November 2012
Capstone October 2012 Howard University  

English Professor Helps Keep August Wilson’s Legacy Alive

By Jo-Ann English, communications associate, Office of University Communications
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Professor Shannon's expertise on August Wilson will help guide the new documentary. (Ceasar)

Many knew August Wilson as a playwright, visionary and author, but Sandra Shannon, Ph.D., knew August Wilson the man. When the professor of English was approached in early 2010 by the Pittsburgh-based TV station WQED to be a contractor and advisor on a new documentary—August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand—she saw it as a perfect opportunity to share her expertise about a man who has had a profound influence on her career.

The project team that is collaborating on the documentary recently received a $704,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to aid in the production. The 90-minute documentary will be co-produced by WQED and the PBS series “American Masters,” and is scheduled to air in 2015. Shannon, an August Wilson scholar, will serve as a consultant on the project, ensuring that all of the content is accurate and consistent. The Emmy-winning producer and director Sam Pollard will direct the documentary.

“This grant is significant, especially the fact that a national organization acknowledges the need to have a documentary on the life and contributions of August Wilson,” Shannon says. “There have been conferences, books, papers, articles, but not really a concentrated effort on his profile. If you don’t document it, then Wilson becomes the stuff of legends, and all kinds of myths and lies can come about if you don’t fill that gap with the truth. My role is to make sure that it doesn’t get into the realm of myth and legend.”

Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose work chronicles the African-American experience in the 20th century through a series of 10 plays known as the Pittsburgh Cycle, is recognized—both nationally and internationally—as a dominant figure in America’s social history. Today, his plays stand as a landmark in the history of Black culture, American literature and theater.

Because of her knowledge of the life and work of Wilson, Shannon was invited by the documentary’s producers to travel to New York for a series of informational meetings to gather lesser-known details about the playwright’s life and work. Her answers, and those of the other August Wilson scholars involved in the project, were woven into the script for the documentary. According to Shannon, it is the goal of the producers to not only capture the portrait of Wilson as a world-renowned playwright, but also as an African-American man.  “If you don’t document it, then Wilson becomes the stuff of legends and all kinds of myths and lies can come about if you don’t fill that gap with the truth.”

“My initial job, in addition to fielding questions about the personal aspects of Wilson, is to review the script and provide feedback because the script is the spine of the documentary,” she explains. “It’s not going to be a documentary in the traditional sense. They are piecing together the man in a very creative way, bringing in all kinds of aspects of his life and art in a very non-linear way.”

Discovering Wilson’s Work

Shannon’s scholarly interest in the playwright dates back to when she first came to Howard University in 1987 as an assistant professor. Being new to the academic profession and trying to establish herself in the publishing arena, she was instantly drawn to Wilson, especially to the play Fences, which she connected to on a personal level due to the similarities between her father and the main character.

Fences was the play that was the hook for me in more ways than one. The main character, Troy Maxon, was a powerful African-American man who experienced racism and whose dreams were not actualized because of circumstances of his birth, color and Jim Crow laws,” explains Shannon. “My father was very much like that. He was a very ambitious, responsible, hard-loving, hard-living man who raised six children.”

Shannon, who wrote The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, published by the Howard University Press, has often been called upon to participate in discussions around the country about Wilson, some of which he attended before he died in 2005. Her book is considered a seminal study of his life and chronicles his growth as a playwright. It also contains an interview between Shannon and Wilson conducted in November of 1991, when he was in Washington, D.C., for the premiere of Two Trains Running at the Kennedy Center.

Soon after the publication of her book, Shannon says that Wilson bought copies of her book. “The fact that he bought 20 copies of my book and gave them to various friends and associates said a lot to me about his respect for my work,” she says.

Preserving the Legacy

Shannon believes that time can be both an enemy and a friend, and that the grant and documentary are paying homage to the brilliance of a man about whom she has studied and admired for more than two decades. In the wake of his death, Shannon has seen a renewed interest in his work.

She recently initiated an August Wilson Society on Howard’s campus, which is a multidisciplinary, learning community that includes professors from the Departments of African and African American Studies, History, Music, Art, English, Theater Arts, Psychology and Philosophy, all coming together using Wilson’s plays as a rallying point for teaching, research and student-focused programs pertaining to the experiences of Africans in America.

“August Wilson said that what he tried to do in his plays is comparable to what collagist Romare Bearden did on his canvas, which is to try to put back things that have been torn apart. It is that deep, emotional, psychosocial, painful process that has to take place, and he did that in the cycle of his plays,” says Shannon. “He invited African Americans to contemplate from whence they came. Don’t run from it even though it is painful and depressing. It has to be confronted.”

It is this same definition of the African-American identity that Shannon believes Wilson saw in Howard University. “He knew Howard’s place and role in the world, and the position it occupies in the history of Black America,” she says.

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