Emptying the contents of his bag: August Wilson is up there with Neil Simon on Broadway, but plays here to an appreciative few. Interview by Paul Taylor

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The Independent Culture
AUGUST WILSON, the Pulitzer Prize-winning black American dramatist, is sitting in the lounge of a London hotel waving a tiny book of matches. 'Give me a bag, will ya? I wanna bag.' A passer- by might think he'd chanced on some variant of the W C Fields sketch where Fields goes to a store, buys a large vase and a stamp, puts the vase under his arm and airily asks for the stamp to be wrapped and delivered. The explanation is a shade simpler. With the help of this diminutive prop, Wilson is parodying one of the effects of his mother's attempts, like most blacks of her generation, to shield her children from awareness of the routine indignities she suffered.

Wilson, who is 48, understands her caution. If he'd known that there was anything unusual or demeaning about being expected to walk out of a shop with unwrapped purchases, he might have said: 'Ya, wanna bag, Ma? I'll go and get ya a couple a hundred.' But his mother also kept quiet, it turns out, about less immediate matters; he didn't learn until much later, for example, that during the great black migration from the South, his grandmother had walked all the way from North Carolina to Pittsburgh, the playwright's native town.

The mother's silence has had consequences both slight and significant. For one thing it explains, Wilson chuckles, why he's now a stickler for bags. It also enables you to see his great theatrical project - the articulating of 20th-century African-American experience on stage - as the epic compensation of a boy who wasn't told enough. This is especially discernible in the rich hubbub of personal anecdote and oral history in his dramas.

Wilson is in town to see the first English staging (at the Tricycle, London) of his 1988 play, The Piano Lesson. It is a drama set in Pittsburgh, 1936, and, like most of his works, focuses on communal black experience rather than on the travails of one central protagonist. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (seen here at the Cottesloe in 1989) gave audiences access to a Chicago recording studio in the Twenties and the world of 'coloured' blues musicians who, in their frustration at being exploited by the white music industry, turn on one another instead of on their oppressors. Joe Turner's Come and Gone (English premiere, 1990) concentrated on a group of the dispossessed in a 1911 Pittsburgh boarding house - a sort of way-station for the descendants of slaves fleeing North in search of work.

The difficulty, necessity - and equivocality - of connecting with a complex cultural heritage, stretching back to Africa, is an abiding theme. In The Piano Lesson, this is dramatised in a dispute over a family heirloom. Should the piano which the grandfather carved with scenes of family history and for whose repossession the father died be preserved as an icon? Or should it be sold to finance the purchase of the very land on which their forebears worked as slaves?

It's typical of Wilson's later work that whites in this play are represented on stage only in the immaterial shape of the landowner's ghost - which is eventually exorcised from the house by the invocation, through a performance on the piano, of the family's ancestral spirits. Elegiac rather than inflammatory, his plays tend to avoid showing head-on racial confrontation; the whites are a strongly felt rather than actual presence. Tackled with this, he argues that his predecessors in black theatre who did dramatise such clashes (Baldwin, Baraka et cetera) have cleared the way for an art that can imply this in black-on- black relations. It's still curious, though, that Wilson, whose own mostly absentee father was of German stock, should be able to claim that it 'never crossed (his) mind' to create a character of mixed race.

Like Alice Walker, who has confessed that her writing 'is trying to arrive at the place where black music already is', Wilson argues that the Blues 'is the best literature that we blacks have created since we've been in America'. He recalls how 'on every Blues album I picked up, the liner notes were written by a white person who somehow knew more about the music than any back could possibly know'.

The rich colloquial cadences and limber music of Wilson's dialogue took their time in coming, however. Because he was unable to respect the way blacks spoke, he made his characters sound stiff and European. Then he came to understand that there was both inherent poetry and protest in their 'resistance to speaking what is known as correct and proper English'. 'Life]' exclaims one of the characters in Ma Rainey, 'Life ain't nothin'. Now death, death got some style.'

Wilson is the only contemporary dramatist, apart from Neil Simon, who is assured a Broadway production and his have been the pioneer black works at many regional theatres. He has never felt tempted, he says, to create a 'positive image': Toledo, for example, the intellectual musician and the advocate of separatism in Ma Rainey, is not as adept with ideas as he thinks he is; Wining Boy, in The Piano Lesson, plays badly. All this is a tribute to the generous, unpolemical nature of Wilson's creativity, though when you talk to him, it becomes clear that he is, in certain crucial respects, a separatist.

When I ventured the view, for example, that his work seems to lament the fact that blacks ever left the South, I hadn't bargained on being treated to an ardent speech about how they should return there en masse. 'Then we will no longer be lost and banging our heads on these northern pavements. We came North, we tried it, it didn't work. Let's go back. That's where we really belong.' Apart from the tricky economics of such an exercise, you're struck by the way phrases like 'we're great farmers, we spent hundreds of years farming the land' imply an almost Lamarckian view of cultural inheritance. Somehow, it's hard to picture young, inner-city blacks harkening to the blood's ancestral call to beat their skateboards into ploughshares.

There is, on the other hand, something bracing about Wilson's derision of easy cultural relativism in the theatre. Of a misguided black version of Death of a Salesman at the Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis, he remarked that 'Willy Loman as a black salesman in the Forties would have been lynched]'. And you admire the way he has resisted Hollywood's blandishments, for refusing either to provide it with routine biopics (on Mohammed Ali, Duke Ellington et al) or to allow his 1975 play, Senses, optioned by Eddy Murphy, to be shot by a white director.

Finally, we chatted about his name. He was born Freddy Kittel: the nom de plume is the result of combining his middle name 'August' with his mother's maiden name. To English ears, it has a classy ring, though on this side of the Atlantic, as he concedes, there's always the piquant danger that this laureate of black American experience will be confused with the chronicler of Anglo-Saxon Attitudes.

The Piano Lesson: Tricycle Theatre, London, NW6, until 31 October

(Photograph omitted)