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Where’s the Barbed Wire?

Hartigan’s book is the first full-length examination of Wilson’s life and art since his death in 2005 from liver cancer. There is both a need and demand for the story of how he and his work came to be.

August Wilson,Wikipedia

August Wilson: A Life 
by Patti Hartigan.
Simon and Schuster, 531 pp., £30, August 2023, 978 1 5011 8066 8

August Wilson​ wrote standing up at an accountant’s desk on which he had pinned the mottos ‘Take it to the moon’ and ‘Don’t be afraid, just play the music.’ His Century cycle, whose ten plays bear witness to African American experience in the 20th century, decade by decade, turned historical catastrophe into imaginative triumph. It has no equal in theatrical literature. In its ambition and achievement, Wilson’s Herculean endeavour outdid even Eugene O’Neill, who completed only two of his projected eleven-play cycle. ‘I took it as my credo,’ Wilson wrote, ‘and sought to answer James Baldwin’s call for a profound articulation of the Black tradition that could sustain a man once he left his father’s house.’

With what he called his ‘anthropological eye’, Wilson set out to dramatise the ‘dazed and dazzling ... rapport with life’ which allowed African Americans to navigate a white world not of their making, a world that did not recognise their gods, their manners, their mores or their humanity. ‘I happen to think that the content of my mother’s life,’ Wilson said, ‘her myths, her superstitions, her prayers, the contents of her pantry, the smell of her kitchen, the song that escaped from her sometimes parched lips, her thoughtful repose and pregnant laughter – are all worthy of art.’ He added: ‘There’s no idea in the world that is not contained by Black life.’

Wilson spent more than twenty years on the Century cycle, writing the first play in 1979 and the last in 2005. Behind his desk was an Everlast punching bag. When he was in full flow, he sometimes pivoted in exhilaration and unleashed a barrage of jabs at it. By 2001, when I visited the neon-lit Seattle basement that served as his office for a New Yorker profile, he had pummelled the bag so hard he’d knocked it off its chain. Between bouts of writing, he retreated to a corner chair to smoke and to listen to his characters.

Marion McClinton, the director of his later plays, called Wilson ‘the heavyweight champion’. He was referring to his great undertaking, but with his large forehead, broad chest and heavy-set frame Wilson looked the part. His fight was not in the ring, however. ‘What we lack,’ he wrote in 1995, ‘is the ability to give the ideas and images we have of ourselves a widespread presence.’ Wilson’s portrayal of the struggles, manners, humour and ceremonies of Black Americans challenged both white America’s cultural indifference and what Zora Neale Hurston called ‘the muteness of slavery’. ‘The average, struggling, non-morbid Negro is the best-kept secret in America,’ Hurston said as late as 1950. Wilson’s first commercial play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, staged in 1984, may have been experienced by Black audiences as testimony; to white audiences it was still news.

In their theatrical dramatisation down the decades from property to personhood, Wilson’s unmoored characters form a kind of fever chart of the trauma of slavery. In its historical trajectory the Century cycle takes African Americans through the shock of freedom in the 1900s (Gem of the Ocean); the reassembling of identity in the 1910s (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone); the struggle for power in the 1920s (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom); the dilemma of embracing the history of slavery in the 1930s (The Piano Lesson); the promises made and broken to those who served in the Second World War (Seven Guitars); the fraught adaptation to the bourgeois values of the 1950s (Fences); the continuing injustices of the 1960s (Two Trains Running); disenfranchisement during the capitalist takeovers of the 1970s and 1980s (JitneyKing Hedley II); and troubled assimilation into the mainstream in the 1990s (Radio Golf).

Taken collectively, the plays dispute America’s myth of itself as a redeemer nation. The white immigrants who arrived on its shores left their past for a better future; Africans had their past taken away. This historical calamity was also a spiritual one. In life, Wilson suffered this tormenting nostalgia and wrote out of it – ‘the blood’s memory’, he called it. The cycle incarnated the redemptive power of tradition in the character of Aunt Ester (‘ancestor’), who appears in four of the plays. She lives at 1839 Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh and at the age of 349 is as old as slavery. ‘I keep my memories alive. I got to feed them otherwise they’d eat me up. I’m carrying them for a lot of folk. All the old-timey folks,’ she says in Gem of the Ocean. Citizen Barlow visits her wanting his afflicted soul ‘washed’; Aunt Ester works her voodoo and imaginatively connects him to his past – the City of Bones, where millions of slaves drowned on the Middle Passage. He leaves ‘reborn as man of the people’, according to the stage directions. Wilson was both a necromancer communicating with the dead and a pilgrim ‘walking down the landscape of the self’, as he described it. ‘It is in many ways a remaking of the self in which all of the parts have been realigned, redistributed and reassembled into a new being of sense and harmony.’

Wilson, whose given name was Frederick August Kittel, was born in 1945 into a family where racial division was the undertow of his parents’ feud. He was the much wanted first son and fourth of six children born to Daisy Wilson, an African American, and Frederick (‘Fritz’) Kittel, a German baker. ‘I don’t think he ever fit here in America,’ Fritz’s eldest child, Freda Kittel, told me. ‘I don’t think he ever accepted Black people. Or the culture. I think for my whole family there’s a deep sense of abandonment.’ The family lived in a $40-a-month apartment in the Hill (known locally as Little Harlem), a lively mixed community, a five-minute drive from downtown Pittsburgh. Wilson remembered his father being ‘mostly not there. You stayed out of his way if he was.’ But Wilson was privy to many of Fritz’s violent drunken scenes: throwing bricks at their window, which forced the children to take cover under the bed; trampling to smithereens the bags of pastries he’d brought home to feed the family; ripping the stove door off the cooker at a Thanksgiving dinner. On the rare occasions when Fritz was at home and sober his very presence was tyrannical. ‘We had to sit down. We were not allowed to talk,’ Freda recalled. ‘We were not allowed to play. It was complete silence.’

Daisy doted on August and, according to Freda, ‘felt that August was the best and smartest’ of her brood. (He had an IQ of 143.) Daisy told her children to ‘be the best of whatever you are.’ ‘She made me believe that I could do anything,’ Wilson said years later. He became, inevitably, the apple of his own eye too. He was competitive, a bad loser, and porous: at once highly sensitive and hot tempered. (‘He broke my jaw with one punch,’ his sister Donna reported; she was 21 at the time.) Even as a youngster Wilson exhibited the imperiousness of an idolised child. In the neighbourhood, he answered to the nickname ‘Napoleon’.

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As a teenager, however, most of his battles with the world ended in retreat. He quit his mostly white prep school, Central Catholic, after punching out a student for a racist taunt – there went the dream of getting into Notre Dame and becoming a lawyer. He quit Clifford B. Connelley Trade School after a teacher knocked him off his stool – there went his chance to learn a trade. At Gladstone High School, at the age of fifteen, he ripped up his typed twenty-page paper on ‘Napoleon’s Will to Power’ after the teacher asked him to prove he’d written it – there went high school. Wilson never returned and never earned a high school diploma. He was, he said, ‘a graduate of Carnegie Library’, where he spent five hours a day. Over the next four years he read some three hundred books. At seventeen, he briefly enlisted in the army. After coming second in the officer training school test he was told that, according to army rules, he had to be nineteen to qualify. Soon afterwards, he quit the military – there went his dream of becoming a four-star general. Wilson wandered to LA and worked for a time in a pharmacy. But it seems he was doling medicine of a different kind. ‘He had trouble with the law,’ his widow, Constanza Romero, told me. ‘He doesn’t like to talk about it. He was in San Quentin. I thought he was joking.’ Of all his teenage abdications, perhaps the most punishing was losing his mother’s faith in him. ‘It was relentless,’ Linda Kittel said. ‘She told him he was no good, that he would amount to nothing ... It was agony for him. He was often denied food. She would take the food out of the refrigerator, put it in her bedroom, lock the door ... She didn’t want him in the house upstairs.’

At twenty, Wilson was already a veteran of disappointment. Opportunity hadn’t knocked; it rarely did for the residents of the Hill. ‘The opportunity on Centre Avenue in 1965 was the opportunity to die an early death,’ Wilson recalled in his one-man show How I Learned What I Learned. ‘Opportunity to buy some dope. Opportunity to steal something. And if you’re lucky, an opportunity to maybe find a girlfriend.’ He had faith in himself but the world didn’t reflect him back. ‘I just always felt that the society was lined up against you. That in order to do anything in the world you were going to have to battle this thing that was out there. It wasn’t gonna give you any quarter.’ He gave himself a heroic mission, avoiding the roadblocks of academic credentials, bureaucracies and bosses: he would be a poet. ‘Writing was the only thing society would allow me to do,’ Wilson 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.

