August Wilson is the greatest American playwright. Not the greatest living American playwright, but the greatest, period. His best plays stand comparison with the best work of Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams. No American playwright has produced such a consistent body of work, and no American playwright has attempted a cycle with the scope and ambition of his series of plays. Wilson's subject is the Great Migration, the story of the African-Americans who emigrated from the southern states to the cities of the industrial North and their slow construction of satisfactory lives in the difficult and changing world of 20th century America. Wilson has written 10 plays on this subject, one for each decade of the 20th century, amounting to a fictional history of African-Americans in the urban North. This is, however, history from below. Wilson's heroes are garbagemen, short-order cooks, day laborers, self-taught musicians, and street vendors. One of his great gifts is his ability to use common speech in a way that is consistently interesting, frequently eloquent, and often powerful. He gives poetic voice to people usually regarded as inarticulate and invests ordinary struggles with real but not exaggerated significance. The African-Americans of Wilson's plays are a doubly uprooted people. Uprooted initially by the grievous trauma of slavery that sundered their connection with their native traditions, the emigrants fleeing the Jim Crow south and its brutal racism are uprooted also from their homes, families, and the traditions developed in the aftermath of slavery.
Wilson's overall story is the reconstruction of African-American identity and family life in the cities of the North over the course of the 20th century. Wilson's plays often feature protagonists whose sense of identity and families have been damaged greatly by the oppressions of racism and the atomizing effects of the industrial economy of the North. Over the course of the cycle, Wilson shows characters re-establishing a sense of connection with their ancestors, even back to Africa, and gradually developing the family ties to sustain them. Wilson repeatedly uses supernatural elements in his work, particularly as a device to advance his theme of the importance of developing a sense of historic connection with ancestors, including those originally abducted from Africa. This could easily be hokey, but his matter of fact use of these elements is very effective. Another recurring theme is the importance of music, particularly the Blues tradition developed by African-American musicians, which he sees as a vital and creative force in African-American life, often carrying truths across generations. Some of the most affecting parts of Wilson's work are his demonstrations of the direct and indirect destructive effects of American racism on family life. Even more powerful are those scenes in which his characters overcome these obstacles to reaffirm family connections.
Not all of Wilson's plays are outstanding, but all are at least very good. Readers will differ on their favorites. In my opinion, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Fences, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom are outstanding. The rest vary from excellent (The Piano Lession) to the very good. Cumulatively, they are a really impressive achievement. Mention must be made of the fact that Wilson has been aided by outstanding collaborators. Wilson's plays usually go through a series of versions before the final version emerges. Wilson has had the benefit of working with unusually talented directors, notably the gifted Lloyd Richards, who was responsible in large measure for recognizing Wilson's talent. Wilson has benefited also from the existence of a whole generation of remarkably talented African-American actors. These people made it possible for Wilson to realize his vision. We have all been the beneficiaries of the work of Wilson and his collaborators.