The American culture is the product of more than just one race, playwright August Wilson said at an event Thursday night.
Wilson presented the lecture “Testimony of a Witness” to an audience of about 300 University students, staff and community members at Willey Hall. He was the featured lecturer for the Annual Joseph Warren Beach Memorial Lecture sponsored by the Department of English.
The lecture focused on the history of oppression African-American and other ethnic groups have faced in America and the system of oppression that he said still exists.
“It is a system from which we are all victims and we are all responsible for its propagation,” Wilson said.
Wilson, 52, was born Frederick August Kittel and grew up in Pittsburgh. He dropped out of high school after the ninth grade, when a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a paper about Napoleon.
Wilson received his first Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for his play “Fences” and his second award in 1990 for the play “The Piano Lesson.” He has also received several other major theater awards, including two Tony Awards and six New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards.
He has been criticized recently by his peers for statements that the white theater community is ignoring black artists. Wilson said the black theater community should disassociate itself from white, mainstream theater.
Critic and playwright Robert Brustein said Wilson’s statements are too “separatist.” He said that art is color-blind, and good plays should satisfy theatergoers of all races.
But Wilson said there is a contradiction in the way the white theater community treats black artists and this contradiction has permeated American culture.
“We create these illusions in our culture because to face them makes us admit our failures,” said Wilson. “And to admit our failures is to accept responsibility for the past.”
Wilson said he doesn’t see himself as a separatist. “I don’t think I’m being too extreme. I believe there is a lot more room to go.”
“Fences” will be playing May 10-25 at the Guthrie Theater. The play is being produced by the Penumbra Theatre Company, which held his first professional production in 1981 — “Black Bart and the Sacred Hills.”
Wilson is the first playwright to speak at the Beach lecture, now in its 38th year. Past lecturers include Noam Chomsky, Robert Pinsky and Sandra M. Gilbert.
“(The lecture is) our way to promote and encourage art and literature in our community,” said Mary Ellis, associate administrator at the University’s English department.
“The timing was just right,” said Ellis. “He was going to be here to promote his play ‘Fences’ at the Guthrie anyway.”
Wilson is no stranger to the Twin Cities. He lived in St. Paul from 1978 to 1990. While living here, he was employed as a scriptwriter at the Science Museum of Minnesota.