The day he set up shop as a writer, Wilson walked downtown to McFerran’s Typewriter Store, paid $20 for a black Royal Standard and lugged it back to his basement apartment. He put a piece of paper in the machine and typed out a variety of possible noms de plume: Fred A. Kittel, Frederick A. Kittel, Frederick A. Wilson, A. Wilson, August Wilson. He marked the day of his literary beginning as 1 April 1965 – the day of his father’s death. Over time, as he dummied up a destiny, writing would be Wilson’s vindictive triumph over his father, erasing from his own story both his father’s name and his race.

On that first day, Wilson typed up some of his poems and sent them to Harper’s, which promptly rejected them. He had to wait until 1969 to have a poem published, but he persevered. ‘I had a sense of myself as being grand,’ Wilson said. ‘It was the way I carried myself. I thought I was the greatest thing since sliced bread.’ At the height of the counterculture, Wilson strutted the Hill like an Ivy League dandy in a second-hand tweed jacket and necktie, pipe in his mouth. The posture was both a mask and an admission: he was lost. Chawley Williams, a drug dealer turned poet who befriended Wilson early on and to whom Wilson dedicated King Hedley II, said: ‘August wasn’t really Black. He was too dark to be white, and he was too white to be dark. He was in no man’s land.’

In 1965, rummaging through a junk shop, Wilson found a bootlegged 78 with the label: ‘Bessie Smith – Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine.’ Wilson had heard rock and roll and pop songs as a child but never the blues. Smith’s sound was a revelation. ‘The universe stuttered and everything fell to a new place,’ he said, adding: ‘I had been given a world that contained my image, a world at once rich and varied, marked and marking, brutal and beautiful, and at crucial odds with the larger world that contained it and preyed and pressed it from every conceivable angle.’ Wilson found himself laughing with delight. He played the song 22 times. The experience, he said, was ‘a birth, a baptism, a resurrection and a redemption all rolled up into one’. The record marked the beginning of his sense of himself as ‘a representative of a culture and the carrier of some very valuable antecedents’. He came to think of himself as a ‘bluesman’: ‘I turned my ear, my heart, and whatever analytic tools I possessed to embrace this world. I elevated it, rightly or wrongly, to biblical status.’

The Hill, that ‘amalgam of the unwanted’ as he called it, turned out to be Wilson’s university, ‘the singular most important thing in my development as a writer and a playwright’. His blues lens turned the drama of the streets into ‘life being lived in all its timbre and horrifics’:

The Hill had a vibrancy, a shimmy. If you walk up Centre Avenue there’s always people shouting. I was getting a ride up Centre Avenue with this guy in this convertible. I heard some gunshots, and I told him to stop the car, and I didn’t even bother to open the door. I just hopped out of the car and ran down to where the gunshots were. And I’m like: ‘What’s happening?’ And there’s this woman chasing the man around the car, and he poked his head up, and – boom! – she shot him in the face. Not only did I see it, but, after the guy got shot in the face (someone grabbed her), he’s walking up the street, and I’m like walking right beside him, like looking at him. You know, I wanted to see this. And he was bleeding. He asked this guy, he said: ‘Man drive me to the hospital.’ The guy said: ‘You ain’t gon’ get all that blood in my car.’ I was right there. This is going on – I remember one time I didn’t go to bed for like, damn near three days, because every time I’d go to bed I felt like I was missing something. And I’d jump up, three o’clock in the morning and run out there. All kinds of life going on. It was like, wow!

The blues aesthetic also gave Wilson a new frame for interrogating the people around him. When a local person died, whether he had known them or not, Wilson felt compelled to pay his respects at West’s Funeral Home. He hung out at the pool hall and cigar store where the elders gathered. They called him ‘youngblood’; he called them ‘walking history books’, repositories of wit, customs, wisdom, some of which would find its way decades later into his plays. ‘I really wanted to know how they survived,’ Wilson told me. ‘How do you get to be seventy years old in America?’

