Playwright with a punch

What a man.

Wilson wrote standing up, at a high, cluttered accounting desk. For years, an Everlast punching bag was suspended from the ceiling about two steps behind. When Wilson was in full flow and the dialogue was popping, he’d stop, pivot, throw a barrage of punches, then turn back to work. Pinned on a bulletin board were two quotations, as bold as street signs: Take It to the Moon (Frank Gehry) and Don’t Be Afraid. Just Play the Music (Charlie Parker).

That’s the Pulitzer-winning black American playwright August Wilson (1945-2007) described by the New Yorker’s John Lahr in the Guardian. “Write, stop, pivot, punch” is the arresting headline over a face shot of him looking authorial with his cap and goatee. (Photo: Guardian)

I have never read his plays but he must have been a remarkable man, a self-taught genius. He had never read Chekhov, Ibsen, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, or so he claimed.

There are shades of Obama:

Wilson’s white father abandoned him and his black mother when he was five years old.

But he had a much harder time. Lahr tells an inspirational story:

The African-American community in Pittsburgh embraced him, nurtured him, educated him and contained his rage at his father’s abandonment. Wilson learned of a cigar store and pool hall in his neighbourhood called Pat’s Place, where community elders congregated. Pat’s Place became his Oxford, and its garrulous denizens — “walking history books”, Wilson called them — his professors.

In April 1964, Wilson walked to downtown Pittsburgh, put $20 on the counter of a pawnshop, and came away with a heavy black Royal Standard typewriter. He had decided to reinvent himself in the heroic mould of the poet. “What I discovered is that writing was the only thing society would allow me to do,” he told me. “I couldn’t have a job or be a lawyer because I didn’t do all the things necessary. What I was allowed to do was write. If they saw me over in the corner scribbling on a piece of paper, they would say, ‘That is just a nigger over in the corner scribbling on a piece of paper.’ Nobody said, ‘Hey, you can’t do that.’ So I felt free.”

This is a story worth saving.

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