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“I haven’t read Ibsen, Shaw, Shakespeare – except ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in ninth grade. I’m not familiar with ‘Death of a Salesman.’ I haven’t read Tennessee Williams.”

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Quotes by August Wilson

  1. A novelist writes a novel, and people read it. But reading is a solitary act. While it may elicit a varied and personal response, the communal nature of the audience is like having five hundred people read your novel and respond to it at the same time. I find that thrilling.
  2. All art is political in the sense that it serves someone’s politics.
  3. All you need in the world is love and laughter. That’s all anybody needs. To have love in one hand and laughter in the other.
  4. Anything you want to know, you ask the characters.
  5. As soon as white folks say a play’s good, the theater is jammed with blacks and whites.
  6. Between speeches and awards, you can find something to do every other week. It’s hard to write. Your focus gets splintered. Once you put one thing in your calendar, that month is gone.
  7. Blacks have traditionally had to operate in a situation where whites have set themselves up as the custodians of the black experience.
  8. Blacks in America want to forget about slavery – the stigma, the shame. If you can’t be who you are, who can you be? How can you know what to do? We have our history. We have our book, and that is the blues.
  9. Blues is the bedrock of everything I do. All the characters in my plays, their ideas and attitudes, the stance they adopt in the world, are all ideas and attitudes that are expressed in the blues.
  10. Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.
  11. For me, the original play becomes an historical document: This is where I was when I wrote it, and I have to move on now to something else.
  12. From Borges, those wonderful gaucho stories from which I learned that you can be specific as to a time and place and culture and still have the work resonate with the universal themes of love, honor, duty, betrayal, etc. From Amiri Baraka, I learned that all art is political, although I don’t write political plays.
  13. From Romare Bearden I learned that the fullness and richness of everyday life can be rendered without compromise or sentimentality.
  14. How do we transform loss? … Time’s healing balm is essentially a hoax.
  15. I didn’t always value the ways black people talked. I thought, in order to make art out of it, you had to change it.
  16. I do – very specifically, I remember Bessie Smith; I used to collect 78 records that I would buy from the St Vincent de Paul store at five cents apiece, and I did this indiscriminately. I would just take whatever was there. And I listened to Patti Page and Walter Huston, ‘September Song.’
  17. I don’t look at our society today too much. My focus is still in the past, and part of the reason is because what I do – the wellspring of art, or what I do – l get from the blues. So I listen to the music of a particular period that I’m working on, and I think inside the music is clues to what is happening with the people.
  18. I don’t write for a particular audience.
  19. I don’t write for a particular audience. I work as an artist, and I think the audience of one, which is the self, and I have to satisfy myself as an artist. So I always say that I write for the same people that Picasso painted for. I think he painted for himself.
  20. I don’t write particularly to effect social change. I believe writing can do that, but that’s not why I write.
  21. I dropped out of school when I was 15 years old. I dropped out because I guess I wasn’t getting anything out of my investment in the school.
  22. I dropped out of school, but I didn’t drop out of life. I would leave the house each morning and go to the main branch of the Carnegie Library in Oakland where they had all the books in the world… I felt suddenly liberated from the constraints of a pre-arranged curriculum that labored through one book in eight months.
  23. I first got involved in theater in 1968, at the height of a social tumult. I was a poet.
  24. I had always been fascinated with Napoleon because he was a self-made emperor; Victor Hugo said, ‘Napoleon’s will to power,’ and it was the title of my paper. And I submitted it to my teacher, and he didn’t think I had written it. And he wanted me to explain it to him.
  25. I haven’t read Ibsen, Shaw, Shakespeare – except ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in ninth grade. I’m not familiar with ‘Death of a Salesman.’ I haven’t read Tennessee Williams.
  26. I just write stuff down and pile it up, and when I get enough stuff, I spread it out and look at it and figure out how to use it.
  27. I know some things when I start. I know, let’s say, that the play is going to be a 1970s or a 1930s play, and it’s going to be about a piano, but that’s it. I slowly discover who the characters are as I go along.
  28. I once wrote a short story called ‘The Best Blues Singer in the World,’ and it went like this: ‘The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean, and Balboa was drowning.’ End of story. That says it all. Nothing else to say. I’ve been rewriting that same story over and over again. All my plays are rewriting that same story.
  29. I think all in all, one thing a lot of plays seem to be saying is that we need to, as black Americans, to make a connection with our past in order to determine the kind of future we’re going to have. In other words, we simply need to know who we are in relation to our historical presence in America.
  30. I think it was the ability of the theater to communicate ideas and extol virtues that drew me to it. And also, I was, and remain, fascinated by the idea of an audience as a community of people who gather willingly to bear witness.
