August Wilson

Today I made a routine stop at the Post Office.  An afterthought: we needed some stamps.  I looked at the display at the window, and a commemorative caught my eye, a bit too small to make out who it was.  “August Wilson” said the clerk; “I knew him personally”, I said.  I bought a couple of sheets and was on my way.

The clerk was impressed.  Now, August Wilson was never a BFF, but the encounter with a stamp caused me to revisit my “encounters” with one of America’s greatest playwrights over the years.

Thanks to Laura, a long-time teacher friend, who first caused me to meet her friend, August, in person back in 1978.  I will just give a thumbnail.

When I met August, he was a cook for a Southside Minneapolis group, Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly.  I have only one vivid memory of August, there, and it was in his capacity as cook; a brief chat in the Little Brothers kitchen.  Coincidentally, I likely met him not long after he arrived in the Twin Cities.

He’d moved here from his native Pittsburgh, and I think the cook job was mostly a good fit for his passion, which was his writing, some of which took place at a restaurant just down the street.

Little Brothers was a fine group of idealists, whose mission was  to the elderly in their area.  This was over 40 years ago, and folks move on.  Thad is the one person I keep tabs on – then he was developing the then-technology for fund-raising mailing list; it became his business, which I link here.

A few years later I got some junk mail while living in Hibbing MN.  It was for a theater in St. Paul called Penumbra.  It was at Penumbra that I saw my first, and most, of August Wilson’s famous plays, including a small theater staging of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a recent movie on Netflix.  Laura told me that she sat with August at Penumbra at the premier of one of his earliest plays.  This was long before he became famous.

Once I met August in person at some fundraiser in St. Paul.  He was probably doing a favor for a friend.  His element was not to be a celebrity at such events, though he was already very well known.  I sensed he’d rather have been most anywhere else.

Out of this connection, I connected with August’s sister, Freda, in their hometown of Pittsburgh PA.  In April, 1998, I was in Pittsburgh for a conference and Freda gave my daughter Joni and I a several hour tour of August Wilson’s neighborhood, including the small Bedford Ave apartment where they lived as kids, and the booth at Eddie’s Restaurant where he had done his early writing.  We had a piece of pie in a booth where he probably wrote.

Eddie’s Restaurant with Eddie, April, 1998, Pittsburgh PA

I understand that Eddie’s and the entire neighborhood has been redeveloped in recent years, so I saw part of the authentic history before it was renewed – a sad fate, but inevitable.

In 2011, Freda and her daughter, Kimberley, came to Minneapolis for  performance of one of August’s plays at the Guthrie Theatre.  In part of that trip, I took them to see Little Brothers, still at its old location near Lake Street and Cedar Ave.

Kimberley and Freda Ellis at Little Brothers, Minneapolis, March 2011

A short time later, I was at another conference, this of retired teacher members of the National Education Association, in Pittsburgh.  I had been invited to speak there, and gave much of my time to Freda, who talked about her brother and their experience.  She was very engaging.

Freda died in 2015, 10 years after her brother, August, died at age 60.

I had one last brush with August perhaps three years ago.  Well known speaker Kevin Kling entertained us at a church event.  During Kevin’s earliest days, he was part of a group of aspiring writers, including August Wilson, who supported each other at the Minneapolis Playwright Center.  This was during the time that August was completing and did a reading of his first play, possibly Jitney, the first of the well known ones in what is now called The Pittsburgh Cycle.  I seem to recall Laura mentioning it might have been his very first effort, called “Black Bart and the Sacred Hills” or such, which probably was inspired by a vacant lot on a hillside near his Pittsburgh home in the Hill district.  I’m not sure of that.

I’m grateful to Laura for introducing me to August Wilson, even though she wasn’t with me in the times I met August and part of his family and saw his neighborhood.

Thanks, Laura.

COMMENTS (see also, end of post)

from Kevin: Thank you Dick.  What a great story. This is the side of August I remember too. I think when you meet someone before knowing their work they always live as a person first. August would like that too I believe. Thanks again. This is a great tribute..

1 reply
  1. Dave Thofern
    Dave Thofern says:

    Thanks so much for reminding us of one of the Twin Cities’ most remarkable artists, August Wilson. His work speaks to all of us. I wonder what he would be writing if he were alive today.


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