When calling the roll of the most-revered African-American playwrights — men and women who have contributed both to the canon of Black theatre and to American literature — several names immediately come to mind.

Even with a cursory glance, many writers who merit consideration as “America’s Black Shakespeare” easily come to mind: Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, Ntozake Shange, Samm-Art Williams, George C. Wolfe, Charles Fuller, Anna Deavere Smith, Pearl Cleage and the most celebrated Black playwright of the 20th century, August Wilson.

Wilson, who died at the age of 60 from cancer, would have marked his 76th birthday on Tuesday, April 27, had he still been alive. But his messages continue to resound as he paints pictures with his words in his unforgettable canon of work, often referred to as his Century (or Pittsburgh) Cycle.

But have no fear. In many ways, August Wilson remains alive and well.

As an example, here in the greater Washington area, the District-based August Wilson Society (AWS) hosted a virtual celebration on the day of the late playwright’s birth while also marking the organization’s 15th anniversary.

“We raise our glasses and our voices to commemorate the birthday of the late, great playwright August Wilson — master storyteller, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and griot who chronicled the expedites and highlighted the nobility of voiceless masses of African Americans,” said Dr. Sandra G. Shannon, president, AWS and a professor of English at Howard University.

With AWS founding member Dr. Shannon at the helm, the organization has expanded its programming and goals while remaining committed to its long-held belief that one cannot begin to deal with the present without remembering the past.

The event featured an insightful discussion with several founding members of the Society who highlighted examples of Wilson’s keen profundity and masterful control of the written word — most notably illustrated in his play “Fences” for which he earned both a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award in 1987.

In addition, the speakers collectively agreed upon the continued relevance of Wilson’s “Century Cycle” — a series of 10 plays that remain even more timely today amid recent racial, political and social tensions that have occurred nationwide.

The August Wilson Society traces its roots to the campus of Howard University, where in the spring of 2006, shortly after Wilson’s death, 12 men and women vowed to keep Wilson’s legacy alive for future generations. Each founding member represents various disciplines taught by scholars at Howard. University.

Wilson Always Believed that Black Lives Matter

Wilson, often touted as the “theater’s poet of Black America,” remains best known for his 10 plays, The Century Cycle, which chronicle the experiences and heritage of the African-American community in the 20th century. Plays in the series include: “Jitney” (1982), “Fences” (1984), “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (1984), “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (1986), “The Piano Lesson” (1987) and “King Hedley II” (1999).

His works tackle themes that include the Black experience in America, the systemic and historical exploitation of African Americans, race relations, identity, migration and racial discrimination.

Actress Viola Davis, who starred in the film adaptation of “Fences,” describes Wilson’s writing by saying, “He captures our humor, our vulnerabilities, our tragedies, our trauma. And he humanizes us. And he allows us to talk.”

Since Wilson’s death, two of his plays have been adapted into films, “Fences” (2016) and most recently “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020), which featured Davis and the late Chadwick Bozeman.

Denzel Washington, who produced both films and served as a leading actor in “Fences,” has committed to adapting the rest of Wilson’s plays into films making them available to a much wider audience.

Several comments shared during the virtual celebration addressed the question of how Wilson’s works may inform young activists and warriors of the present and future as they seek to eradicate centuries of racially-based injustice, prejudice and the oppression of African Americans.

“As a historian, Wilson provided a sense of what African males confronted daily,” said Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, a founding member and an instructor in Howard’s Department of History.

Greg Carr, an AWS founding member and a professor of Afro-American Studies at Howard said, “Wilson reminds us that we draw from our experiences — situations that are often intimate and germane to a specific location. So, my students have found the ability to connect what Wilson was writing about to all of our ancestors who he brought into the conversation.”

“Whatever your grandmother or the cats at the grocery store were talking about is what Wilson was listening to,” Carr added. “Wilson said, ‘I am not writing to please anybody; I am writing about what I said.’”

Founding member and Professor of English Dana Wilson observed that while some might believe it to be an insurmountable challenge to provide instruction on Wilson’s plays so youth, 17 to 21 years old, may comprehend the complexity of his works, she’s found that young people “get it.”

“Wilson includes a lot of older characters in his works — characters who are so well-developed that my students often say, ‘Oh, she’s just like my grandmother.’”

Another founding member, Sais Kamalidiin, an instructor in the Department of Music, pointed to the impact which Wilson had on music.

“Wilson understood that music was at the central core of African-American society and that music was foundational to every aspect of life,” he said.

Words to Remember from the Desk of August Wilson

While the prophetic musings of African-Americans icons — from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Baldwin to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Shirley Chisholm — are routinely offered as food for thought, August Wilson provided us with quotations that should not be forgotten including the four below:

“Confront the dark parts of yourself and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness.”

“I been with strangers all day and they treated me like family.”

“You got to be right with yourself before you can be right with anybody else.”

“Have a belief in yourself that is bigger than anyone’s disbelief.”

The 12 founding members of the August Wilson Society include: Dr. Sandra Shannon, Mbye Cham, Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, Greg Carr, Patrick Goodin, Jules Harrell, Denise J. Hart, Sais Kamalidiin, Kim Bey, Dana Williams, Joe Selmon (deceased) and Floyd Coleman (deceased).

For more information about the August Wilson Society, go to wwwaugustwilsonsociety.org.

Hamil R. Harris contributed to this story.


Editor’s Note:

On Monday, May 3, Dr. Sandra G. Shannon, president/co-founder of the August Wilson Society, served as one of three panelists along with Phylicia Rashad and Ruben Santiago-Hudson for the 11th annual national finals of the August Wilson Monologue Competition. Created in 2007, Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company continues to produce the competition, collaborating with partner organizations in 19 cities across the U.S. The competition serves as a celebration of the words of the playwright August Wilson and inspires high school students to find and express themselves through theater.

Sixteen national finalists competed Monday evening during the first entirely virtual program.

The winners included: First Place: Taloria Merricks, a four-year competitor who will matriculate at Howard University in the fall majoring in musical theater; Second Place: Taylor Jackson, a three-year competitor representing the state of Alabama who will continue her studies in acting at Pace University; and Third Place: Tyla Uzo, a graduating senior from Los Angeles.

The winners will receive college scholarships in the amount of $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000, respectively.

D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Dominic Kevin McNeir is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of service for the Black Press (NNPA). Prior to moving East to assist his aging parents in their struggles with Alzheimer’s,...

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