Patti Hartigan’s​ rookie 530-page biography of Wilson brings to mind a line from Karl Kraus: ‘No ideas and the ability to express them, that’s a journalist.’ Hartigan, who was a theatre reviewer for the Boston Globe, is passionate about her subject, indefatigable in her pursuit of anecdote and, as she told the Provincetown Independent, ‘loved, loved, loved the research’. That’s her narrative problem. She harvests a plethora of detail, but she doesn’t know how to make it dramatic. Her clotted prologue muddies the scene of Wilson, now famous, returning to Pittsburgh in 2003 for the funeral of his homie Rob Penny, only to have the Penny family bar him from speaking. ‘August ... had been silenced because of his own success,’ she writes. But why the annihilating envy? Hartigan tells us that Penny had preceded Wilson at Central Catholic, that he was a track star, that in their Black activist days he took the name Brother Oba and Wilson was Mbulu, that he was chairman of the University of Pittsburgh’s Africana department. What she doesn’t tell the reader at this point is that Penny wrote more than thirty plays, that King Hedley II was dedicated to him, that Penny released Wilson’s great gift when he answered Wilson’s tyro question about how to make characters talk – ‘You don’t. You listen’ – and, crucially, that Penny sent the wannabe playwright a brochure for the National Playwrights Conference with ‘Do this!’ scribbled on it. Wilson did as Penny said. At the age of 33, Wilson may not yet have found his theatrical voice, but he’d found his ticket to ride.

Hartigan’s book is the first full-length examination of Wilson’s life and art since his death in 2005 from liver cancer. There is both a need and demand for the story of how he and his work came to be. Wilson made his plays, he said, ‘fat with substance’; Hartigan’s dutiful trawling merely makes her book fat. Much of her sleuthing is useful but in the way that a travel guide is informative: you get data without depth. She won’t risk interpretation. Only in one line on her final page does Hartigan admit the biographical problem that bedevils her enterprise: the Wilson Estate declined to authorise the biography. As a result, she has no primary sources: no letters, no early plays, no poetry, no access to family, no way to get close to Wilson’s pulse. She can assert, she can gossip, but she can’t show. ‘I hope readers will get a sense of his eloquence nonetheless,’ she concludes in her author’s note. The short answer is: no – they can’t and they won’t. Where she can’t quote, Hartigan is forced to paraphrase – another narrative quagmire. Wilson is a great storyteller; Hartigan isn’t. Wilson’s words swing with lyric power; Hartigan’s prose has as much clout as a popgun.

Photograph of August Wilson and Lloyd Richards on the set of The Piano Lesson, 1987. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Her glib palaver is most regrettable in her account of Wilson’s relationship with his major director, Lloyd Richards, whom he called ‘my guide, my mentor, my provocateur’. Their collaboration on six plays of the cycle was as intimate and as important to American theatre as that of Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams. In both cases, the plays were a kind of co-creation, and the alliances are what made them shine.

The path that led Wilson to Richards was long and tortuous. Although he’d dabbled in community theatre in Pittsburgh and had even directed a few plays (he and Penny founded the Black Horizons Theatre in 1968), Wilson had no significant exposure to theatre proper. Until 1976, he had never seen a professional production. He had read no dramatic literature: no Williams, Miller, O’Neill, Chekhov, Ibsen. It was only when he moved with his white soon to be second wife, Judy Oliver, to her home town of St Paul in 1978 that his interest in playwrighting began in earnest. He wrote children’s plays on science-related subjects for the Science Museum of Minnesota; the Penumbra Theatre mounted a disastrous satirical musical, Black Bart, based on his poems, and a handful of other plays were consigned to his bottom drawer. In one of those experiments, The Coldest Day of the Year, a man and a woman sit on a bench, and the woman says: ‘Terror hangs over the night like a hawk.’ Hartigan claims that Wilson ‘cultivated the image of a neophyte who sprang, fully formed, into a playwright’ – but, as his stilted line illustrates, by any professional standard Wilson was a neophyte.

The catalyst for his transformation was not so much the stage as the state of Minnesota, whose entire Black population of 55,000 was the size of the Hill. ‘There weren’t many Black folks around,’ Wilson said later. ‘I got lonely and I started to create them. I could hear the music. I could hear the language for the first time. Until then I hadn’t valued the way Black folks talked. I’d always thought that in order to create art out of it you had to change that.’ The move coincided with his discovery of Romare Bearden, whose paintings of Black life had for Wilson the same wallop of exhilaration as the blues. ‘I try to explore,’ Bearden once said, ‘in terms of the life I know best, those things which are common to all culture’ – just what Wilson now set about doing.

