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Saying Goodbye

It began at noon on Saturday, at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. People were standing around; I wondered if some of them were townspeople, because the cycle of ten plays August Wilson had written over the past two-plus decades was called the Pittsburgh Cycle, set in the Hill District. And the casket was open, and I thought I was late because the viewing was supposed to end the night before. And I debated whether I should go up to see, and I did, but he wasn’t there; that wasn’t him. It wasn’t the August I knew. Because he had such a life force with such an ironic and engaging view. In the theater, he used to mouth his dialogue along with the actors, to feel the music of those words. I sat back down and as they were closing the casket, I noticed that on the wall above and behind the casket, inscribed on a space stretching 100 feet or more, was the Gettysburg Address; and I found myself reading it, and all those words took on new meaning. “Conceived in liberty... All men are created equal... Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” All that unfinished work. Those words on the wall popped out at me in relation to August, what he was trying to describe in his plays, never polemically, but in the language and the hearts of the people he knew, these people sitting in the hall. Dwight Andrews, the minister conducting the service, began by having everybody extend an arm to the family from wherever they were standing in the hall, and you could see all these people reaching out toward his wife, Constanza, and his two daughters, Sakina and Azula.Then began this flood of memories and evocations, with phrases like “the coherent history of identity,” and of course the Pittsburgh Cycle, and I found that August had planned the entire service, he knew exactly what he wanted, which was typical of him — what music, who would speak (though not what they would say). One of his friends referred to him as a very sly and funny and youthful man who dressed like an old man. There were readings from the plays, interspersed with music: Lotte Lenya singing “September Song,” then music from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Charles Dutton, Anthony Chisholm, Ruben Santiago-Hudson all read from his plays. Phylicia Rashad read Aunt Ester from Gem of the Ocean, and somebody sang “Dark was the Night and Cold Was the Ground,” and then a silent moment of prayer, and music identified as spiritual Baptist. Marion McClinton recited the eulogy. The song “Black Muddy River” was very powerful, then Andrews spoke words of comfort. Then you heard the trumpet, then saw Wynton Marsalis playing the most original “Danny Boy” you could imagine. It turned out he didn’t actually know “Danny Boy.” It was sung to him earlier that morning and he gathered from it whatever he could. Then he riffed on the blues; the effect it had was joyous. People left with a high from the blues. Then began an extraordinary processional, with cars which took forever to line up, and we proceeded to drive through the Hill District, past all the places that — one way or another — were featured in his plays, finishing on Wylie Avenue. There was no 1839 (the number of the house referred to in Radio Golf) but there was a house just like it, refusing to be torn down. The Hill District is somehow smaller than you expected it to be, yet somehow larger in terms of density of living. It’s in terrible shape but there’s also some renewal, and you can imagine what Radio Golf’s characters, Harmond and Roosevelt, were trying to do with that renewal project, and what August was trying to say with those issues. We arrived at the cemetery. Naturally it was raining, people gathered close — the family, the pallbearers — and final words were said, and the awful moment came when he actually got lowered into the grave. And then began that process of shoveling dirt on the coffin. People did it in various ways. An 8-year-old bravely put it in there, other people took a greater effort, I finally did it: There’s no moment that’s comparable to that. It’s both a manifestation of the finality, and the terrible sound of the dirt and the rock crashing onto the coffin, and the mud, and I think I told somebody, he’s not in the box, he’s already gone. I think he was somehow telling us that we have to get on with it too, and that act is symbolic, but the real meaning comes out of something else that you have to accept in yourself. As one of his characters says, “People don’t understand about death. Because there’s nothing you can do in life that compares with death.” He had accepted it. And I think he was saying, you can accept it too.


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