February 19, 2015

Sam Pollard on the Art and Life of August Wilson

Playwright August Wilson. Courtesy of David Cooper, 2004

"In the 21st century, people will recognize and realize that there is a man who in 20 years created a body of work that will stand the test of time: Ten plays that documented the African-American experience in the 20th century. No other playwright in the American canon has done that." Sam Pollard, the Peabody, Emmy and IDA Award-winning editor/director/producer (Four Little Girls, Slavery by Another Name), is referring to August Wilson, the subject of the forthcoming American Masters documentary August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand.

Pollard got a call from WQED Executive Producer Darryl Ford Williams, who had been developing the August Wilson project with filmmaker Orlando Bagwell; he had to drop out because of time commitments to the Ford Foundation, where he worked at the time, but he recommended Pollard for the job.

Pollard wasn’t interested in making an August Wilson biography, so he set forth to explore those 10 plays, each of which takes place in a specific decade in the 20th century, in Pittsburgh’s Hill District (except Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). The approach, Pollard says, "was really to focus on the plays and what made these plays tick, which to me would give insight into August Wilson as a human being and as a playwright."

Laurence Fishburne (left) and Al White (right) star in a Seattle Repertory Theatre production of August Wilson's 'Two Trains Running'. Courtesy of Chris Bennion Photography

Pollard began the research for the documentary at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where a videotaped collection of Wilson’s plays is archived. "From every play there was an actor or a couple of actors that I wanted to interview," says Pollard. "I thought it was important to talk to the actor who was dedicated to August’s work and was dedicated to doing August’s plays." Some of the actors had died or couldn’t be located, or were too busy for an interview. Initially James Earl Jones (Fences) said no, but eventually agreed to participate. Other actors featured in the documentary include Charles S. Dutton (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; The Piano Lesson), Viola Davis (Seven Guitars; King Hedley II), Laurence Fishburne (Two Trains Running), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Seven Guitars) and Phylicia Rashad (Gem of the Ocean).

Of what he discovered about Wilson, Pollard was most impressed with his dedication to writing. "Every waking hour he was thinking about his work, he was thinking about his characters, he was thinking about the development of his storylines, he was thinking about the structure of his plays. He was tenacious. He was a warrior."

Born Fredrick August Kittel to a German immigrant father and Daisy Wilson, an African-American mother, on April 27, 1945, in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the playwright later claimed his mother’s surname; his father was largely absent from his life.

Playwright August Wilson. Courtesy of The Estate of August Wilson

Wilson dropped out of high school after being accused of plagiarism. Not wanting to disappoint his mother, he went to the library every day, and found his literary haven. Eventually venturing outside of the library, he would go on long walks, observing the community in the Hill District and recording his impressions in local bars, restaurants and jitney stations. He would create fragments of characters, dialogue and stories that would serve as raw material for his plays. And the result: a rich canon populated by characters flawed and extraordinary, driven by their hopes and dreams, and grounded by the bitter realities of 20th century America.

In the film, Wilson’s widow and costume designer Constanza Romero, explains how, as a "ritual and spiritual process" before sitting down to write, the playwright would wash his hands and circle his typewriter or computer.

Much like Wilson’s process as a writer, Pollard has nearly 30 years of experience as an editor assembling layers of images, dialogue and footage together to shape a well-crafted story. Wilson evolved from poetry to plays, while Pollard, honored in 2008 with an IDA Award for Outstanding Documentary Achievement in Editing, began his career as an editor before branching out into directing and producing. Although he is still an editor, he goes back and forth between the crafts. But, he maintains, "I don’t edit when I’m producing and directing. I find the collaborating process with an editor very enjoyable and respectful. I know how hard it is to edit something and I know the kind of freedom you need as an editor to be able to come up with something that even directors don’t think of but are really in the director’s wheelhouse in terms of what they are really trying to get at." The editor on this film, Steven Wexler, previously worked on Pollard’s John Ford/John Wayne: the Filmmaker and the Legend for American Masters.

Wilson’s main influence came from the residents of the Hill District, but he also found inspiration in a variety of other ways. Discovering blues singer Bessie Smith gave him the framework for the kind of stories he wanted to tell, for the blues underscored the struggle, pain, joy and hope his characters embodied. What’s more, the work of visual artist Romare Bearden inspired both The Piano Lesson and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and the sets of both those plays were designed in deference to two of Bearden’s paintings.

From a Seattle Repertory Theatre production of August Wilson's 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'. Courtesy of Chris Bennion Photography

Pollard draws from several sources for inspiration as well—especially three people who continue to influence his personal career: the late documentarian St. Clair Bourne (Paul Robeson: Hear My Song), the late film editor George Bowers (How Stella Got Her Groove Back) and Pollard’s first mentor, Victor Kanefsky (Style Wars). Bourne instilled the importance of telling African-American stories, Bowers taught professionalism as an editor, and Kanefsky opened the door into the editing world. A broader inspiration for Pollard comes from Orson Welles. "As a young man, I watched Citizen Kane many times," Pollard recalls. "The construction of it, the execution of it, is probably somewhere in my DNA because a lot of the ways I approach film comes from that film." Pollard also cites Federico Fellini (La Dolce Vita) for vision and aesthetics, and the editing style of George Stevens’ films like Shane and Giant. An enthusiast of jazz music, Pollard edited Spike Lee’s 1990 feature Mo’ Better Blues and is currently working on his own documentary, The Blues House.

In celebration of Wilson’s 70th birthday and the 10th anniversary of his death, August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand premieres February 20 on PBS’ American Masters. The film will also be available on DVD February 24 through PBS Distribution.

Tracie Lewis is a writer and producer.