cover image August Wilson: A Life

August Wilson: A Life

Patti Hartigan. Simon & Schuster, $32.50 (592p) ISBN 978-1-501-18066-8

Boston Globe journalist Hartigan debuts with an engrossing biography of playwright August Wilson (1945–2005). Writing from what he termed “the blood’s memory,” Wilson “depicted the ordinary lives of honorable people whose stories were ignored by mainstream culture,” particularly working-class Black people in Pittsburgh, where he has born and raised. Hartigan details how Wilson triumphed over a hardscrabble childhood to launch his landmark 10-play cycle on Black life in 20th-century America, starting with Jitney! in 1979 and reaching Broadway in 1983 with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. He achieved his greatest success with 1987’s Fences, which “memorably [brought] a Black family to life on Broadway in a way that hadn’t been achieved since Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun,” though Hartigan notes the play is also Wilson’s most “conventional,” with characters “planted firmly in the soil of Pittsburgh in 1957”; later works were imbued by a “deep mysticism” and populated with “characters... haunted by four hundred years of bloody history.” Drawing on original interviews with the playwright, Hartigan meticulously renders Wilson’s often contentious relationships with collaborators and actors; his painstaking “rewrite and refine” process; and the complexities and limitations of his legacy—he “never asked to be ‘the Black artistic spokesperson,’... he wrote what he knew, which is precisely what he told other writers to do.” This will serve as the definitive account of an essential American playwright. (Aug.)