This week, author and theater critic Patti Hartigan discusses her recent book August Wilson: A Life, the first authoritative biography of iconic playwright August Wilson. Hartigan is joined by actor and playwright J. Nicole Brooks. This conversation originally took place October 30, 2023 and was recorded live via Zoom.
This episode is presented alongside our special exhibit Dark Testament: A Century of Black Writers on Justice, currently on display at the American Writers Museum.
More about August Wilson: A Life
August Wilson wrote a series of ten plays celebrating African American life in the 20th century, one play for each decade. No other American playwright has completed such an ambitious oeuvre. Two of the plays became successful films, Fences, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis; and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. Fences and The Piano Lesson won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama; Fences won the Tony Award for Best Play, and years after Wilson’s death in 2005, Jitney earned a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.
Through his brilliant use of vernacular speech, Wilson developed unforgettable characters who epitomized the trials and triumphs of the African American experience. He said that he didn’t research his plays but wrote from “the blood’s memory,” a sense of racial history that he believed African Americans shared. Author and theater critic Patti Hartigan traced his ancestry back to slavery, and his plays echo with uncanny similarities to the history of his ancestors. She interviewed Wilson many times before his death and traces his life from his childhood in Pittsburgh (where nine of the plays take place) to Broadway. She also interviewed scores of friends, theater colleagues and family members, and conducted extensive research to tell the story of a writer who left an indelible imprint on American theater and opened the door for future playwrights of color.
PATTI HARTIGAN is an award-winning theater critic and arts reporter who spent many years on the staff of The Boston Globe. She divides her time between the Boston area and Charlottesville, VA.
J. NICOLE BROOKS is an actor, author and director. Selected acting credits include Lottery Day (Goodman Theatre, New Stages Festival), Beyond Caring, Death Tax, and RACE (Lookingglass Theatre Company), Immediate Family (Center Theatre Group) and House Home (Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, China). Directing credits include Mr. Rickey Calls A Meeting, Thaddeus & Slocum: A Vaudeville Adventure and Black Diamond: The Years the Locusts Have Eaten. Brooks is author of HeLa, Fedra Queen of Haiti, Black Diamond, and 3 Weeks With Her Honor Jane Byrne. Television credits including recurring roles on Showtime’s The Chi and Comedy Central’s South Side. She is a mutli-award winning artist honored by 3Arts, TCG Fox Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Black Ensemble Theatre Playwright of the Year, LA Ovation and Black Theatre Alliance. She is an ensemble member of Lookingglass Theatre Company.