For the first ten years of the Dramatist Guild Lifetime Achievement Awards, Marsha Norman wrote citations for the winners.
When August Wilson was born, no theatrical tradition was there to greet him, there was no path, there were no stairs by which he might become the August Wilson we are celebrating tonight. He had to find it all for himself, discover his own gift for poetry, discover that plays were useful and then learn to write them. He had to overhear the language that black men spoke in Pat’s Place in Pittsburg, realize there was a history not being told, and commit himself to writing it – ten plays, one for each decade of 20th century American life as experienced by black Americans. That he concluded the work of a lifetime in 22 years is staggering. That he is gone and we will hear from him no more, is unthinkable. Strangely enough, it’s not all the rousing speeches and all those shattering sentences that I hear now. Not the noise he made with his life and his career and his arguments and not his plays pouring out of him and charging onto stages all over America. It’s the silence I hear now – the one he interrupted when he began to write, and the one that threatens to descend now that August Wilson is gone.
We know the facts of his life, that he dropped out of school at 16, that he co-founded the Black Horizons Theatre Company in Pittsburg. That he moved to St Paul and wrote Jitney on paper bags while he was sitting in a fish and chips restaurant. That the Playwrights Center gave him a fellowship and $200 a month. We know that he heard Bessie Smith sing and sat down to write Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and then sent it to the O’Neill. We know that Lloyd Richards read the play, and became his director and his champion. We know that he won Pulitzers for Fences and for The Piano Lesson. We know that the ten plays were all produced, and the greatest actors in America gathered around him to bring the message to the audience.
What we don’t know, and I guess won’t know now, is how he was able to write with such conviction, in long-hand, for so long. How was he able to write THE END at the bottom of one page, finishing a play, then immediately take out a new piece of paper and write ACT 1 at the top, starting the next play before he even knew what it would be about.
He was asked once to talk about how he worked. He said…
I work in the basement of my house. On some days, it’s a sanctuary. On others, it’s a battlefield, and then at times, it’s a dungeon. I used to have a punching bag, but as I got older, I traded it in for a chair. I have quotes that I use to keep me focused and inspired, like this one attributed to Charlie Parker. Don’t be afraid. Just play the music. And this other one. “You have the right to the work but not the reward.” I just love that. It says something I’ve always felt – that I’m not entitled to anything other than the work. Which is sufficient – a joy unto itself. I feel it a privilege to stand at the edge of the art having been gifted with the triumphs and failures of countless playwrights down through the ages. It is a privilege I don’t want to squander.
He didn’t squander that privilege. He wrote with unmatched courage and achieved a work of staggering proportion. He told people he was a struggling playwright, struggling to get the next play down on paper. But he was a visionary, a man who could see into the past with absolute clarity, a man who explored and revealed and grieved the legacy of slavery in America. He was an epic poet, like a modern Homer, writing of a world that was vast and beyond our control, but in which the humans still strive to get home, to get free, to be understood, and if not that, at least seen for who they are. His plays and his people are both real and larger than life, but he was modest and mortal. We have his plays at the cost of his life, but it seems he would have it no other way.
August Wilson heard James Baldwin put forth a call for the profound articulation of the black experience. And he thought to himself, “Let me answer that call.” Tonight, in his honor, we call for the support of young black writers who can continue what he began, which was, again in his words, to offer the fullness and richness of every day life, to show that the rituals that exist are capable of sustaining you.” It is with great sadness for his loss and immense gratitude for the life that he lived and the work that he left us, that the Dramatists Guild of America grants to August Wilson its Lifetime Achievement Award. Accepting the award is his wife, Constanza Romero.