The Atlantic recently ran a piece by Imani Perry reviewing a biography of playwright August Wilson by Patti Hartigan. The book has been getting a lot of notice over the last few weeks. This is one of many reviews.
To some extent Wilson’s story is not unexpected or surprising. A child voracious for knowledge who is poorly served by the education system. A playwright who struggles to get his work seen because audiences aren’t interested in the stories he wants to tell. When he does become successful, he feels the conflict between staying true versus selling out and is criticized for making white audiences feel uncomfortable, but not pushing so far as to cause them not to see his plays.
It was interesting to read that Wilson and his collaborators may have among the first to pioneer using regional theaters to develop works before moving them to Broadway.
Not least, Richards took on the challenge of attracting a producer. “Serious plays concerning minorities … are not considered a good risk,” he observed,…Together, Richards and Wilson came up with an unusual strategy, and in the process helped inaugurate a new and closer relationship between commercial and nonprofit theater in America. Work was first staged in regional theaters, which were free of Broadway’s commercial pressures and able to take chances, and Wilson got the kind of “long development process” he knew he needed, revising tirelessly in rehearsals and in reaction to performances.
His 1987 play, Fences, was the one he liked the least and felt he had compromised on to please audiences and critics. It was Robert Brustein who was among those who criticized Wislon most strongly and suggested Wilson was being too polite with audiences.
“Brustein implied that Wilson’s work in general was calibrated to elicit white guilt without jeopardizing white acceptance. Any Black artist who has acquired a modicum of mainstream acclaim while sustaining a sincere interest in Black life knows this kind of criticism intimately. Wilson’s experience is an aching reminder that no amount of professional stature insulates one from it. In fact, quite the contrary.”