by Timothy Douglas
“I say the only thing I can do here is say goodbye”
… from Seven Guitars by August Wilson
My favorite film quote ever is from Postcards from the Edge, in which Meryl Streep’s character says, “I don’t want life to imitate art, I want life to be art.”
Before he evolved into a master playwright, August Wilson was first and foremost a poet, a fact which is clearly heralded in his dramatic writings by way of the seismic and multi-textured speeches rendered through the characters in his American Century Cycle – a play for each decade in the 20th century representing black life in America.
This Pioneer Theatre Company production of Fences is a culmination of my very own personal 2016 August Wilson Festival which comes on the heels of my having just directed Jitney (Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park) and Seven Guitars (Yale Repertory Theatre). And though I have directed nine of the ten plays from Wilson’s opus multiple times, revisiting these three plays reaffirmed for me that there is no bottom to the constant unearthing of deeper meaning contained within them.
Wilson composed dialogue at an operatic scale, and also lived his life just as expansively … something I would come to viscerally understand while directing the world premiere of the final play in the Cycle, Radio Golf, in 2005. Too soon after the premiere of that play, August lost his battle with cancer.
When I and others used to ask him what plans he had once the Cycle was completed, he would often respond with something akin to his “giving up the body.” I’d always assumed he was waxing philosophical in his usual and clever wordsmithing, only to be confronted by the fact that he did indeed complete his life and work in his ultimate poetic way.
It is true that in nine out of the ten plays a black man dies – or is “sacrificed” – as part of the central plot of the story. This is a tragedy on the human scale, to be sure, but an event that metaphorically nods toward the proverbial blood sacrifice deemed essential for deliverance into the next evolutionary leap: a leap mandated to benefit most those left behind. It only recently occurred to me that the only play in which there is no corporeal transition is Radio Golf, and while recently musing on this fact it finally dawned on me … it was August Wilson himself who was the one to make that ultimate sacrifice just after his completion of the Cycle’s finale.
In Seven Guitars one character asks, “I wonder did he know?” and another muses, “I believe every man know something, but most times don’t pay attention to it.”
This production is sponsored by:
The Lawrence T. and Janet T. Dee Foundation