by Anna Deavere Smith. The two clashed over color-blind casting and the importance of developing Black playwrights, revealing Wilson’s lifelong struggle with racial discrimination and his determination to elevate the voices of African Americans in the arts.

Wilson’s personal life was marked by multiple marriages, neglecting his family for his work, and being known as a womanizer. Some critics have pointed out the lack of strong female roles in his plays, while other Black playwrights felt overshadowed by his success, believing there was only space for one African American playwright in American culture.

Hartigan navigates the challenges of writing about a complex and prolific artist like Wilson, who constantly had multiple projects in progress and worked on his own timeline, often causing delays. Despite his aversion to Hollywood, Wilson made an impact on American culture, leaving a lasting legacy through his plays.

In conclusion, “August Wilson: A Life” offers readers an insight into the life and work of August Wilson, underscoring his immense contributions to American theater. While the biography may have its flaws, Wilson’s captivating story and profound impact on the theater world make it a worthwhile read.

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