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By Sheryl Flatow
In the 1990s, I twice had the opportunity to interview August Wilson (1945-2005). One of our interviews lasted three hours. We talked extensively about his early life in Pittsburgh – he was born August Kittel Jr. to a black mother and a white father in the Hill District – as well as his career, race, and politics. Following are excerpts from these interviews. 

“I’m the fourth of six children – three older sisters and two younger brothers. My mother was a house cleaner, and my father wasn’t around much. Without question, I identified with the black side of my family. It was the cultural environment in which I grew up. When you’re 7 or 8 years old, you begin to notice that all of the people in positions of authority, even a little authority, are white – teachers are white, the bus driver is white, the store owner, the fireman, the policeman, the mailman. I remember the first time I saw a black streetcar driver. I couldn’t believe it. I told my mother, and she couldn’t believe it either.”
“I always thought I grew up in a black neighborhood, because it became a black neighborhood. But thinking about it years later, I realized that when I was 9 or 10 years old, it was a mixed neighborhood. There were a lot of Syrians, Jews, blacks, Italians. It was a real ’50s neighborhood. When we came home from school, all the parents would be sitting on the stoops waiting. All the adults in the neighborhood were your social parents – they could tell you to do anything, and whatever it was, you better do it. Looking back on it, I had a wonderful childhood.”

“I don’t remember any overt racism when we lived in the Hill District. But there was ‘the washing machine incident.’ There was a radio contest and the prize was a new Speed Queen washing machine. My mother won, and when she went to claim the washing machine and they saw she was black, they wanted to give her a certificate to go to the Salvation Army and get a used washing machine. At the time, in order for her to wash clothes, she had to heat up the water and scrub the clothes on a washboard. But she refused to take what they offered her. There was a guy named Herb Glickman who went door to door selling furniture. We were poor, and the only reason we had anything was because he was willing to give black people credit. You couldn’t get credit otherwise. Herb knew the story and wanted to give my mother a washing machine which she could pay over time. But she didn’t want to do it that way. She saved dimes and nickels and quarters and eventually she got the Speed Queen from Herb Glickman.”
“My mother remarried, and when I was almost 13 we moved to a neighborhood in Pittsburgh called Hazelwood. There were very few blacks in the neighborhood. Somebody threw a brick through the window, saying, ‘Nigger, stay out.’ It made the front page of the two black newspapers. I can’t tell you how many times we had to replace the windshield on my stepfather’s car.”  The family moved about a year later  .

“I dropped out of school when I was 15 because a [black] teacher didn’t believe I’d written a 20-page paper on Napoleon. He should have given me the benefit of the doubt. He should have asked me questions to see whether I could respond in a way that would have made him believe me. I told him that I’d rented a typewriter with money that I’d earned, and paid my sister to type up what I wrote because I wanted to make an impression on him. But he didn’t believe me, so I tore up the paper, put it in the wastebasket, walked out, and never returned.

“After I dropped out, I got up the next morning and went and played basketball right under the principal’s window. Looking back on it, I wanted him to come out and say, ‘Why aren’t you in school,’ so I could tell him the story. I did that a couple of days, and nobody said anything. I couldn’t tell my mother, so I couldn’t stay home. I’d get up and go to the library and stay until the end of the school day. As it turned out, it was probably the best thing that ever happened, because I basically spent the next five years educating myself in the library. I also worked odd jobs. My mother wanted me to be a lawyer, and when I finally told her that I quit, she said, ‘If you’re not going to go to school and become a lawyer, go get a job. You’re not going to lay around here and do nothing.’”
When did you know you were a writer?
“In the seventh grade. I wrote some poems to a girl named Nancy. I didn’t put my name on them, and she thought they were from a boy named Anthony. I saw how she looked at him, and I realized the poems worked. I thought, ‘This is like magic stuff. Next time I’ll put my name to them.’ I didn’t know anything about earning a living as a writer. I don’t know that that was a concept in my mind. I just knew that I could survive by writing.”

