The film a good introduction and summary for its length, occasionally powerful, especially when August is talking, though it maybe could have done with less of Christopher Rawson, the Pittsburgh critic. There are lots of other stories out there, and much more to know about the plays. There's more to be explored for future filmmakers and writers.
It does put August Wilson's accomplishments in some historical perspective, especially for younger generations. His ten play cycle is unique, providing good grounds for calling him the American Shakespeare. He treated large themes with specific characters and situations, and he brought something to theatre that has been much lacking since: a voice.
I just read part of a Dramatist magazine discussion of "devised theatre." Its confusion convinced me that "devised theatre" is just another new marketing category, like "creative nonfiction." There's always been a place for experimental and highly collaborative work. But devised theatre has become fashionable, possibly because it's easier, on every level. It can make contributions, but it's not by any means the only way to make plays.
Above all what devised theatre often lacks is a voice. That's what Lloyd Richards always said the O'Neill was looking for: not a polished play or commercial potential--but a voice. August Wilson was the greatest example.
The O'Neill fostered a kind of collaboration, but the playwright decided. Did that line an actor suggested belong in the play? The playwright decided (and August decided yes at least once.) Devised? Take a look at all the scraps of paper he assembled, culled, made cohere. The voices came to him, and he gave them theatrical voice.
Easily the best example of an excellent play that began in collaboration that I know of is Arthur Giron's Becoming Memories. It began with his students telling stories. But it ended with Giron writing--arranging, structuring, and giving the play a voice. It's a wonderful theatrical experience. I've seen at least three productions, all different, all luminous: one in Vancouver, BC; one at a university in Pittsburgh and the best one at a central Pennsylvania college with untrained student actors, directed by Margaret Kelso.
Gem of the Ocean, performed by Phylicia Rachad, who played this role of Aunt Ester in the Broadway production. (I saw the Oregon Shakespeare production, which featured Greta Oglesby, who originated the role in pre-Broadway productions.) Rachad tells the story of how Aunt Ester came to be. August heard his characters talking--sometimes he didn't know who they were when he wrote down what he heard. Sometimes he did. So he knew who Aunt Ester was--the ancestor of everyone in the last 9 plays--because other characters had talked about her. But she had never spoken.
This is true. I sat at a table after dinner at the O'Neill with a few others, listening to August tell stories for his next play, and one was about Aunt Ester--perhaps the first mention of her.
Then one day she spoke to him, Rachad said. He scribbled down what she said on some napkins. Then afraid he would lose them, he called his answering service and read the dialogue so it would be recorded. Then afraid it hadn't all been recorded, he went to a pay phone and called his cell phone, and read it again as a recorded message.
So I don't know if this business of mistrusting chance and technology with something valuable is a Pittsburgh thing, or just a character trait we had in common. Because when I sat down to interview him for the first time--at a picnic table on the O'Neill grounds--I turned on my tape recorder. And then I turned on my other tape recorder.