The Passing of a Griot

Last April, theater professor and director Charles Dumas helped to stage an August Wilson Festival on the University Park campus. "At the time we had no idea of his physical condition," said Dumas, speaking of the renowned playwright who died of liver cancer in October. "We had just wanted to honor a beloved artist of the Commonwealth." After attending Wilson's funeral in Pittsburgh, Dumas reflected poignantly on the day and the griot (West African word for storyteller) who will be long remembered.

I was okay until Wynton Marsalis appeared on stage and started wailing "Danny Boy" on his golden trumpet. Then the tears started and didn't stop until long after the pallbearers had wheeled August
Wilson's cherry red coffin out of the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall. Until then the day had been filled with many poignant moments: Charles Dutton sadly reading Troy's monologue about death from Fences, or Kenny Leon, the director of the last two plays of Wilson's Decade epics, telling us his last message from the playwright.
"I love you, Kenny", Wilson had said wispily on Leon's answering machine, the night before he died.

There were joyous moments as well, such as Phylicia Rashad performing her memorable monologue from her Tony nominated role in Gem of the Ocean or Marion McClinton, one of Wilson's trio of Broadway directors, proclaiming August to be his hero while quoting from Joe Turner's Come and Gone, "You shin' now, August, you shin' like new money."

There were even funny moments—Tony Chisholm showing up just in time to read his monologue or Rueben Santiago-Hudson taking a turn as the funeral parlor owner, Mr. West, from Two Trains. Mostly though there were August Wilson moments, as friends and colleagues used his own words to celebrate his life to the audience of five hundred or so. It was made up of Hollywood celebrities, politicians, actors, Pittsburgh's rich and famous and the ordinary working people
from the Hill District from where August had mined the rich characters who populated his plays.

Our School of Theatre, along with Penn State's Africana Research Center and Institute for Arts and Humanities, had co-sponsored
with Temple University and Pittsburgh's Kuntu Rep. an August Wilson Festival last Spring. It was the first and only time while he was alive that all ten plays of the decade series had been produced, read and/or discussed. At the time we had no idea of his physical condition. We had just wanted to honor a beloved artist of the Commonwealth.

When Victor Hugo, the beloved French novelist, died in Paris, crowds ran through the streets shouting, "Hugo is dead, the great one has passed." As his hundred-car funeral caravan wound through the Hill in the rain on its way to Greenwood Cemetery, people on Pittsburgh streets held up handwritten signs praising and thanking the Pulitzer Prize winner.

At the gravesite, Reverend Dwight Andrews, his friend and musical collaborator, led us all in the Lord's Prayer. I saw August's brother pick up one of the wreaths and place it on their mother's nearby grave. It was the last gesture in a mist-filled day. August Wilson is dead. Our griot has joined the ancestors. We shall not see his kind again.

Charles Dumas, M.A., J.D., associate professor of theater and African and African American studies, can be reached at cxd28@psu.edu.

Last Updated November 21, 2005