“It was through poetry that I discovered the power of language, that you could make things happen with language. Language became a way of concretizing thought.”
“I bought my first typewriter in 1965 with $20 from my sister. I walked out of the store with this heavy typewriter and realized I didn’t have any bus fare. I walked all the way home, up the hill, and put the typewriter down on the kitchen table. I had loose-leaf paper and put it in the typewriter, because I wanted to see what my name would look like in print. I typed every conceivable combination of my name. I tried FA Kittel and Fred Kittel and August Kittel. Wilson is my mother’s maiden name. I had all these names on a sheet of paper, and the one that looked best was August Wilson. Buying that typewriter was my commitment to being a writer.

“But I discovered I really didn’t know how to type. So, I spent the next two months typing my poems, and that’s how I learned how to type. I sent some poems to Harper’s  magazine and I was convinced the editor would want to see all of them. They were returned to me very quickly. Of course, they were horrible poems. And I thought, ‘Okay, this is real. I have to learn how to write a poem. The next time I send out a poem, it’s not coming back in the mail.’ I didn’t like the rejection. So, I would write 10 poems, take out the best one and put it in a pile, write 10 more and take the best one and put it in the pile. That was my learning process. It took me nine years before I finally wrote a poem that was my voice, that I could send out, because I was determined that it wasn’t going to come back. I haven’t sent out that many since then, but they’ve always been published.”
How did you make the transition from poet to playwright?
“In 1968 I started a theatre called Black Horizon Theatre of Pittsburgh with my friend Rob Penny. Rob wrote two plays. I’d never seen a play before. But we did his plays and people came. Rob said, ‘Write me a play.’ I started writing this play about a jazz musician who was coming back home. He came in and said, ‘What’s happening?’ And the other guy said, ‘Nothin’.’ That’s about as far as I got. I couldn’t think of anything for them to say. So, I said, ‘I’m a poet. I don’t have to write a play. Let Rob do that. I asked him, ‘How do you make them talk?’ He said, ‘You don’t. You listen to them.’ Well, that didn’t make sense to me. I thought he was just trying to be smart. But that was the beginning. I finally wrote a play in 1973 [  Recycle  ], after I witnessed a man get killed and watched a woman, who didn’t know him, try to save him.”  

“I chose the blues as my aesthetic. I create worlds out of the ideas and the attitudes and the material in the blues. I think the blues are the best literature that blacks have. It is an expression of our people and our response to the world. I don’t write about the blues. I’m not influenced by the blues. I  am  the blues.” 
“In 1965, I bought a record player in a thrift shop for three dollars. It only played 78s. The thrift shop also had 78 [rpm] records for a nickel apiece. I would go there every day for months and buy maybe 10 records each time. They were a virtual history of thirties and forties popular music. One day I put on a record by Bessie Smith, and I heard this woman’s voice that was so strikingly different than anything I’d ever heard. I was stunned, and I listened to it again and again. I listened to it 22 straight times. And I said, ‘This is mine.’ I knew that all the other music I’d listened to wasn’t mine. But this was the lady downstairs in my boarding house – she could sing this song. And I began to look at the people in the house in which I lived in a new way, to connect them to the record, to connect that to some history. I claimed that music, and I’ve never looked back.”
“I moved to St. Paul in 1978 and wrote  Jitney in 10 days. I submitted it to the O’Neill and they sent it back. [The O’Neill National Playwrights Conference is essentially a workshop environment to explore burgeoning plays.] Then I sent it to the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis and won a fellowship of $200 a month for a year. I wrote a play called  Fullerton Street , which was workshopped. The most important thing in my career was for me to begin to think of myself as a playwright. That only happened after I won the fellowship and got this $2,400 and sat in a room with 16 other playwrights. I said, ‘I’m a playwright.’ I claimed it.
“I sent  Fullerton Street to the O’Neill, and they sent it back. I sent them  Jitney again because I was convinced they hadn’t read it, and they sent it back again. It was like getting the poems back; I didn’t like the feeling. I really wanted to go to the O’Neill. And I thought, ‘What if you wrote the best play that’s ever been written. Wouldn’t you go to the O’Neill?’ I thought of this play I had started writing in 1976 called  Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom . I had about 12, 14 pages, and I went back to work. When I started, I hadn’t thought about making the musicians characters in the play. I wouldn’t have known how to write them. But when I went back to it, I was confident that I could characterize these guys. I opened the door to the band room, and I heard these guys talking. This one made it to the O’Neill, and I came out of there with a different script than when I went in. After that, there were about seven theatres that wanted to do the play. One of the people who had expressed interest was Lloyd Richards at Yale [Repertory Theatre]. I called him, and he staged it.”  The play went on to Broadway in 1984, with Richards directing.
“I don’t do any research other than listen to the blues. That tells me everything I need to know, and I go from there. That’s true of every play, even the one in 1911 [ Joe Turner’s Come and Gone ]. What do I know about 1911? Not much. I know they had horses instead of cars, so I made sure I had a couple of references to horses. And they used words like ‘fella’ and ‘reckon’ – well, I’m not even sure they said that in 1911. To my ear that’s the way it would be, but it doesn’t matter whether or not I’m getting the period exactly. That’s not what the play’s about. My plays are ultimately about love, honor, duty, betrayal.”

“I’m always conscious when I’m writing a play that I’m demonstrating that black American culture is capable of sustaining you, that there are no ideas outside of black life that cannot be contained by black life.”
“I hear all the time that I don’t care about plot. That’s not correct. The language and conversation are the plot. Some people say my plays are formless. But my plays could not exist, could not work, if they were not plotted. If you are looking for a certain kind of play, then what I write is not a ‘real’ play. But that’s based on what you understand a play to be. I’m sure Picasso came up against the same thing. People looked at his work and said, ‘What is that? That’s not really art.’ It depends on where you’re coming from and what your responses are. The conventional play moves along from plot point to plot point. In my plays the plot points are buried in the language, in the development of the characters. But they have to be there; otherwise you never arrive at the end.

“I write for an audience of one – myself. You can’t write for audiences because they don’t know what they want. You write a play and if it’s good, they’ll come.”
In 1996, Wilson gave a controversial 40-minute speech, “The Ground on Which I Stand,” at a Theatre Communications Group conference, in which he shocked the audience with his views on non-traditional casting (he was against black actors playing roles written for white characters) and for his admonishment of “white” regional theatres producing works by black playwrights, which he believed was hurting black theatre companies. I asked him to expand on some of the opinions he’d expressed in that speech.

“There are a lot of black playwrights, but we don’t have the means to develop ourselves. We have theatres, but we don’t have theatres of the size and budget of white theatres. So, the black playwright says, ‘I don’t want to do my play in the small black theatre in the church basement or the 99-seat theatre.’ And I understand that. But if you don’t begin to organize, to learn how to push for black theatre, then it’s not going to exist.”

“I’m completely opposed to color-blind casting. It’s a celebration of someone else’s art – I find it hard to imagine a white version of  A Raisin in the Sun  . Some people say if it weren’t for color-blind casting, black actors never would have worked. That proves my point. There aren’t any black theatres to support you, to hire you, to sustain you. I don’t want black actors to have to depend on color-blind casting to get work and play white roles. That’s why we need black theatres. It’s always a struggle for black theatres to try to get money. They don’t have the large institutions or financial support.”

“Actors who went to good schools like Yale and Juilliard come to audition for my plays and they throw all their training out the window. They feel they don’t need it. I look at their resumes and they’ve all been trained in white classical plays. They’re not trained as black actors. That’s why they want to get a job in my plays – they can take off this training. They’re not coming here and being stiff, like when they did  Miss Julie  .”
“I walked into a jewelry store downtown (in Seattle) last Christmas to buy my wife a present. Two feet inside the door I was met by two men who asked if they could help me. I felt compelled to put my hands up and say ‘No thank you.’ And I kept my hands up as I walked out the other door. I thought I might get shot. Very seriously. Now why is that? My neighbor walks into the store, that doesn’t happen. Most people live in peace, take care of their families. That’s what everybody in this society is trying to do.”

“We [blacks] have been here since 1619 and our relationship with this society is one in which we have been oppressed. That relationship has not changed. And it must be changed.”

How do you become empowered?
“Again, you have to organize. It could be something as simple as let’s get more black people on the city council. Run for the school board. It doesn’t make sense that the kids in the white school get $10 while the kids in the black schools get $1. It should be $5 and $5. You’ve got to give black kids a better education so that they can compete.”

Are you hopeful?
“Sure. If you don’t have hope, you don’t have anything. Despite everything, I think the solutions are relatively simple. You start with what you teach your kids. You teach them the Constitution. You teach them to aspire to the ideals of the Founding Fathers, so that each generation we can get closer and closer. We all have to live here. We just have to find a better way to live with each other.”
Image Credits: August WIlson Estate, Ronald Woan,Dan Hornsby,
For an evening guaranteed to lift your spirits, head over to PBD on February 26 at 7pm and catch the excitement of the Young Playwrights 10-Minute Play Festival, a program featuring the 10 winning plays of the second annual Young Playwrights 10-Minute Play Contest. Plays were submitted by students throughout Palm Beach County in grades 9-12, and we’re delighted to report that the number of participants increased by 85% over the inaugural competition. 

The plays will be presented as staged readings, directed and performed by PBD professionals. Immediately following the performance, each of the young playwrights will receive a $250 cash prize. Their work will also be published in a keepsake anthology. 

Tickets for the performance are free, but must be reserved at the box office.
Please call 561.514.4042 x2.
The winning playwrights, in alphabetical order, are:
Danny Beck,  Re-Do
Adriana Beltrano,  Outage
Deja Gamble,  Words in the Smoke
Taylor Handley,  Fostered
Marisa Langston,  Forgive Me
Ciara LaTouche,  Happy Ending
Lauren Ortega,  A Lion in Hanover
Catherine Paulitz,  Rocket Boy
Teah Ruiz,  Just Like the Others
Ashley S. Watkins,  Ellie’s Last Day
Palm Beach Day Academy
Jupiter High School
Seminole Ridge High School
Palm Beach Day Academy
Dreyfoos School of the Arts
Royal Palm Beach High School
Dreyfoos School of the Arts
Wellington High School
G-Star School of the Arts
Santaluces High School
19th Annual Gala - 1940s Radio Days
Get out your zoot suit, your New Look ensemble, your high-waisted pants, your shoulder pads, your fedora, your Hattie Carnegie hat, and your memories in anticipation of Palm Beach Dramaworks’ 19  th  Anniversary Gala, “1940s Radio Days,” set for March 16 at 6:30pm at the Kravis Center’s Cohen Pavilion.

Guests are encouraged to dress in 1940s attire (jackets required for men, ties are optional). The evening includes cocktails, dinner, and dancing. 
Entertainment will be provided by Jill and Rich Switzer, co-hosts of The Morning Lounge on Legends 100.3 FM and “jazz royalty in Palm Beach County,” who will perform some of the memorable songs that emanated from the air waves back in the day. And what would a 1940s radio hour be without an original, 1940s radio-style play?

Proceeds from the benefit will support PBD. Individual tickets are $600 and tables of ten begin at $6,000. All tickets are tax deductible as provided by law. 
Sponsorships are still available.

The Gala chairs are Marsha and Stephen Rabb. The evening’s honorary chairs are Nancy and Gene Beard.

For more information about the Gala, including reservations and sponsor levels, contact Leslie Mandell at (561) 514-4042 x106, or
2019/2020 SEASON
Subscriptions are now on sale for the 2019-2020 season, which opens on October 11. Visit the subscriptions page on our website for information about subscription packages and how to purchase tickets:
by Tennessee Williams
October 11 - November 3, 2019
This Pulitzer Prize-winning play features two of the most memorable characters ever created for the stage: the fragile, fading Southern belle Blanche DuBois and her working class, brutish, testosterone-driven brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski. When Blanche arrives in New Orleans to stay with her sister, Stella, in the cramped quarters of the dingy Kowalski apartment, the tension between Blanche and Stanley is instantaneous and leads to growing hostility that culminates in a shattering confrontation.
by Joseph McDonough
December 6 - December 29, 2019
In the early 1950s, Gertrude Berg and Philip Loeb, the pioneering stars of television’s groundbreaking sitcom,  The Goldbergs  , heroically struggle to save their show, their careers, and their friendship in the face of McCarthyism, anti-Semitism, and the political climate of the country. Based on actual events,  Ordinary Americans  reveals the double-edged sword between speaking out and staying silent.
SKYLIGHT by David Hare
February 7- March 1, 2020
Tom Sergeant, a wealthy, middle-aged businessman, and the much younger Kyra Hollis, his former employee, had a long, ardent love affair until his wife discovered their relationship. Kyra walked out, and a year after his wife’s death, Tom pays a visit to his ex, who now teaches underprivileged children and chooses to live in poverty. Can incompatible values and opposing worldviews be bridged if the passion remains?  Winner of the 1996 Olivier Award for Best New Play.
Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel
Book by Craig Lucas
April 3 - April 26, 2020