  31. I think of dying every day… At a certain age, you should be prepared to go at any time.
  32. I think the blues is the best literature that we as blacks have created since we’ve been here. I call it our ‘sacred book.’ What I’ve attempted to do is to mine that field, to mine those cultural ideas and attitudes and give them to my characters.
  33. I try to explore, in terms of the life I know best, those things which are common to all cultures.
  34. I work as an artist, and I think the audience of one, which is the self, and I have to satisfy myself as an artist. So I always say that I write for the same people that Picasso painted for. I think he painted for himself.
  35. I write for myself, and my goal is bringing that world and that experience of black Americans to life on the stage and giving it a space there.
  36. I write the black experience in America, and contained within that experience, because it is a human experience, are all the universalities.
  37. I’m a De Niro fan. I went eleven years without seeing a movie; the last one before that, February 1980, was De Niro and Scorsese in ‘Raging Bull,’ and when I went back, it was ‘Cape Fear,’ with De Niro and Scorsese. I picked up right where I left off at.
  38. I’ve never seen ‘Seinfeld’, never seen ‘The Cosby Show’; I just don’t watch it. I saw half of ‘Oprah’ one time. I’d rather read.
  39. I’ve seen some terrible plays, but I generally enjoy myself. One play I walked out of, I have a tremendous respect for the author. That was Robert Wilson, something called ‘Network,’ which consisted of Wilson sitting on a bunk, the dialogue of the movie ‘Network’ looped in while a chair on a rope went up and down.
  40. If you want to participate in life, you have to deny your identity.
  41. In 1977, I wrote a series of poems about a character, Black Bart, a former cattle rustler-turned-alchemist. A good friend, Claude Purdy, who is a stage director, suggested I turn the poems into a play.
  42. In 1980 I sent a play, ‘Jitney,’ to the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, won a Jerome Fellowship, and found myself sitting in a room with sixteen playwrights. I remember looking around and thinking that since I was sitting there, I must be a playwright, too.
  43. It was early on in 1965 when I wrote some of my first poems. I sent a poem to ‘Harper’s’ magazine because they paid a dollar a line. I had an eighteen-line poem, and just as I was putting it into the envelope, I stopped and decided to make it a thirty-six-line poem. It seemed like the poem came back the next day: no letter, nothing.
  44. Jazz in itself is not struggling. That is, the music itself is not struggling… It’s the attitude that’s in trouble. My plays insist that we should not forget or toss away our history.
  45. Keep your hands moving. Writing is rewriting.
  46. Like most people, I have this sort of love-hate relationship with Pittsburgh. This is my home, and at times I miss it and find it tremendously exciting, and other times I want to catch the first thing out that has wheels.
  47. Most of black America is in housing projects, without jobs, living on welfare. And this is not the case in ‘The Cosby Show,’ because all the values in that household are strictly what I would call white American values.
  48. My first wife is a good woman, I still can’t say nothing bad about her other than the fact that we had a difference on religion. She wanted someone who was a Muslim who shared those values. And I was like a heathen. I had to stay home on Sundays and watch the football game.
  49. My hero when I was 14 was Sonny Liston. No matter what kinds of problems you were having with your parents or at school, whatever, Sonny Liston would go and knock guys out, and that made it all right.
  50. My influences have been what I call my four Bs – the primary one being the blues, then Borges, Baraka, and Bearden.
  51. My plays are ultimately about love, honor, duty, betrayal.
  52. Once I started to value and respect my characters, I could really hear them. I just let them start talking.
  53. Part of what our problem as blacks in America is that we don’t claim that. Partly, you see, because of the linguistic environment in which we live.
  54. Pittsburgh is a very hard city, especially if you’re black.
  55. Scripts were rather scarce in 1968. We did a lot of Amiri Baraka’s plays, the agitprop stuff he was writing. It was at a time when black student organizations were active on the campuses, so we were invited to the colleges around Pittsburgh and Ohio, and even as far away as Jackson, Mississippi.
  56. Suffice it to say, I’m not poor.
  57. The blues are important primarily because they contain the cultural expression and the cultural response to blacks in America and to the situation that they find themselves in. And contained in the blues is a philosophical system at work. And as part of the oral tradition, this is a way of passing along information.
  58. The exact day I became a poet was April 1, 1965, the day I bought my first typewriter.
  59. The most valuable blacks are those in prison, those who have the warrior spirit, who had a sense of being African. They got for their women and children what they needed when all other avenues were closed to them.
  60. We were what you would call a poor family, but we were rich in so many things. We did family things together. We always had dessert, even if it was just Jell-O. So, I never knew I was poor.
  61. With my good friend Rob Penny, I founded the Black Horizons Theater in Pittsburgh with the idea of using the theater to politicize the community or, as we said in those days, to raise the consciousness of the people.