The man in the familiar cap sat in the sunshine near the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. I did a double take. This was August Wilson, winner of two Pulitzer prizes, catching some rays like an ordinary mortal.
But, wait, the point of Wilson's unprecedented cycle of modern history plays is that there are no ordinary mortals. He gave a voice to the unsung whose individuality had been overlooked.
I apologized for invading the playwright's privacy but couldn't help saying how much I enjoyed his work at the Huntington. He smiled, said something friendly, and went back to the sun.
The image is warming in the tide of tributes after Wilson's death on Sunday in Seattle. Soon he will join the pantheon of such theater legends as Eugene O'Neill and George Gershwin when a New York theater is named for him. His larger legacy is in tune with the epigraph for "Fences," his first Pulitzer winner:
When the sins of our fathers visit us
We do not have to play host.
We can banish them with forgiveness
As God, in His Largeness and Laws.
"Fences" conquered Broadway in 1987. It starred James Earl Jones as Troy, a former baseball whiz, now collecting garbage with Bono, whose friendship, as noted in the stage directions, is "rooted in his admiration of Troy's honesty, capacity for hard work, and his strength, which Bono seeks to emulate."
Wilson said in a Monitor interview: "We have been told so many times how irresponsible we are as black males that I try to present positive images of responsibility. I started the play with an image of a man standing with a baby in his arms.''
"Fences" represents the 1950s in Wilson's 10-play project, concluding with "Radio Golf" about an entrepreneur in the '90s: "I'm taking each decade and looking at one of the most important questions that blacks confronted in that decade and writing a play about it. Put them all together and you have a history.''
Wilson grew up in the Pittsburgh neighborhood he wrote about after leaving for Minnesota and points west. He was self-taught, courtesy of the public library. He came to the theater following such other African-Americans as James Baldwin ("The Amen Corner"), Lorraine Hansberry ("A Raisin in the Sun"), and Ntozake Shange ("for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf").