*The life and work of Tony- and Pulitzer-winning playwright August Wilson will be examined in the next “American Masters” special for PBS, with filmmaker Sam Pollard weaving biographical info with clips and readings from his 10-play cycle, chronicling each decade of the 20th-century African-American experience.
“My approach was, first, to really revisit and re watch all of the plays so I could really understand the complexity of the Hill District in Pittsburgh,” Pollard told the TCA in January, referencing Wilson’s hometown. “And then the idea was to present each play and understand why each play functioned the way it did, in terms of ‘Fences,’ in terms of ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’ and look at the complexity of August’s sort of sense of spirituality and ritual and speech from play to play.
“August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand,” premiering Friday, Feb. 20 at 9 p.m. (check local listings), is part of PBS’s commemoration of Wilson’s 70th birthday, the 10th anniversary of his death and the channel’s Black History Month programming.
Pollard rounded up choice talent from Wilson’s plays – Viola Davis, Charles Dutton, Laurence Fishburne, James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad – as well as playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, Wilson’s sister Freda Ellis, his widow and costume designer Constanza Romero, friends, colleagues and scholars to shed light on the legendary writer.
“We were also very fortunate that a lot of the plays had been recorded and they were archived in the New York Public Library,” Pollard said. “So we were able to go to that library and pull out those plays to use and have some of the clips. But the other important thing to me was, in some cases, [to] redo some of these very important scenes that we felt weren’t going to be representative enough from the clips. So that was sort of my strategy as I was bringing all the elements together.”
Pollard also recruited famed jazz musician Wynton Marsalis to play a special number for the film. When Wilson found out he was terminally ill, he began preparing for his funeral, and wanted Marsalis to play a version of ‘Danny Boy,’ recalls Pollard.
“There was never a recorded version, so we got in touch with Wynton and Wynton’s agent, and we asked if he would actually play the solo for us, and we went into a recording studio and recorded it.
Below, Pollard shares more details about his day in the studio with Marsalis:
The DVD of the film will be available February 24 from PBS Distribution.
Watch a promo of the special, premiering Friday, Feb. 20, below: