Playwright August Wilson started hearing the voices of the people he grew up with all his life. And he started writing them down.

March/April 1989
By Michelle Patrick
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark Director of Photography: David Hume Kennedy

The Hollywood gossip mills are already grinding overtime in gleeful anticipation of the egomaniacal excesses expected of Eddie Murphy as he prepares to make his dramatic debut in the filmed version of the Pulitzer prize‑winning play, Fences. In the play, the son's role (Murphy's role in the film) is small but meaty; the character is intriguing but undeveloped.

The Broadway play -and the Tony award for best actor‑ belonged to James Earl Jones, who played the son's father. The question now is, will Eddie Murphy be the box office tail that can make any literary dog wag on cue? Rumors are already afield that Mr. Murphy has requested that the son's role be rewritten, to be clarified and expanded. Mr. Jones is no slouch in the ego department, and his reaction to this situation is not yet known. But the reaction of the playwright‑who is also writing the screenplay‑is known: he couldn't be happier, and he couldn't care less.

With the screen version of Fences, Murphy will trade his comic's mask for the part of Cory Maxson, the ornery son of a bitter garbage man in the Pittsburgh of 1953. For the first time, Murphy fans will have a chance to see their champ wrestle with heavyweight drama, and critics will get to judge the breadth and depth of the star's talent.

But the real talent behind this history‑making film belongs to a man who has not seen a movie in nine years; a man who doesn't hang out in Hollywood; a man who seldom steps out at night. He is August Wilson, the Minnesota playwright who swept Broadway with a mighty gust of brilliance just a little more than four years ago. Now he is writing the screen version of the play that won him the 1987 Tony, Pulitzer, and New York Drama Critics Circle awards.


Does August Wilson worry about what Hollywood will do to Fences?

"Look, I'm contracted to do the screenplay and a set of rewrites,'' says Wilson with a wave of the hand. "I'm going to hand it in and say, 'Here it goes. If you want to mess it up, it's on you.' They can do whatever they want. They can make it a musical. But they can get somebody else to do it. I'm not about to let five people sitting around a table tell me what to write."

These are strong words from a gentleman who radiates serene calm. Balding beneath his black leather cap, Wilson, 44, has the flawless skin of a six‑year­-old and the steady gaze of a swami. Settled in a rear booth of his favorite Manhattan coffee shop, he chain-smokes and explains his take‑it‑or‑leave‑it stance:

"Whatever they do with the film, my play exists as a thing in itself. It's a part of literature.''

Indeed it is. And so are Ma Rainey 's Black Bottom, the drama that marked Wilson's 1984 Broadway debut, and 1987's Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Ma Rainey is a dark look at the demimonde of black recording musicians in the 1920s. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play‑quite a feat for a playwright who had been practically unknown. Joe Turner is populated by the rootless inhabitants of a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911. Although it had only a short Broadway run, it garnered much critical praise.

Wilson is built like a wrestler, and he will need the stamina to match, because he has set himself a Herculean task: to trace the course of 20th century black life by writing a play about each decade. The most recent installment is the critically acclaimed The Pino Lesson, set in the 1930s. It opened last December at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.

For a long time now, history has been the strong rhythmic backbeat in the improvised music of August Wilson's life. It was history that caused him to abandon school forever, when a tenth grade teacher accused him of plagiarizing a research paper on Napoleon. Finding himself at loose ends, the 15‑year‑old spent the next five years in the reading room of the Pittsburgh public library. Alone there, without a teacher or a guide of any kind, he educated himself, reading "anything and every­thing."

Practically everything he has learned, he has taught himself. What he couldn't get from the library, he got from his hardworking, resilient mother. Head of a household that included six chil­dren, she worked as a janitor in the county courthouse.

"We lived in two rooms at the back of Bella's grocery store," Wilson recalls. "We didn't have a telephone. We didn't have hot water. But we did have a radio. One day, in 1958, when I was ten, they had a radio contest. Morton Salt had just come out with a brand new slogan: 'When It Rains, It Pours.' They announced that slogan over the radio and said, if you could name the product, you would win a brand new Speed Queen washing machine.

"My mother is scrubbing clothes on the washboard, and she is listening, and she knows the answer. She gives my sister a dime and tells her to run next door, dial the number, and say, 'Morton Salt.'

"So, they announce that my mother is the winner of the Speed Queen washing machine. My mother, naturally, is ecstatic. But, when they find out she's black, they want to give her a certificate to go to the Salvation Army and get a used washing machine.

"My mother told them what they could do with their certificate. That was when I started helping my mother wring the clothes."

What Wilson didn't get from his mother or from his own efforts, he got from other struggling writers and artists in Pittsburgh's rugged Hill Street district.

“They were artists about five years older than me," he says. ''They encouraged me, nurtured me. These people became my lifelong friends. They sanctioned my life. We had concerts, poetry readings, started a little magazine.

We all took care of each other… I was 20 years old and had just left my mother's home. This was all I had ever imagined life could be."

