August Wilson Dies

I have a tiny bit of personal history to add to the knowledge that August Wilson has died in Seattle today at 60 of liver cancer. When I was an undergraduate at Yale, I quickly joined the new weekly newspaper, The Yale Herald, and just as quickly became the regular theater reviewer, handling the Yale Repertory Theatre, then run by Lloyd Richards. Richards was the definitive and premiering director of Wilson's history of black experience in America by decades.

I had the opportunity to interview Wilson through the good offices of the Rep's press department, which treated at least our paper like a real news source, and gave us access to folks. I spent more than an hour with Wilson in 1987 after reading his earlier plays and before seeing The Piano Lesson. He was gruff but willing to talk, and I asked not entirely stupid questions.

But he stressed an interesting point several times that was new to me, white boy that I was having grown up in a white suburb in California and then in Eugene, Oregon, before going to school in New Haven. He said that blacks would have been better off if they hadn't made the great migration out of the Deep South into inner city neighborhoods for blue-collar jobs. He said that if blacks had stayed, they would have changed the destiny of the South by eventually owning a lot of it. He used the phrase, and I have this on tape still, separate but equal, but meant it that the blacks would have created their own nation.

Now having followed his career since, I'm not sure he continued to subscribe to that notion. It wasn't revolutionary, I found out, but it was very interesting. It's hard to say what would have kept blacks in the south--and not like there isn't a large African-American population there now--but as far as my history lessons teach me, the movement north was for jobs and a change from overt, deadly racism to implicit, hostile racism.

Hard to evaluate what would have happened if the folks who had the resources and skills to leave had stayed, but it's hard to imagine a South that isn't deeply divided by economics and in which race and poverty often go hand in hand. Poverty still seems to be the overriding problem, but race continues to compound.