American Masters—August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand, airing on PBS Feb. 20, gives an inside look at a private man referred to by many as an outsider. Wilson, the brilliant Pittsburgh-born playwright who wrote 10 plays—nine of which took place in his hometown—covering 10 decades, explored the cultural ideas and attitudes of what playwright-actor-director Ruben Santiago-Hudson calls “a specific type of people.” Through Wilson’s words and those of people closest to him, including colleagues, friends, family and community elders, along with excerpts from his award-winning plays, viewers are given a glimpse into the extraordinary life lived by an ordinary man.
The Ground on Which I Stand offers various types of commentary—scholarly, familial and collegial—about the mister behind the master of literature, who was able to capture the spirit and culture of a people in a way that is described as “super reality” in the documentary. The audience learns about the man behind the mythical figure who churned out Pulitzer Prize-winning plays and poetry that explored “the frustration and the glory of being black” (pdf) in America, as Santiago-Hudson says.
Wilson’s ability to show the beauty and brilliance of a group of people living on the margins of society in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a place that is clearly a center of African-American life and culture, is unparalleled. He was able to articulate the language and draw meaning from the precarious pressure-filled spaces to create images of blackness that are complicated, rhythmic and powerful.
In the tradition of the American Masters series, audiences are able to see and hear Wilson in his element, surrounded by people whom he loved, admired and challenged. Wilson’s words, which replicate the complicated existence that black people live in a world that both loves and loathes them, are juxtaposed against colorful images from the stage and personal homages from actors like Charles S. Dutton, Viola Davis and Laurence Fishburne—stars with cultural capital inside and outside the theatrical world. The impact of these images and words, coupled with scenes of Wilson hanging with his buddies and spitting poetry, is simply, well, poetic.
The performances in the documentary show just how instrumental Wilson was in unearthing and introducing new talent to the world through the production of his seminal works, while reminding viewers of the giants who paved the way for the actors and, seemingly, Wilson’s work. Hearing theater royalty like Lloyd Richards speak lovingly about Wilson, and seeing the late Roscoe Lee Browne in Two Trains Running and a young Courtney B. Vance playing opposite James Earl Jones in Fences, speaks volumes about the caliber of work that Wilson produced and the impact he had on those he encountered. It is heartwarming to witness Wilson connect with people the same way his characters connect with humanity in his plays.
Ironically, it was the inhumane way that Wilson was treated in school that caused him to drop out and educate himself at the public library, and also contributed to the full humanity of his characters. Wilson’s sister Linda Jean Kittel still displays the emotional scars of a time when Wilson was bullied and maligned as she remembers the venomous words used to derail his confidence and happiness at a young age. Kittel says that every day Wilson went to school, he found a note on his desk that read, “N—ger go home.” Kittel emphasized the term “every day.”
How interesting is it that Wilson would go to the library every day and discover more words and knowledge to inform the work of the poet and iconic playwright that he would become? Part of that transformation involved his self-described ability to listen to the dialogue instead of trying to force it into the mouths of characters.
Wilson recounts his last day of school when he was reciting the pledge of allegiance, and he gave the boy who called him the n-word something to think about while delivering the line “with liberty and justice for all.” As Wilson tells that story, he mirrors the passion and the play with words found in his works. The segment also shows the pain and resiliency required to navigate a tumultuous life and period of time in order to become the ultimate “distiller of the black experience” in theater.
The Ground on Which I Stand is an important piece that documents the greatness of Wilson and his tremendous contribution to society and literature. The poetic and rhythmic journey through his life and work is more than a light jog down memory lane. It is an intentional march toward the warm embrace of black people, black culture, black language and black experiences that are as American as apple pie.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks perhaps says it best: “As an American playwright, I think that August Wilson helps us remember who we are, all of us, as an American people.”
American Masters—August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand premieres Friday, Feb. 20, at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Wilson’s birth and the 10th anniversary of his death.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.