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THE AMERICAN LEGACY OF AUGUST WILSON

August Wilson

“When I sit down to write, I am sitting in the same chair that Ibsen sat in, that Brecht, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller sat in. I am confronted with the same problems of how to get a character on stage, how to shape the scenes to get maximum impact,” said playwright August Wilson in an interview about his writing process. Wilson has become an iconic member of the American cannon of theatre, from Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in 1986 to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 2012. Wilson’s Century Cycle, a ten-play anthology of Black America through 100 years of history has become a part of the Huntington’s repertoire.

Holding a legacy is never easy; “My ancestors have been in America since the early 17th century. And for the first 244 years we never had a problem finding a job,” Wilson’s opening words of the play echo truthfully. Wilson acts as a guide for audiences as he unpacks centuries of American history through his life as a young poet in the Hill District, experiences that would ultimately shape the plays within his Century Cycle. He asks the questions, “what is my identity? How can my identity forge my path to the future?” In an era controlled by the media and hashtag social justice movements, How I Learned What I Learned serves as a reminder of the lessons we learn through life that can only be taught by human interaction. What is the legacy that we are able to leave behind? 

“I don’t write particularly to effect social change. I believe writing can do that, but that’s not why I write. I work as an artist. All art is political in the sense that it serves someone’s politics.”

The impact of Wilson’s work has made a lasting mark on American theatre, and opened doors to conversations about the black experience in the United States. Wilson was attracted to the theatre and its potential to reach audiences, no matter the class or race. How I Learned What I Learned is no exception; “I was, and remain, fascinated by the idea of an audience as a community of people who gather willingly to bear witness,” Wilson states. “A novelist writes a novel and people read it. But reading is a solitary act. While it may elicit a varied and personal response, the communal nature of the audience is like having 500 people read your novel and respond to it at the same time. I find that thrilling.” How I Learned What I Learned is an all-encompassing look at the man behind the revered Century Cycle. 

Wilson’s works are often politicized, but Wilson himself wrote plays with a purely creative intention: “I don’t write particularly to effect social change. I believe writing can do that, but that’s not why I write. I work as an artist. All art is political in the sense that it serves someone’s politics.” Wilson’s work is honest and truthful on levels that stretch beyond race and class. His work encompasses a variety of themes, including love, honor, and duty, themes that universally weave in and out of our daily lives. 

The characters August Wilson created, from Troy in Fences to Boy Willie and Lymon in The Piano Lesson, offer valuable and important roles to the American theatre tradition. Wilson believed that through art, “we are going to become an American culture” that shares similar themes and ideologies that separate American art from any other type of art in the world. Wilson believed that, through theatre, a collected mythology could be created that would ultimately unite us; “You create the work to add to the artistic storehouse of the world, to exalt and celebrate a common humanity.”

Wilson died in 2005, leaving behind his groundbreaking Century Cycle. How I Learned What I Learned is Wilson’s last theatrical work created with long-time collaborator and friend, Todd Kreidler. From navigating self-worth, to questioning inheritance, and grappling with a shared history, Wilson’s plays reach across generations and races. How I Learned What I Learned is a snapshot into the life of one of the most influential playwrights of the 20th century, and a reminder of the universal bonds that tie us together.

— PHAEDRA SCOTT


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