Patti Hartigan was a self-described “baby theater critic” when she met August Wilson in 1987. The two were chatting at the National Critics Institute at the famed O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, and Wilson asked if Hartigan had seen his play Fences, which was then the talk of Broadway. “Being green and subsisting on a freelancer’s pitiful wages,” she recalls in her debut book, August Wilson: A Life, “I blurted out, ‘My mother saw it, but I can’t afford a ticket.’ The minute I said it, I wished I could take it back.” But the next day, Hartigan received a note that two tickets would be waiting for her at the box office.
This act of generosity toward a fledgling critic was emblematic of Wilson, Hartigan would discover. After landing at the Boston Globe as theater critic and arts reporter, she built a rapport with Wilson over the years, talking with him whenever he opened a play at the city’s Huntington Theatre. Then in January 2005, with Wilson poised to complete his monumental 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle—one play about Black life in America set in every decade in the 20th century—Hartigan flew to Seattle to interview him for a celebratory piece. Neither she nor Wilson yet knew that a fast-spreading cancer would lead to his death just a few months later. He managed to complete the final play, Radio Golf, under great physical and mental strain, and when he died in October 2005, the world mourned the loss of a voice that had changed the landscape of the American theater.
“He didn’t want to be the first. But certainly, in carving out room in American theater for Black playwrights . . . he paved the way.”
But “time passed and there was no biography,” Hartigan says in a video call. “I decided someone has to do this, and because I knew him, I decided to jump in.” The first-time biographer spent five years researching and writing August Wilson: A Life, an accomplished work that not only takes full measure of the playwright’s career but also delves into his childhood and ancestry to unearth a family history that Wilson himself did not fully know. Hartigan would even climb a mountain in Spear, North Carolina, where generations of Wilson’s strong-willed antecedents were born. Wilson himself never undertook that journey, saying that he wrote from “the blood’s memory” rather than doing research. Yet again and again, Hartigan found spine-tingling similarities between the stories he created and his family’s actual past.
Wilson is largely associated with Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, specifically its Hill District, where he set all but one play in his monumental cycle. The Hill is where his mother, Daisy, and others in the family settled during the Great Migration, and it’s where Wilson was born in 1945 and grew up. His singular intelligence was apparent from an early age, and Daisy made sure he was educated in the best parochial and public schools. But his intelligence could not shelter him from endemic racism, and after being belittled and undervalued at school, he dropped out at just 15. (Years later, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh awarded the autodidact a high school diploma, an honor he cherished alongside his two Pulitzer Prizes and other awards.)
Wilson’s earliest literary aspiration was as a poet, which Hartigan says is hardly surprising given the soaring poetry of his monologue-driven plays. His move into theater was both accidental and serendipitous, coinciding with the politically fueled Black literary movement of the 1970s, which played out in neighborhood theaters in Pittsburgh. Wilson was driven, and when he learned about the O’Neill Conference—arguably the preeminent play development opportunity available at the time—he began submitting a play each year. He was met with rejection after rejection until 1982, when he received the coveted telegram from artistic director Lloyd Richards. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom had been selected.
Richards was perhaps the most influential Black theater maker of the age—he was the first African American to direct a play on Broadway, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun—and “a presence like no other,” says Hartigan. He took Wilson under his wing and played a major role in the playwright’s progress. When asked if she thought there would have been an August Wilson without a Lloyd Richards, Hartigan admits there is no way of knowing, but probably not. “The two of them fed each other. August would come with a play that was four and a half hours long, and Lloyd could cut it down and streamline it and ask the right questions,” she says. “But the relationship was key for both men. Lloyd’s career had a resurgence when he began working with August.” The professional falling-out that came later, which Hartigan thoughtfully chronicles, was painful. “Both were right and both were wrong, and it’s a tragedy. Yet you can praise the relationship that was.”
Hartigan, clearly a great admirer of Wilson and his work, is nonetheless forthright in her appraisal of both. She does not shy away from portraying the playwright’s flaws as a man, a husband, a father. More than once she addresses the frequent observation that, with a few notable exceptions, Wilson’s female characters are weak. “I think the criticism is warranted,” she says. “Yet I’ve seen later productions where the women are painted in by just the direction [of the play]. So I think there might be a little more to the women [in Wilson’s plays] than we initially thought.”
The August Wilson Estate declined to grant permission to Hartigan to quote from his intimate letters or from some of his early writings, a decision she regrets because “paraphrasing just can’t do him justice.” Yet she manages to capture Wilson’s voice well. “He didn’t want to be exceptionalized,” she says. “He didn’t want to be the first. But certainly, in carving out room in American theater for Black playwrights—and the subject matter that he was able to bring to the stage—he paved the way.”