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20211209 (BBC7)
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Lenny Henry travels to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to tell the story of August Wilson, contemporary America’s greatest black playwright.

When Lenny Henry last year won the London Critics’ Circle award for his best-actor performance as Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s ‘Fences’, many admitted they knew little about this great black playwright, whose work brought the lives of working-class Pittsburgh African Americans to Broadway and across the United States.

Although at his untimely death in 2005, Wilson had been living for many years on the west coast in Seattle, his plays and his soul had long remained in the east, in the venerable old steel town of Pittsburgh where he was born and grew up. This summer Lenny Henry travelled to the city of three rivers and many bridges, now slowly recovering from post-industrial gloom, to visit the old, multiracial Hill District, where August Wilson lived as a child, and whose geography and characters run through his plays like the Allegheny River through the city.

In a sequence of ten plays, known as the ‘Pittsburgh Cycle’, Wilson charts the stories of black Americans across ten decades of the twentieth century. Vibrant, real, yet filled with the original African rhythms and spirit that the playwright believed should underpin and shape his works, these plays are a magisterial account of the African American twentieth century.

At the now semi-derelict childhood home, Lenny Henry meets surviving members of Wilson’s family, and encounters those who knew and loved him, like Sala Udin, who helped Wilson in the 1970s set up a powerful black theatre group to tell the stories of the Hill’s residents.

Producer Simon Elmes

First broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2014.

Lenny Henry tells the story of August Wilson, America's greatest modern black playwright.