A Triumphant Homecoming

0:00 Fresh from a cross-country book tour for “August Wilson: A Life,” her acclaimed biography of the black playwright, Patti Hartigan breezed into the Rye […]

Published December 14, 2023 5:18 PM
3 min read

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Fresh from a cross-country book tour for “August Wilson: A Life,” her acclaimed biography of the black playwright, Patti Hartigan breezed into the Rye Free Reading Room where she was the featured speaker and greeted a cluster of her classmates from the Rye High School class of 1978 with ecstatic hugs.

Hartigan, who grew up in Rye and attended its public schools, recalled with nostalgia spending hours in the library as a student. “The building looks exactly as it was,” she remarked. “It’s so-o-o beautiful.” She was inspired to become a writer by her Rye High School English teachers.

Her 531-page book, published on August 15 by Simon & Schuster, is the first authoritative biography of the playwright, who died in 2005, and the first to examine Wilson’s plays from script to performance. Known as the 20th Century Cycle (one for each decade), they include “The Piano Lesson,” which won a Pulitzer, and “Fences,” which won both a Pulitzer and a Tony Award. 

Hartigan headlined the library’s December 6 “Read in Rye” program of conversations with authors.  She was introduced by Sharon Latimer-Mosely, a community educator and playwright from New Rochelle and project manager for the Reckoning with Racism in Nursing Project. A serious August Wilson fan, she said Wilson’s “Fences,” whose characters spoke the vernacular of Pittsburgh’s mostly black Hill District, contained “dialogue that I was familiar with.”

With the publication of “August Wilson: A Life,” Hartigan, a former Boston Globe theater critic and arts columnist, found herself in the unfamiliar terrain of being reviewed rather than reviewing. But the raves that followed left no doubt about the book’s success. 

Hartigan read several excerpts from her book and interspersed them with interesting anecdotes:  

• “His name at birth was Henry August Kittel, taken from the name of his white father, who never married his mother. After his father’s death, he adopted his father’s middle name and his mother Daisy Wilson’s last name to become August Wilson. His mother never reconciled to his becoming a writer. She wanted him to be a lawyer.”

• “Wilson learned to read when he was 4 and he was a brilliant student.  He dropped out of several high schools before graduation at the slightest hint of racism. At one school he wrote a 20-page paper on Napoleon and was accused of plagiarism. He said, ‘I may have dropped out of high school, but I did not drop out of life.’”

• “Wilson began writing poetry before transitioning to plays. But it was an easy transition because he wrote these long monologues, which were like poetry, into his plays. That’s why his plays started out being so long, too long for an audience to tolerate, according to his directors and producers.  When Helen Hayes walked out of an early production of ‘Fences’ after the first act, it was a wake-up call, and he cut it back.”

• “He wanted to create his own mythology, his own life. He told the same stories over and over. He never stopped telling stories.”

“Will there be another book?” Hartigan was asked. “There will be another book,” the author replied. “I can’t say anything about it.  But, yes, there will be another book.”  

Armand Paganelli, a theater buff from Hartigan’s high school days, summed up the evening for the audience: “Your Rye family is impressed. We’re really impressed.” The robust applause showed he was right.

Copies of “August Wilson: A Life” are available at Arcade Books in downtown Rye.

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