*Anything you have ever wanted to know about August Wilson – the late literary mastermind who brought to humanity such gifts as Fences and The Piano Lesson – will be covered in a new PBS special and DVD that celebrates his life and work.
“American Masters — August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand” traces the life and legacy of the Tony- and Pulitzer-winner — from his roots as a Pittsburgh activist and poet to his indelible mark on Broadway.
Director Sam Pollard (“If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise”; “When the Levees Broke”; “Slavery by Another Name”) was given unprecedented access to Wilson’s theatrical archives, which are complemented with rarely seen interviews and new dramatic readings that bring to life his seminal 10-play cycle chronicling each decade of the 20th-century African-American experience.
“What makes his work stand the test of time – and you could look at it from the point of view of Greek theater; you could look at it from the point of view of Strindberg, Chekhov, of any great playwright – he addresses some over arching themes that humanity is always dealing with, and he does it in the context of his own ethnicity in such a way that you’re looking at specific people, and yet the themes and the issues are universal,” said Phylicia Rashad, star of Wilson’s 2003 play “Gem of the Ocean.”
Set in 1904, “Gem” has Rashad as Aunt Ester, a former slave and “soul cleanser” who claims to be 287 years old, born when the first slave ships left Africa for the New World. Much of “Gem” follows discontent and unrest among black mill workers, which leads to the torching of the mill, aided by two men living in Ester’s house.
Rashad won a 2004 Tony Award for the role and performs one of her memorable scenes for the PBS special.
Below, she praises the universality of Wilson’s themes in “Gem of the Ocean,” a work that also explores the expectation of disenfranchised African Americans to lead ethical lives in a society that denies them equal opportunity.
“American Masters — August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand” – also featuring new interviews with Viola Davis, Charles Dutton, Laurence Fishburne, James Earl Jones, Suzan-Lori Parks, Wilson’s widow/costume designer Constanza Romero, and others – premieres nationwide Friday, Feb. 20 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) in honor of the 70th anniversary of Wilson’s birth, 10th anniversary of his death and Black History Month. The DVD will be available Feb. 24 from PBS Distribution.
Watch the trailer below: