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Honoring the 'Musical' Dialogue of August Wilson


Playwright August Wilson died yesterday of liver cancer in Seattle. His plays won many awards, including Pulitzers for "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson." He was 60. Wilson recently completed one of the most ambitious projects in American theatrical history. He wrote 10 plays about the African-American experience, one for each decade of the 20th century. Bob Mondello has an appreciation.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

Some call his dialogue poetry; others say it's supremely natural. But one thing everyone can agree on is that it's musical. No American playwright has ever composed dialogue the way August Wilson did. His characters speak their stories in lyrical, eloquent, bluesy riffs--this one, for instance, from his drama "The Piano Lesson."

(Soundbite of "The Piano Lesson")

Unidentified Man #1: July 19 and 30, I stood right there on that spot. Didn't seem like nothing was going right in my life. So I said, `Well, let me go down to the Ghost of Yellow Dog, call on them and see if they could help me.' I went down there, I stood right there on that spot and called out their names, called out the names of the ghosts. I didn't want to leave. And it seemed like the longer I stood there, the bigger I got. I seen the train coming, and it seemed like I got bigger than the train. Started not to move. Something told me to go ahead on and get out of the way. I walked away from there, I was feeling like a king. Had a stroke of luck that last for three years. So, see, I don't care if birdies believe it or not, I know because I've been there.

MONDELLO: Wilson often noted that he was inspired by the blues. He credited the songs of Bessie Smith with helping him recognize the beauty of black speech patterns. And he made it his life's work to bring them to the stage. His cycle of 10 plays about the African-American experience offered audiences a look at characters seldom seen in fine arts venues: black sharecroppers, taxi drivers, garbage men, waitresses, all of them dealing with challenges and joys, racism and especially with history. His characters often experienced tragedy, but their struggle is just as often heroic because Wilson gave their aspirations a voice.

(Soundbite of unidentified play)

Unidentified Man #2: I looked at my daddy and seen him staring off at his hands. I got a little older, I know just what he was thinking. He's sitting there saying, `I got these big old hands, but what I'm going to do with them? I can take and build something with these hands, but where's the tools?'

MONDELLO: Frederick August Wilson walked out of his Pittsburgh high school at 15 when a teacher suggested that his term paper on Napoleon was too good to have been written by a black kid. Afraid to tell his mother he'd quit school, he got up every morning and went to the library instead, later graduating to the rough-and-tumble bars and restaurants of the Hill, the down-on-its-heels black neighborhood where he grew up and where most of his plays are set. Throughout his teens and early 20s he listened to the men who hung out there, arguing about which trains had pulled into Pittsburgh back in 1939 and how far away the moon was. Their inflections stuck with him.

A 1982 workshop at The O'Neill Theater Center introduced him to director Lloyd Richards, who helped give many of his plays dramatic shape. Wilson was sometimes criticized for trying to cram in too much. Richards made every digression count in plays like "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

(Soundbite of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom")

Unidentified Man #3: So the other say, `Well, I'm going to bet you $5 you don't know the Lord's Prayer because I don't think you knows it. I think you being going up there to the church 'cause the widow Jenkins be going up there, and you just want to be sitting in the same room with her when she cross them big, fine, pretty legs she got.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #3: So the other one said, `Well, I'm going to prove you wrong, and I'm going to bet you that $5.' So he say, `Well, go on and sing it then.' So he commenced to singing the Lord's Prayer. He say, `Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.' The other say, `Here's your $5. I didn't think you knew it.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONDELLO: August Wilson began his 10-play cycle while still in his early 30s and completed it at the age of 59, just a few months ago. It's hard not to wonder what he might have accomplished if he'd been blessed with another couple of decades, what he might have told us about the black experience in the 21st century. I'm Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Oh, Alberta, berta, berta. Oh (unintelligible). Oh, Alberta, berta, berta. Oh ...(unintelligible). Oh, Alberta, berta, berta. Oh ...(unintelligible). Oh, Alberta, berta, berta. Oh ...(unintelligible). Oh, Alberta... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.

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