Supporting himself with a series of menial jobs, Wilson began the long process of teaching himself to write. First he wrote ''perfectly horrible'' poems. "If you've got away with language, you can really fool yourself," he says, smiling ruefully. "I was writing stuff that had no meaning, stuff like this"(he recites with mock seriousness):

Though lovelier motion
She dropped from her immortal baggage
A splintered pump
And hell's mansions rocked in torn winds
For whom must we pray?

"Now, what is that?" he says, with a self‑deprecating shrug; "I was imitating everybody, all at the same time. Finally, in 1973, I wrote a real poem, something that wasn't pretentious. The essence f the poem was: 'I got up this morning and went riding on a bus… I just thought I'd tell you that.' That was the most honest thing I had ever written. After that I never looked back."

Years later, Wilson would write pseudo‑historical short stories under the pen name of Ron Morales de Niza, a Spanish writer he had invented. Claiming to be Morales' English translator (though he spoke not a word of Spanish), Wilson would circulate the stories among his friends. The fanciful tales were filled with concocted dates and fabri­cated incidents in European history. No one ever doubted that they were the work of a literary Spaniard.

Ten years ago, history was still providing a foundation for Wilson's life. Inspired by love, he left his native Pittsburgh for St. Paul, Minnesota. While he courted the woman destined to become his second wife, he landed a "straight" job as official playwright for the Science Museum of Minnesota. There, he wrote children's dramas about the history of science.

But it was six more years before Wilson, in his own words, "became a playwright." Before then, he was just stuffing lofty­ sounding words into the mouths of characters.

"For a long time, I didn't respect and value the way black people talk. I thought you had to change it to make art out of it. But, in 1979, when I wasn't living in Pittsburgh anymore, I started hearing the voices of the people I'd grown up with all my life. And I started writing them down."

To illustrate how he works today, Wilson talks about Two Trains Running, the piece he is currently writing, a drama set in the 1960s.

"I don't have a story. I don't have an outline. I'm trying to figure out who the characters are. And when I do that, I trust that they'll tell me.”

Wilson talks to his characters the way a medium communes with the spirits, but he does it in noisy bars and restaurants. Sitting with a legal pad and pencil, he invites his characters to sit with him and, most often, they do.

Two Trains Running has a restaurant owner named Memphis, and a 322‑year-old woman named Esther. According to Memphis, "People be surprised when they find out Esther is only 322, 'cause she look 500.''

The play also has a waitress named Reesa, who for some reason has just slashed her legs with a razor. Wilson is still trying to figure out why. There is a funeral parlor across the street from Memphis' restaurant, where a corpse named Prophet Samuel is laid out. People used to rub Prophet Samuel's head for luck, so now they are lined up around the block for a last rub. They are so frantic that a guard has to watch over the body at night.

Next to the funeral parlor, there is a butcher shop owned by a guy named Lutz. "Every morning,'' narrates Wilson, "a guy walks into Lutz's shop and says, 'Give me my ham.' And Lutz says, 'Take a chicken instead.'

And the guy leaves with nothing. Lutz and the guy have been doing this for nine years.'' The playwright can easily recite samples of the dialogue he and his characters exchange:

Memphis: I give her everything I had for nine years. No, I give her everything I had when I met her. Then, I give her everything I can get hold of for the next nine years. And then when she was leaving, she wouldn't even shake my hand!

Wilson: You must have done something awful wrong.

Memphis: I asked her to get up and make me some bread, and she got up and walked out the door.

Reesa: She didn't like the way you treated her.

After many conversations like this one, Wilson will have compiled a mass of character and story fragments. He will take them home to his two‑bedroom apartment and wait until his wife goes to sleep. About 11 p.m., he will slip into his study, load his Walkman with blues, and start writing his script longhand on yellow legal paper. His cat, Maxwell, will slink in and pounce on the desk. As Wilson writes, he will pile the finished pages on Maxwell's napping body. When Maxwell stirs, the playwright will know it's time to quit for the night. That will be around 3 am.

After about two months of this process, Two Trains Running will be a play. Wilson will type it up on his word processor. Like his other successful dramas, it will probably be launched by Yale Repertory Theatre, under the direction of Lloyd Richards. It will probably play at regional theaters across the country, and Wilson, as always, will probably travel with the show, watching each performance and writing continually.

Perhaps, as Ma Rainey, Fences, and Joe Turner did, Two Trains Running will find its way to Broadway. Maybe it too will attract the attention of a well‑known star or a Hollywood mogul. Possibly they'll ask August Wilson to write a screenplay based on the original drama.

There is, of course, a chance that that star or that mogul will want to tamper with Wilson's work. Maybe they will want to write in a rock star, or create a slot for the Rockettes.

That's okay with August Wilson, as long as the check clears and they leave him alone. The play itself exists inviolate. Nothing can change the way he wrote it. And for now, August Wilson must write today's words in his continuing attempt to make some more sense of his, and our, past.