The first documentary film biography of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson begins in his youth in Pittsburgh’s Hill District and continues chronologically, tracing the personal and professional path that led to Wilson’s acclaimed 10-play cycle that includes “Fences,” “The Piano Lesson” and “Radio Golf.”
“I hope viewers take away that August Wilson was one of the great American playwrights and the fact that he accomplished 10 plays over (about) 20 years that covers a (100-year) cycle of American history is unprecedented,” said Sam Pollard, director of “August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand” (9 p.m. Eastern, Friday, PBS), a co-production between PBS’s “American Masters” and Pittsburgh’s WQED Multimedia.
Each play in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” or “Century Cycle” is set in a different decade as they collectively explore the African-American experience in 20th-century America (nine of the 10 plays are set in Pittsburgh).
Actress Phylicia Rashad (“The Cosby Show”) has starred in and directed Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean.” She’s visited Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where Wilson grew up with little formal education, and took pictures of its buildings when working on a stage production.
“Most of it has been demolished and wiped out,” she said. “In ‘Radio Golf,’ he talks about eminent domain and what that means. This Pittsburgh Hill District, this area in which he grew up, was more than just a residential area. It was alive, and it was thriving with businesses, stores, supermarkets, barbershops, beauty shops, a very mixed community.”
She said it was that environment that made him a writer capable of creating his century cycle.
“August was listening,” she said. “He spent his entire life listening and not just with his ears but with his intellect and with his heart. You’ve probably read accounts or heard accounts of places that he would frequent in Pittsburgh and the people who would be there. He grew up listening to old and older men, some of whom had come through slavery, had come at the very end of it, listening to them talk. And he caught and embodied the rhythms of speech.”
Pollard said Wilson would take notes on what he heard on the Hill.
“He was quiet. He was always writing,” Pollard said. “It was very important to make sure that came across and to understand the fact that he struggled. He struggled in school, but he had a level of tenacity that he knew there was something inside of him that he had to get out. And he also was informed by what was happening socially and politically in the ‘60s and the ‘70s with the Black Arts Movement and the Panthers. All of that stuff was fuel for material for August. He was able to find a way to funnel his creativity, and it was through the written word.”
Following a PBS press conference for the film last month, executive producers Michael Kantor, of “American Masters,” and WQED vice president of content Darryl Ford Williams said the eight-years-in-the-making, 90-minute film began when Williams pitched the idea to PBS executives, who suggested a collaboration with “American Masters.”
“August Wilson is the ideal American Master,” Kantor said. “Americans collectively know of August Wilson _ they know there’s a Broadway theater named after him _ but you don’t really know the man, you don’t really understand the genius of his work, and this is a great opportunity to share that.”
Kantor said the eight-year production period is not unusual for documentaries about theater due to rights issues _ he said 2004’s “Broadway: The American Musical” took nine years to make. Williams said getting started was the most difficult part of the process, and along the way there were serendipitous surprises.
She said a conversation with the film’s sound mixer led to an introduction to Kathryn Bostic, who wrote music for several of Wilson’s plays and became the composer for “The Ground on Which I Stand.”
The need for a videographer on the spur of the moment to interview one of the film’s A-list actors, which includes Charles Dutton, Laurence Fishburne, James Earl Jones and Suzan-Lori Parks, led to WQED videographer/editor Frank Caloiero being assigned to shoot the interview. He then became the film’s director of photography.
“After that, Sam said, ‘I want to work with Frank for the whole documentary,’” Williams said. “Frank’s skills are very well-known to us inside WQED, and it was a pleasure to be able to share his skills more broadly.”
Written by Stephen Stept (“Pittsburgh From the Air”), “The Ground on Which I Stand” filmed in Pittsburgh and in New York, Seattle, Minneapolis and Los Angeles. It includes scenes from productions of Wilson’s plays recorded for posterity and stored at the New York Public Library, new scenes filmed specifically for this documentary and interviews with those who knew or worked with Wilson, including his sister, Freda Ellis; Pittsburgh politician and activist Sala Udin; and Post-Gazette theater critic Christopher Rawson.
Pollard came on board to direct the project in 2012 at the recommendation of a previous director, Orlando Bagwell, who dropped out due to a work conflict. Pollard said like many films that focus on an author of copyrighted material, “The Ground on Which I Stand” is an authorized biography.
Producers of the film were given the caveat that for the newly filmed short staged scenes from Wilson’s plays, Pollard could not design a set, dress it or use props. Pollard opted to employ a black box format for these scenes that were shot over two days in New York. He said Wilson’s poetry was off-limits _Pollard said Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, may want to publish his poetry in book form _ but otherwise Romero was open to everything.
“She had an issue with two things: Viola Davis’ performance in ‘King Hedley II,’ which she always said August thought was too over-the-top, so she didn’t want to see that, and a scene in ‘Two Trains Running’ where Laurence Fishburne and a female actress come together in a coffee shop and dance to an Aretha Franklin song, which was created on stage in the direction and she said August always hated that,” Pollard said. But both clips are in the film.
Pollard said the film’s title was taken from a speech Mr. Wilson gave about diversity. “Basically he was throwing down the gauntlet, saying there needed to be more black theater.”
Rob Owens is a writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.