In this lyrical, shimmering musical, winner of six Tony awards, Margaret Johnson takes a trip to Italy in the summer of 1953 with her daughter, Clara, a beautiful young woman with the mind of a 10-year-old. Clara falls in love with Fabrizio, a handsome Florentine who wants to marry her. The protective Margaret, trying to come to terms with her own unhappy marriage, must decide whether to allow her determined, challenged daughter to follow her heart.
LOBBY HERO by Kenneth Lonergan     
May 22 - June 7, 2020
Four New Yorkers involved in a murder investigation – a slacker security guard in a Manhattan apartment building, his by-the-book boss, a rookie cop, and her macho partner – face moral and ethical dilemmas in this comic drama by the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of  Manchester by the Sea  . The play explores issues of racism and sexism, and whether it’s ever honorable to do the wrong thing for the right reason.
Palm Beach Dramaworks is delighted to announce its newest education initiative, The Academy@pbd, a summer program for teenagers that provides them with the opportunity to appear in a musical or play and also offers rigorous training in stage management and acting in a safe, positive environment.

The shows to be performed are the musical  Edges  by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and Henrik Ibsen’s classic play,  An Enemy of the People  . Casting for both productions will be determined through auditions, which take place on March 9 and 11. Interviews will also be held on those dates for stage management positions. Performers and potential stage managers must be rising ninth graders through graduating seniors. No auditions are required for the Acting Intensive, which is open to rising sixth graders through graduating eighth graders.

“I am so thrilled that we’re embarking on this exciting venture,” said PBD Producing Artistic Director William Hayes. “We’ve learned through our Young Playwrights Ten-Minute Play Contest and other education programs that there are students throughout Palm Beach County who are hungry to participate in live theatre. As arts education is often not part of the school curriculum, we’re filling an important void. Plus, the Academy@pbd enables students to work with professionals, which is invaluable. Whether or not the kids who participate in this program go on to careers in theatre, they will learn skills that will serve them well in whatever they ultimately do, things like discipline, responsibility, and teamwork. And most likely, they’ll develop a lifetime theatre-going habit. What more could you ask for!”
The two-week rehearsal period for  Edges runs from June 10 – 27, with performances on June 28 and 29 at 7pm, and June 30 at 2pm. Pasek and Paul, who won a Tony Award for  Dear Evan Hansen  and an Academy Award for  La La Land  , crafted this beautiful musical about self-discovery and coming of age when they were undergraduates studying musical theatre at the University of Michigan in 2005. The show has been performed over 100 times throughout North America and all over the world.

Rehearsals for  An Enemy of the People  take place from July 8 – 25, with performances on July 26 and 27 at 7pm, and July 28 at 2pm. This dynamic, modern adaptation of Ibsen’s timeless work tells the story of one person’s fight to bring awareness to corruption and greed in his community, and his community leaders’ manipulation of the majority.
A limited number of stage management training opportunities are available for both shows. Trainees will work alongside a professional PBD stage manager and will be required to assist and run all rehearsals and performances. They will also learn important skills for organizing and administrating a production.
The Acting Intensive runs from July 8 – 19, culminating in a performance on the final day of the two-week class. This course is designed for the serious-minded student interested in developing strong technique while being challenged by professional instructors. Participants receive training in classical and contemporary text analysis, voice and diction, and movement. Class size is limited.
For more information, including pricing, scholarship opportunities, the complete schedule of rehearsals and classes, casting breakdown, audition requirements and how to schedule an audition, visit