By Sol Hurwitz
Patti Hartigan, who grew up in Rye and went on to be an award-winning theater critic and arts reporter for The Boston Globe, has written the first major biography of August Wilson, one of the most prolific and successful playwrights of the late 20th century. “August Wilson, A Life”, will be published in August by Simon & Schuster.
Hartigan attended Osborn Elementary and Rye Middle School and was valedictorian of the Rye High School Class of 1978. She went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Virginia.
Hartigan knew Wilson well. She first met him in 1987 and interviewed him often until his death in 2005 at the age of 60. In her extensive research for the 592-page biography, she was granted sole access to Wilson’s archives, examined thousands of documents, and interviewed scores of friends, theater colleagues, and family members.
Wilson’s plays, nine of which are set in 20th-century Pittsburgh, are unique in their raw depiction of African American life. Wilson said he didn’t research his plays but wrote from “the blood’s memory,” a sense of racial history shared by African Americans.
“The Piano Lesson”, currently running on Broadway, won a Pulitzer Prize; “Fences”won both a Pulitzer and a Tony Award. Two of his plays became successful movies: “Fences”, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman.
Replying to a query from The Rye Record, Hartigan described the impact that Rye High School had on her decision to become a writer. “We were blessed with many fine English teachers,” she said in an email, “especially Ms. [Marilyn] Grumet and Ms. [Felicity] Del’Aquila, whose son was an actor and came to talk to our class. We were also blessed to have a fantastic full-time drama teacher and director with Mr. [Neil] Mendick, who has stayed in touch with his students. We are now friends, and I get to call him Neil.”
She added: “I hope Rye High School still supports arts education, which is the first thing to go when budgets are cut. The arts are just as important as sports. And on that subject, thank goodness the school did away with the ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ gyms. The boys’ gym was far superior, and yes, we noticed.”
Among the honors and awards Hartigan has received is the Paul Tobenkin Memorial Award from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which recognizes outstanding achievements in reporting on racial or religious intolerance.
She now divides her time between the Boston area and Charlottesville, Va. “August Wilson, A Life,” is dedicated to her mother, Nancy Hartigan, who was a librarian at the Harrison Public Library.