He wrote Jitney in ten days, sitting at Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips, and sent it to the National Playwrights Conference. The conference, held every year in Waterford, Connecticut, had been established to help young dramatists work on flawed but promising plays. Jitney was rejected at least twice. In 1982, Wilson submitted a four-and-a-half-hour version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which was accepted. It was in Waterford that Wilson met Richards, who had become director of the conference in 1968 and would stay in the role until 1999, developing plays by Derek Walcott, Wole Soyinka, John Guare, John Patrick Shanley, Wendy Wasserstein and many others.

When they joined forces, Richards was 63 and Wilson was 37. Every live wire goes dead without connections, and Richards had them. So Wilson could quit his job as a short-order cook and devote himself to writing. Richards helped him secure grants and gave him access to the Yale Repertory Theatre’s facilities, sending him to the sound booth, the paint shop, the lighting designer. ‘He was a big sponge, absorbing everything,’ Richards told me. ‘He had a lot to learn and he knew it.’ As Wilson learned structure, ‘he was also learning everything else.’ Richards wasn’t a man of many words, and he chose those words carefully. He had his own quiet runic way of teaching. ‘I don’t function dictatorially. I don’t give the answer. I try to provoke the artist to find the answer I want him to find. He’s got to make it his own.’

Hartigan gives Richards weasel-worded props. ‘Richards, who worked steadily in the theatre and had just helped usher Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes to Broadway, was looking for a fresh Black voice.’ (In fact, Wilson went looking for Richards.) Does having directed the first play by an African American ever staged on Broadway – Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) – or being dean of the Yale Drama School and artistic director of the Yale Rep sound like no more than ‘steady’ work? Hartigan can’t see Richards’s belt without hitting below it. ‘Richards, for all his talent, had not been able to shepherd other writers to such acclaim.’ But he’d been doing just that since the 1950s. The depth, polish and reach of Wilson’s plays were directly the result of Richards’s pedagogy, both in their construction and in the unique production network that Richards and his associate Benjamin Mordecai developed to give Wilson’s plays a gestation period longer than any playwright in the history of American theatre. The path led from the National Playwrights Conference to Yale to regional theatres and then to Broadway. The series of pre-Broadway regional runs – six in the case of King Hedley II – allowed Wilson to incorporate the actors’ discoveries, deepen his characters, refine and rewrite his storylines and polish his dialogue. When the play finally arrived on Broadway, it was rock solid and ‘shining like new money’, to use Wilson’s phrase. It would be fair to say that without this process and Richards’s nurturing there would be no Century cycle.

When they began collaborating, Wilson recalled, the actors in rehearsal would ask him about his characters, and Richards would answer for him. ‘The old fox knows what’s going on,’ Wilson thought and kept quiet. But, with increasing success and theatrical savvy, Wilson found it hard to keep playing the protégé. By now he knew what he was doing, and he wanted more control over his plays. In 1991, after Richards stepped down from Yale, he suggested that he, Wilson and Mordecai form an equal partnership to put on Seven Guitars. Wilson’s lawyer argued for an arrangement that would have given Wilson 52 per cent, Richards 33 per cent and Mordecai 15 per cent of the proceeds. Richards was outraged and stood firm, but the nature of the relationship had changed. They had been on the road with Seven Guitars for four months when Wilson wrote to Richards complaining that the show ‘does not look like a well-rehearsed production with high production values’. One of Wilson’s proposed remedies was that he read his notes to the cast. Richards rightly shot down the idea, saying it would be like ‘two people trying to conduct the same orchestra at the same time’.

There was no missing the truculence in Wilson’s letter: ‘If you agree to work on resolving these issues which I think are essential ... we need to meet in LA to discuss ways of accomplishing this.’ Richards correctly read Wilson’s words as a threat and called him out. ‘Despite its bill of particulars,’ he replied, ‘I don’t think you said what was on your mind,’ going through all Wilson’s points before coming to the issue of the froideur between them:

August, over twelve years, our pattern of work has been the same.

