Exploring the African American experience in Seattle

Steven R. Lorton  – September 4, 2004

Playwright August Wilson lives and works in Seattle. In addition to two Pulitzer Prizes, Wilson’s winning list of credits includes a Tony Award, seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, five American Theatre Critics Awards, three Drama Desk Awards, a Lawrence Olivier Award, and Rockefeller and Guggenheim Fellowships.

For more than two decades, Wilson has worked on a group of 10 plays (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was the first, King Hedley II the most recent) that he calls a 20th-century cycle. They explore the heritage and experience of African Americans, decade by decade. Eight plays are finished; Wilson is working on the ninth, Gem of the Ocean.

Q: You were born in Pittsburgh. You could live in New York or anywhere in the world. Why did you choose to live in Seattle?

A: Seattle is a very sophisticated and knowledgeable city, with a very active theater community. It supports major theater companies. I came here in 1990. I’m still here. Something must be working.

Q: What do you think makes Seattle such a powerful theater scene?

A: Artists. They’re all here and in big numbers. Artists make the scene―people who are eager to dedicate their lives to all the aspects of theater―actors, great stage managers, designers. You need a critical mass of these artists to make theater happen. The guy who hangs the lights is as important as the guy on the stage who says the lines.

Q: Your plays are about the African American experience. Seattle’s African American community isn’t particularly large. Has that been any sort of impediment to your work?

A: The black experience in Seattle is as intense as it is anywhere.

Q: In many of your plays, women play a very important role. Isn’t the powerful black woman something of a stereotype?

A: No inaccuracies there, just true to life. They are modeled after my mother, a strong principled woman.

Q: Certainly you must be proud of the volume of work you’ve produced and the reception it’s gotten.

A: No one does it alone. Theater is a collaborative art. You begin writing alone, of course, but it takes a small army of people to get it up on stage. I’m grateful to all of them.

Q: You’ve enjoyed enormous success. What’s next? What are your aspirations?

A: I am happiest when I’m working and my goal is to finish the next play. I don’t look beyond that. I love having a handful of finished pages, to hold them and think, “All these were once blank.” The only thing I aspire to is finishing the next play.

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