When Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson stepped to the microphone at a 1995 conference, everyone expected him to deliver a speech. Instead, he pulled wrinkled pages from his pocket and read pieces of his unpublished poetry.
Young writer Steven Sapp was in the audience and never forgot Wilson's comment that he planned to stick the poems back in a box.
After a battle with liver cancer, Wilson, 60, died in 2005 — his poetry still hidden from the public. He is best known for a cycle of 10 plays that captures the 20th century African-American experience decade by decade.
In 2012, Sapp was with an actor backstage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The actor had been a friend of Wilson's and also knew the playwright's widow, Constanza Romero. He revealed there was, in fact, a box of Wilson's unpublished poetry.
Sapp is a founding member of the poetry, drama and music ensemble UNIVERSES, which includes his wife, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, and her brother, who goes by the name William Ruiz, a.k.a. Ninja. The group made a pilgrimage to Wilson's Seattle home, where Romero allowed them to sift through the poems and take copies to serve as inspiration for a new play.
The resulting play, titled "UniSon," premiered this season at OSF and runs through Oct. 28.
"Still to this day, I'm like, that is so insane that we were sitting in August Wilson's house with his wife," Sapp says.
He stars in the play as Poet, a man who dies and leaves behind a trunk full of his papers. His apprentice opens the trunk, unleashing seven ghost-like terrors that assail Poet in the afterlife with harrowing memories.
The idea for the terrors came from a cryptic Wilson piece titled, "Identification of the Seven Terrors." One terror, for example, "wears the mask of beauty and keeps its sword unsheathed."
Wilson also wrote about a man giving a box to a young woman.
"We have a poet, a girl, a box and seven terrors," recalls Ruiz-Sapp. "It was very clear this was the direction we're going to go."
UNIVERSES fleshed out each terror into a character. The terror who "wears the mask of beauty" became Hunter, played by Ruiz-Sapp. Dressed like Red Riding Hood, Hunter was sexually abused as a child — and then called a liar when she told her grandmother the truth.
While alive, Poet tried to be close to Hunter, but they were kept emotionally apart by her painful past.
When UNIVERSES was crafting the play, members said they sometimes felt like Wilson was an unseen presence in the room.
"We would say out loud, 'August, I'm stuck here. Tell me what we've got to do.' We felt like he's our friend and somehow this is all going to fall into place," Ruiz-Sapp says.
"It was like going to school with a master who really makes the apprentice work. We wanted to pay homage to this man, but keep our voice intact," Sapp adds. "We had to stay true to our aesthetic."
Known for incorporating Spanish rhythms, gospel, blues, jazz and other influences in their work, UNIVERSES members included music and singing in the play.
They noted the play is not biographical and audiences shouldn't leave with the impression that the plot reflects real events in Wilson's life.
Poet is both the hero and villain of the play. Some of his actions — or inactions — are egregious. He fathers a daughter with a prostitute, but doesn't acknowledge her and lets the child grow up in a brothel. He has an affair with a married woman, who is brutally murdered by her butcher husband, played by Ruiz. During a scuffle in an alley, Poet accidentally kills another man but lets his friend take the fall and go to prison for life. The friend makes the sacrifice because he recognizes Poet's talent and wants him to escape and succeed.
"He did not forgive himself. He died with it. The weight of guilt, he still had it on him and he took it to the grave," Sapp says of Poet.
In the afterlife, Poet must wrestle with his demons and find a way to forgive himself.
Regarding the story line about the friend who goes to prison to save Poet, Sapp says people often do make life-changing sacrifices for each other.
Especially in poor, struggling communities, Sapp says, people can be like crabs in a barrel, pulling each other down as they all scrabble to get out. But every now and then, they see someone special and give a push to help that person escape.
Sapp says he once was in a sketchy situation where he shouldn't have been, and another person intervened and saved him.
"He said, 'Get out of here.' That person got arrested a few weeks later," Sapp says. "There are people in your life who make sacrifices. Do you say thank you for it and go to the next level and make the most of the opportunity? When you're around people who are struggling so hard, people only get so far. I wanted to know what's over there — not in a five-block radius of where I lived. When someone gives you an opportunity, you take it."
Sapp and Ruiz-Sapp say both of their mothers raised children rather than pursuing careers.
"My mother was a singer," Ruiz-Sapp says. "She had me and she had to give it up. Even now I have guilt. My mom should be up here singing."
Knowing that Wilson also struggled growing up in the impoverished African-American Hill District in Pittsburgh helped UNIVERSES members feel connected to the playwright.
Wilson's father was a white German immigrant who was rarely a part of his life. Wilson was named Frederick August Kittel, but he eventually took August as his first name and for his last name chose Wilson — his African-American mother's maiden name.
In Wilson's papers, UNIVERSES members saw where he had handwritten different variations of his name over and over, including and dropping out different parts until he eventually settled on "August Wilson."
"Some of the poems were signed with different names," Ruiz-Sapp says.
Wilson was known for writing in public locations. UNIVERSES saw poetry written on everything from a diner placemat to a bar napkin.
"It would be nine o'clock on a Saturday night. The bar is hopping and he's listening and writing," Sapp says.
Like Wilson, UNIVERSES members began their careers as poets. They morphed from poetry ensemble to performance group to theater ensemble.
Wilson and a group of poets founded a theater workshop and he eventually began acting and directing in the 1960s. But it wasn't until the 1980s that he began achieving success as a playwright.
The question remains why most of Wilson's poetry remains unpublished and unseen.
Sapp says when writing plays became Wilson's bread and butter, he had to forego other work. He wanted to write a novel, for example, and was asked to write a movie about Tupac Shakur, a rapper with socially conscious lyrics who died of gunshot wounds.
Ruiz-Sapp notes UNIVERSES members have boxes of their own unpublished poetry in their closets.
"Your poetry is the purest, rawest, most unadulterated writing you have," she says. "You protect it for a while until you go to your pool of inspiration."
Wilson himself offered a clue during a 1991 talk in New York.
"I approach poetry and plays differently," he said. "For me, if there is such a thing as public art and private art, then the poems are private. They are a record, a private journey, if you will. I count them as moments of privilege. I count them as gifts."