Through writing, conversation and rewriting, we have attempted to get as complete a script as possible before setting a date for production. Then we have worked in rehearsal and at performance, with my checking with you at every break to be sure that we were on the same track and discussing your thoughts and mine, before giving notes. This was true at rehearsal and at performance. You were my third eye, a position I thought I held for you as a writer. This changed in Boston.

You acquired an assistant to whom you dictated and who handed me a sheaf of notes when I was ready to give notes. There was no discussion or exchange which was very valuable. This act split the working relationship in many ways and caused a distance to happen.

By the time Seven Guitars opened on Broadway, the show had come together well enough to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award and run for just over two hundred performances. By the end of it, however, Wilson and Richards were barely speaking. Richards could work with Wilson; but, as he said, he ‘couldn’t work for him’ – or for the private partnership, Sageworks, which Wilson had set up with Mordecai. From now on Wilson would get a producer’s, as well as an author’s, share of the profits.

Rejecting Richards’s stately, boundaried approach, Wilson chose Marion McClinton to direct his next production, a revised version of Jitney. McClinton, who had directed a number of second productions of the plays, was nine years younger than Wilson. In Richards, Wilson may have lost a father, but in McClinton he’d found a brother who sat shoulder to shoulder with him at the director’s table and who hung on, and extolled, his every word. ‘It’s August’s language – the rhythm of hurt, the rhythm of pain, the rhythm of ecstasy, the rhythm of family – which sets him apart,’ McClinton said. ‘He shook the American theatre until it finally began to part its eyes and see all of its invisible men and women. He helped with a shove mightier than Samson gave the pillars in the Philistine temple, and brought down the walls of ignorance.’

‘Don’t go out there and show your colour,’ Wilson’s mother used to admonish him. He dedicated his adulthood to making a proper spectacle of Blackness. ‘Blacks know the spiritual truth of white America,’ he said. ‘We’re living examples of America’s hypocrisy. We know white America better than a white America knows us.’ His plays are a redress for the apathy of the white imagination. With their tatterdemalion eloquence, his disputatious folk call out this mendacity. ‘A nigger with a gun is bad news,’ Holloway, the restaurant philosophe in Two Trains Running, says. ‘You say the word “gun” and the word “nigger” in the same sentence and you in trouble. The white man panic. Unless you say: “The policeman shot the nigger with a gun.”’ Even as they’re aware of the terrible and unreachable forces that rule their lives, Wilson’s characters take their emptiness and try to fill it up with something. Within their hand-to-mouth existences, they are capable of making a gorgeous fuss, sometimes joyously pronouncing themselves to the world: they beat out field chants with kitchen utensils (The Piano Lesson), do the ‘Joe Louis Victory Walk’ (Seven Guitars), perform voodoo to contact their drowned ancestors (Gem of the Ocean) and, of course, sing the blues. ‘White folks don’t understand about the blues,’ Ma Rainey says. ‘They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.’ These exhibitions of high spirits play as the African American way of enlarging life, heroic refusals to suffer.

There are only three white characters in the entire Century cycle. But the white world is a ghostly, formidable presence on Wilson’s hardscrabble population. In King Hedley II, King observes that as a slave he would have been worth $1200 and now he’s only worth $3.50 an hour. ‘Where’s the barbed wire?’ he says. ‘They got everything else. They got me blocked in every other way.’ Black men, according to Wilson, are ‘a commodity of flesh and muscle which has lost its value in the marketplace’. Toledo, the only literate member of Ma Rainey’s band, explains to the others that they’re ‘left over from history’: ‘The problem ain’t with the white man. The white man knows you just a leftover ... he the one who done the eating and he know what he done ate. But we don’t know that we been took and made history out of.’ In Two Trains Running, Holloway jokes away the tragedy of white innocence, barricaded inside its own story from seeing its crime of devastation. ‘People kill me talking about niggers is lazy. Niggers is the most hard working people in the world. Worked three hundred years for free. And didn’t take no lunch hour.’

‘Trapped in a history which they do not understand’ was the way Baldwin described the white population’s predicament. ‘And until they understand, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years and for innumerable reasons, that Black men are inferior to white men.’ The Century cycle speaks directly to America’s ferocious and ongoing political brawl over its historical narrative. Wilson’s characters, as he put it, are ‘continually negotiating for a position, the high ground of the battlefield, from where they might best shout an affirmation of the value and worth of their being in the face of a many-million-voice chorus that seeks to deafen and obliterate it’. He boxes clever, facing a white audience with a paradox at once dangerous and thrilling: if the whites are wrong about the Blacks, then they are wrong about themselves. It’s subtle storytelling, but it requires time to build compelling resonances, in most cases well over three hours – the major objection from the press corps who prefer two-hour traffic. ‘My plays are talky,’ Wilson said. ‘I say shut up and listen. They are about Black men talking and in America you don’t too often have that.’

Hartigan spends most of her book following the progress of Wilson’s plays, but not much on his process or the particular equipoise of his prose, which flows between ‘trash talk and near choral transport’, as Henry Louis Gates Jr described it. Wilson spent a good portion of his waking hours just following his characters as they gradually found their story over each play’s long gestation period. He compared his patchwork approach to Romare Bearden’s collage technique. ‘I just write stuff down and pile it up, and when I get enough stuff I spread it out and look at it and figure out how to use it,’ he told the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. ‘You start to build the scene and you don’t know where the scene’s going ... You shift it around and organise it ... until you have a composition that satisfies you, that expresses the idea of something, then – bingo – you have a play.’ According to Jack Viertel, an unofficial dramaturge for seven of Wilson’s plays, ‘he had an almost religious faith that through constant rewriting the story would tell itself; he would invent it in the process as the play went by.’

Wilson didn’t drive; he didn’t do email; he didn’t answer the phone; and, with the exception of a few Martin Scorsese films, he didn’t go to the movies. He didn’t see many plays beside his own. He stuck to his last. His mind was more or less in a perpetual reverie about finding and wrangling his stories. By his own calculation, he spent about three months a year at home in Seattle with Constanza and their daughter, Azula, who called him ‘the slippery guy’. ‘He just doesn’t reach that intimate part of everyday life,’ Constanza told me. ‘I call him the deepest pool I have ever met in my life. You can throw a rock inside this man and you never see it hit bottom.’ Despite his ‘unquenchable affection for women’, as Hartigan coyly puts it, Wilson’s first love was his writing.

Just before he died, the Virginia Theatre on Broadway and 52nd Street was renamed the August Wilson Theatre. It was a gesture of particular significance to Wilson, one which went beyond money or acclaim. ‘We both, Black and white, are victims of our history,’ he said. ‘And our victimisation leaves us staring at each other across a great divide of economics, privilege, and the unmitigated pursuit of happiness.’ His plays did the heavy lifting of imagining the other. ‘He knew audiences on Broadway were largely white,’ Viertel said. ‘He wanted to say: “Look, look at this. You people never look at this. You don’t understand the richness of it; and the poetry of it; and the joy of it; and the tragedy of it. It’s here for you. Take a look.”’

John Lahr’s Arthur Miller: American Witness is out in paperback. Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The London Review of Books is Europe’s leading magazine of culture and ideas. Published twice a month, it provides a space for some of the world’s best writers to explore a wide variety of subjects in exhilarating detail – from art and politics to science and technology via history and philosophy, not to mention fiction and poetry. In the age of the long read, the LRB remains the pre-eminent exponent of the intellectual essay, admired around the world for its fearlessness, its range and its elegance.

As well as book reviews, memoir and reportage, each issue also contains poems, reviews of exhibitions and movies, ‘short cuts’, letters and a diary, and is available in print, online, and offline via our app. Subscribers enjoy unlimited access to every piece we’ve ever published in our digital archive. Our new website also features a regular blog, an online storepodcasts and short documentaries, plus video highlights from our events programmes on both sides of the Atlantic, and at the London Review Bookshop.

A reader recently described the LRB as ‘the best thing about being a human’. Make it the highlight of your fortnight, too, by taking out a subscription.

The London Review of Books was founded in 1979, during the year-long management lock-out at the Times. In June that year, Frank Kermode wrote a piece in the Observer suggesting that a new magazine fill the space left by the temporary absence of the Times Literary Supplement. The first issue of the LRB, edited by Karl Miller, appeared four months later. It included pieces by Miller and Kermode, as well as John Bayley on William Golding and William Empson on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and poems by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney.