IN 1960, when America was stirring with the ``hot winds of change,'' as he would later describe them, August Wilson dropped out of high school. With defiance typical of a restless 16-year-old living in his mother's coldwater flat in Pittsburgh's black community, Wilson decamped to the cool recesses of the local public library. There he allowed his interest in history, theology and poetry free rein among the stacks. Four years later, he emerged a self-taught man aching to take his place in the world as a writer. ``When I was 20 I went out to become a poet, to find out about life ,so I could have some things to write about,'' he says. Two decades later, Wilson has a firm grasp on that original dream and on the American theater. From his rough-hewn background and rigorously honed talents as a poet and dramatist, he has produced a series of plays that chronicle the black American experience and may reignite modern American drama.
Last night's Broadway opening of his ``Fences'' - family drama starring James Earl Jones as a baseball-playing patriarch - has been compared to Arthur Miller's ``Death of a Salesman.'' (Review, P. 23.) The play is expected to further cement the playwright's considerable reputation.
For this reserved 41-year-old Pittsburgh native, who now lives in St. Paul, it is perhaps an unexpected denouement to a career carved from inner-city street corners. With his quiet affability and almost old-world politeness, Wilson hardly appears the source for the vibrant protagonists - black Americans coming to terms with their identity - populating his plays. Nonetheless, to mine Wilson's conflicted characters, by turns soft and genial and angry and defiant, one comes finally to their author.
During a recent interview at the O'Neil Theatre Center's National Playwright's Conference, where Wilson has premiered all his recent plays, he spoke amiably if intensely about his past, his art, and the inevitable juncture of the two. Astride one of the estate's many picnic tables, and dressed in his signature khaki-colored baseball cap and safari jacket, Wilson wove his personal narratives - stories at least as affecting as those forged strictly from his imagination.
``After I turned 20, I spent the next 10 to 15 years hanging out on streetcorners, following old men around, working odd jobs. But it wasn't about that, it was about finding out about life. There was this place called Pat's Cigar Store in Pittsburgh. It was the same place that Claude McKay had mentioned in his book `Home to Harlem.' ... I ran down there to where all the old men in the [black] community would congregate.... I spent a lot of time standing around listening to them. I later found out that I draw on the voices of those guys.''
They were the kind of voices that even when transmuted into subsequent dramatic form would still speak eloquently. ``I knew those people from the first time I was conscious of reading August's work,'' says Lloyd Richards, artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater and Wilson's acknowledged mentor and director. ``They were the same people I'd encountered in my own life.''
``The first time I read `Joe Turner' I said, `He is talking about my Daddy [in this play],'' says actor Ed Hall, who played in the recent Yale production of `Joe Turner.' ``August has an incredible ear. The speeches had brought tears to my eyes they were so passionate and honest.''
When Wilson's ``Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'' opened on Broadway two years ago, this garrulous and colloquially dead-on accurate look at the exploitation of black musicians during the '20s was likened to Lorraine Hansberry's seminal ``A Raisin in the Sun'' and went on to win a New York Drama Critics Circle award, as well as a Tony nomination for best drama of the season.
Today, Wilson's work, including ``Ma Rainey,'' ``Fences,'' and ``Joe Turner's Come and Gone,'' have achieved recognition among the nation's regional theaters (and earned their author several writing awards) for their incisive, but non-polemical, portraits of black Americans. Mr. Jones, who stars as in ``Fences'' as Troy Maxson, the tyrannical patriarch who rages against the smoldering injustices of pre-civil rights America, has characterized the role as the richest and most demanding (in a contemporary play) since his work in the 1968 Broadway success ``The Great White Hope.''
Wilson says the character springs partly from his own turbulent upbringing (Wilson barely knew his own father, a German baker) as well as his artistic desire to address his ongoing theme of personal responsibility.
``We have been told so many times how irresponsible we are as black males that I try to present positive images of responsibility,'' Wilson says. ``I started the play with an image of a man standing with a baby in his arms.''
``Fences'' also represents another notch in the author's ambitious if systematic play series: Each of his dramas is set in a different decade and collectively they will chronicle a hundred years of the black American experience. ``I'm taking each decade and looking at one of the most important questions that blacks confronted in that decade and writing a play about it,'' says Wilson. ``Put them all together and you have a history.''
It is a history surprisingly devoid of the stridency characteristic of the so-called angry black playwrights, including Ed Bullins and LeRoi Jones, whose work predominated during the '60s. ``I am building off that original ['60s] conflict,'' says Wilson, who nonetheless explores the black American experience as that intersection of African and American cultures.
``If blacks would not be afraid to respond to the world as Africans, then they will make their contribution to the world as Africans,'' the playwright explains.
Indeed, Wilson's plays are rich with both Western imagery and African myth. And while critics have noted the plays' occasionally melodramatic and unfulfilled story lines (which the playwright derives from a non-linear ``African storytelling mode''), they have unequivocally praised his vividness of character, the texts' tonal richness, and their vitality of language.
It is a vitality that Wilson attributes to his self-taught poetry skills. ``The exact day I became a poet was April 1, 1965, the day I bought my first typewriter,'' says Wilson. ``My sister had sent me $20 for a paper I wrote for her while she was at Fordham [University]. I went down to the store with the $20 in my pocket. The first thing I did was put in a sheet of yellow notebook paper. I typed my name to see what it would look like. ... That was my beginning.''
Although he maintains that poetry best serves him as a playwright, Wilson first came to theater as that broader forum in which to voice his political concerns. Co-founder of Pittsburgh's Black Horizons Theatre, Wilson initially wrote plays as a way to ``politicize the community and raise consciousness.'' Today he calls himself a cultural nationalist, but his commitment to his original community still surges to the fore.
``I think black Americans have the most dramatic story of all mankind to tell,'' says Wilson. ``I could write about that forever.''