August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand is surely required cultural viewing – for everyone, but perhaps especially for Pittsburghers.
A 34-minute condensed version of this 90-minute PBS American Masters documentary was screened last night for an invited crowd of a few hundred at none other than the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.
The full program airs at 9 p.m. tonight on QED. If the teaser was any indication, this is a respectful yet insightful look at the Pittsburgh-born playwright’s life, work and legacy, and by necessary extension at race in America. (This year is also the 70th anniversary of Wilson’s birth, and the 10th anniversary of his death.)
The film is a co-production of WQED Multimedia and American Masters. It features interviews with copious experts including actors Viola Davis and Laurence Fishburne; playwright Suzan Lori-Parks; the late Wilson’s sisters Freda Ellis and Linda Jean Kittel; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette theater critic Christopher Rawson; Pitt history professor Laurence Glasco; and New York Times critic Frank Rich. Not to mention archival interviews with Wilson himself.
There are also vibrant video excerpts from stage and broadcast productions of plays from Wilson’s century-spanning Pittsburgh Cycle, including The Piano Lesson, with Charles Dutton (who’s also interviewed), and Fences, with James Earl Jones (ditto).
The account of Wilson’s childhood and young adulthood in the Hill District made this an especially fun piece to watch with a Pittsburgh audience. When an iconic Hill diner showed up onscreen, I heard this exchange from two ladies behind me: “Eddie’s.” “Mmmm-hmmm.”
Still, the film will do well to be as riveting as the panel discussion after last night’s screening. (And that’s something I don’t say about all panel discussions.)
The panel was moderated by WQED’s Darryl Ford Williams, whose baby this project was (eight long years in the making). It included actors Phylicia Rashad and Ruben Santiago-Hudson; New York-based filmmaker Sam Pollard, the doc’s director; Costanza Romero, a costume designer and Wilson’s widow; and composer Kathryn Bostic.
The panel elaborated on Wilson’s skills as both listener and storyteller.
Rashad played Wilson’s iconic character Aunt Ester in Gem of the Ocean on Broadway. “It was the first time ever that a script woke me up at 3 o’clock in the morning and said, ‘Come here. Study me,’” she said. “Because it was important to render the exact text with the exact words as they had been written. August Wilson understood the power of the word.”
She said Wilson’s skill with language was poetical, transcending even mere words. In one scene in Gem, she said, she realized, “Each character became like a drum and each character had his own rhythm.”
Santiago-Hudson acted in Gem with Rashad, and in other Wilson plays. He even played Wilson himself in How I Learned What I Learned, the one-man memoir show that’s billed as Wilson’s final play. (A new production opens at Pittsburgh Public Theater in March).
Santiago-Hudson said Wilson’s influence was revolutionary in its portrayal of blacks on the American stage.
“He let African-American people talk – literally, talk,” said Santiago-Hudson, who growing up spent many summers with family in Mon Valley towns Duquesne, Clairton and McKeesport. “For the first time [in Wilson’s plays], I saw black men speak loud and unapologetically in public. … Black men were allowed to own their space, to own their destiny. … It gave us power.”
Final note: Last night’s event was among the first big to-dos at the Wilson Center since a group of local foundations bought the building. The Center was in bankruptcy, and its other possible fates included life as a hotel.
Among those foundations was the Heinz Endowments, whose president, Grant Oliphant, drew a standing ovation last night when he said, “Welcome back, Pittsburgh, to your August Wilson Center.”