Tuesday, October 04, 2005

"You can only close if you opened."

African-American playwright August Wilson dies at age 60, just months after completing his 10-play Pittsburgh cycle.

From a 1999 Paris Review interview:
WILSON
When I first started writing plays I couldn’t write good dialogue because I didn’t respect how black people talked. I thought that in order to make art out of their dialogue I had to change it, make it into something different. Once I learned to value and respect my characters, I could really hear them. I let them start talking. The important thing is not to censor them. What they are talking about may not seem to have anything to do with what you as a writer are writing about but it does. Let them talk and it will connect, because you as a writer will make it connect. The more my characters talk, the more I find out about them. So I encourage them. I tell them, “Tell me more.” I just write it down and it starts to make connections. When I was writing The Piano Lesson, Boy Willie suddenly announced that Sutter fell in the well. That was news to me. I had no idea who Sutter was or why he fell in the well. You have to let your characters talk for a while, trust them to do it and have the confidence that later you can shape the material.

INTERVIEWER
It’s interesting that you started with poetic drama, because you have such a wonderful ear for dialogue.

WILSON
The language is defined by those who speak it. There’s a place in Pittsburgh called Pat’s Place, a cigar store, which I read about in Claude McKay’s Home of Harlem. It was where the railroad porters would congregate and tell stories. I thought, Hey, I know Pat’s Place. I literally ran there. I was twenty-one at the time and had no idea I was going to write about it. I wasn’t keeping notes. But I loved listening to them. One of the exchanges I heard made it into Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Someone said, “I came to Pittsburgh in ’42 on the B & O,” and another guy said, “Oh no, you ain’t come to Pittsburgh in ’42 . . . the B & O Railroad didn’t stop in Pittsburgh in ’42!” And the first guy would say, “You gonna tell me what railroad I came in on?” “Hell yeah I’m gonna tell you the truth!” Then someone would walk in and they’d say, “Hey, Philmore! The B & O Railroad stop here in ’42?” People would drift in and they’d all have various answers to that. They would argue about how far away the moon was. They’d say. “Man, the moon a million miles away.” They called me Youngblood. They’d say, “Hey, Youngblood, how far the moon?” And I’d say, “a hundred and fifty thousand miles,” and they’d say, “That boy don’t know nothing! The moon’s a million miles.” I just loved to hang around those old guys—you got philosophy about life, what a man is, what his duties, his responsibilities are . . . Occasionally these guys would die and I would pay my respects. There’d be a message on a blackboard they kept in Pat’s Place—“Funeral for Jo Boy, Saturday, one p.m.” I’d look around and try to figure out which one was missing. I’d go across to the funeral home and look at him and I’d go, “Oh, it was that guy, the guy that wore the little brown hat all the time.” I used to hang around Pat’s Place through my twenties, going there less as the time went by. That’s where I learned how black people talk.

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