First documentary celebrating August Wilson premieres this month on PBS

August Wilson
August Wilson

American Masters will present August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand nationwide on PBS, Friday, February 20. It commemorates both Black History Month, the 70th anniversary of Wilson’s birth, and the 10th anniversary of his death.

TPT Channel 2 locally will show the program on three consecutive days: 8 pm Friday, Feb. 20; 2 am Saturday, Feb. 21; and 11 pm Sunday, Feb. 22.

According to the PBS press release, the 90-minute documentary on Wilson [1945-2005] will begin with his childhood in Pittsburgh — where he later would launch his playwriting career through his early work at St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre — to eventually Broadway.  It also includes “unprecedented access” to his theatrical archives and on-screen interviews with James Earl Jones, Viola Davis, Laurence Fishburne, Charles Dutton and Phylicia Rashad.

Wilson’s time spent in St. Paul “really was a pivotal point in his professional development,” notes Co-Executive Producer Darryl Ford Williams.  She and Director-Producer Sam Pollard recently spoke to the MSR in separate interviews.

The film shows Wilson’s “creative process and his work style, and his interactions with actors . . . and others,” added Pollard, who said he was recommended to Williams to direct the film after the previous director was unable to do so. “She could see that I had a real understanding and interest in his work,” he pointed out.

“The big thing I want [viewers] to come away understanding is that August Wilson was one of the great American playwrights on par with Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neal,” said Pollard.  “He is a great American playwright. No other playwright was able to produce a body of work — 10 plays in a period of 20 years — like August Wilson, and it should be recognized and remembered that he is the canon of great playwrights in American history,” continued Pollard, whose film work includes co-producing two Spike Lee projects for HBO; he’s also won multiple Emmy and Peabody Awards in his career.

“One of the most important things I learned is that he was just an innately bright individual,” said Ford Williams, the vice president of content at Pittsburgh’s WQED. “When I heard people talk about him as a child — as a kindergartener, first and second grader — how advanced he was in his ability to read. It helped me to understand someone who dropped out of school, and could go on and have such a fabulous command of language, and the facility to use language to really express complex thought and emotion through such simple, everyday human interaction.”

Ford Williams said she became interested in doing something on Wilson shortly after his death in 2005.  She recalls, “It struck me that his story would be ideal for a national documentary.”

“Initially, I was hesitant about showing it on Black History Month because the life and story of August can be shown at any time of the year,” surmised Pollard. “But then I started thinking about the demographics of getting a big audience, and I know February will be a big month for Black people to watch PBS.

“You only have to go to page one, two, or maybe the latest page three, in today’s paper to find some issue that August Wilson dealt with thematically in one of his 10 plays,” concluded Ford Williams. “So many of our issues and stories, and even what’s happening in Hollywood, and some of the challenges that the Hollywood community is receiving about reflecting a broader picture of diversity, August Wilson dealt with.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.