Beginning in the 1970s, August Wilson, who died of liver cancer Sunday in Seattle, challenged the American theater by writing a cycle of plays, one for each decade of the 20th century, all but one of them set in his birthplace, Pittsburgh's depressed Hill District. Although each play grapples with the insidious effects of America's racism on the African-American community, they are at their best not history lessons but lyric explorations of the universal particulars of their characters. The most famous play, Fences, which takes place in the 1950s and 1960s, is what Arthur Miller referred to in 1947 as "the tragedy of the common man." It tells the story of Troy Maxson, who in his youth played in the Negro Leagues but then became a garbageman. (Litter is a prevailing metaphor for African-Americans in Wilson's work.) The conflict is an Oedipal one revolving around Troy and his son, Cory, who dreams of playing professional sports and has to battle not only racism, but also his father's soured dreams. (The name "Maxson" is meant to suggest that Troy's greatest accomplishment is his offspring.)
At their worst, Wilson's plays are overly preoccupied by history. Pumping a play full of history is like icing a cake: It can hide cracks and other defects in the gooey layers. Reading through Wilson's cycle play-by-play today, there's lots to enjoy and reflect on, but ultimately something exhausting and even programmatic in them, something forced and repetitive, although few critics say so. Reading the reviews of the early, more realistic plays, you would think that they stand alongside the masterpieces of the great American playwrights of the 20th century, or of the great playwrights of any century. At least one review compared Wilson to Chekhov. On the American Society for Theatre Research e-mail list, someone wrote that his contribution was similar to that of Henrik Ibsen, the 19th century realist who also attempted an enormous play cycle. And even the reviews of the later and more bloated plays begin with timid phrases like "there is something to admire …"
Wilson was a necessary playwright. His best work describes a world that few theater audiences had seen, and it punches holes in common wisdom about race. I saw The Piano Lesson in 1987 at the Yale Repertory Theatre and I remember the Charles family's tender hijinks over a piano that threatened to destroy them even as it taught them who they were. But there is an enormous unevenness among the plays. For one, at least half are overly long, a fact that some critics attribute to Wilson's collaborator, Lloyd Richards, the former dean of the Yale School of Drama, who cared less about the length of the first act than the emotional heft of the second one. Consider—to cite just one example—the bloviating King Hedley II, the 1980s installment of the cycle, which I saw at the Goodman Theatre in 2000 and where the first act stretched on for nearly two hours. Another thing: Wilson tries to render the tension of psychological complexity, but he does not always succeed. (Ben Brantley in the New York Times says that Wilson's characters always behave as you would expect them to, as though this were a virtue.)
Instead, Wilson's characters lurch into type. In Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Ma is the diva and she behaves like one, refusing to record her number until she gets a bottle of Coca Cola. Levee is the hothead musician who tries to get ahead by agreeing to do the song the producer's way. And so on. At the end of that play, Ma storms out of the studio and Levee, whom the producers have double-crossed, stabs another band member. This seems less like playwriting than agitprop.
Wilson has never been that interested in plot. And even in The Piano Lesson the dramatic situation seems strained and predictable. The play starts when Boy Willie, the wild brother from down South, comes home to try to sell the family piano to buy his own piece of land. This piano originally was traded for his ancestors. Thus, it functions both as a memento of slavery and a talisman for the future. Berniece, Willie Boy's virtuous sister, is a foil. She doesn't want to sell the piano. But instead of showing how every personal choice extracts a price in social terms, Wilson ends the play in a kind of ritual, which turns what could have been a searing meditation on the cost of the past into something facile.
If Wilson's plays sometimes soft-pedal reality in their denouements, in later life he himself began to compensate for this in his speaking appearances and essays. Much has been made of Wilson's "militancy" about what the role of the black theater should be. (He thought it should be segregated; his plays contain practically no white characters.) From his essay "I Want a Black Director," which described why he would consider only a black director for the Hollywood production of Fences (the film was never made), to his participation in an explosive 1997 town hall debate between himself and Robert Brustein, the former artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre and the theater critic for the New Republic, Wilson comes off as more Amiri Baraka than Lorraine Hansberry. (It is reminiscent of the heated exchange between Philip Roth and LeRoi Jones in the New York Review of Books in 1964, after Roth savaged Dutchman.)
Such a position may have been possible to stake out in the 1960s and 1970s. But today, Wilson's attitude toward his own audience can grate. In a recent Paris Review interview, he told George Plimpton: "I think my plays offer (white Americans) a different way to look at black Americans. For instance, in Fences they see a garbageman, a person they don't really look at, although they see a garbageman every day. By looking at Troy's life, white people find out that the content of the black garbageman's life is affected by the same things—love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives." If the humanity of a garbageman is a revelation to anyone, we are in much worse shape than the most apocalyptic social critic thinks.
What is Wilson's legacy? Most of all, his influence. When Wilson started writing the cycle in 1979 (to remind us), you could count the number of mainstream African-American playwrights on one hand. Forty years later, the major American playwrights—the dazzling Suzan Lori Parks, the inestimable Anna Deveare Smith, and the stylish Lynn Nottage, to name three—are African-American. Of course, this is not just Wilson's doing, but the culmination of other social factors. But Wilson's example led the way by setting the bar high for other African-American playwrights. (And yet as Wilson would be the first to say, the American theater, particularly outside of New York, remains overwhelmingly white.)
I haven't seen the most recent play in the Wilson cycle, Radio Golf. But I wonder if the shiny optimistic endings in Wilson's plays explain why the cycle overall has received so much unadulterated praise. And yet it is that same optimism that makes the plays sometimes seem more like artifacts than living, breathing drama. Wilson, of course, manufactured such endings because he was trying to get beyond, or around, or behind the despairing stereotypes of African-American life that contaminate the American theater and Hollywood. He succeeded. But the ambition and scope of Wilson's work make it all the more necessary that today we look at his achievement with clear eyes.