The Playgoer: August Wilson, 1945-2005

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Monday, October 03, 2005

August Wilson, 1945-2005

August Wilson on his native turf, Pittsburgh's Hill district
(photo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
The man must have known how little time he had left. Reportedly he fended off doctors until he could finish an acceptable draft of the last play of his cycle Radio Golf. We all wondered what kind of drama he would go onto after he completed this unique ten-part History Play. But whether or not he intended it, this was to be his life's work in the theatre.
And intend that he did not, it seems. Of the many things we were robbed of Sunday is a one-man show, How I Learned What I Learned, which Wilson had every intention of performing during the Signature Theatre's retrospective in New York this or next season. He already performed it in Seattle, as reported here. I envy those few who got to see Wilson tell his own story, no doubt in a voice as powerful and hyptnotic as those he gave his most memorable fictional creations.
The era of August Wilson (which I date, for convenience sake, from 1984, the Broadway triumph of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, to the much cooler 2004 Broadway reception of Gem of The Ocean) is one we may remember as the last gasp of serious, popularly viable playwriting for the American stage. Name another body of dramatic work from our time that was neither imported from England nor exported to Hollywood. It's a welcome tribute that the Jujamcyn company is apparently going to rename the Virginia Theatre after him. A Broadway Theatre named after an African American--and one who didn't sing and dance, no less--will definitely make some statement. However, a prominent theatre buidling named after a black American is one thing--a theatre devoted to black American content is another and was Wilson's bigger goal. And the presence of an "August Wilson Theatre" as a home to yet more British imports and jukebox musicals (probably tributing white rockers who ripped off black musicians, no less) also raises the odd legacy of his career on Broadway in general. For a while he was the only playwright who seemed to be able to depend on getting produced there--but that was really due to the diehard optimism and persistence of one dedicated producer, Benjamin Mordecai (who Wilson only just recently movingly eulogized in "American Theatre" magazine). The dismaying experience Gem of the Ocean went through last year to find backing was more symptomatic of changing times than the merits of that particular play. Yet I wonder if the Broadway fixation killed his works in the end. Gem, and King Hedley II before it, barely had an adequate run after their middling reviews and poor sales (no wonder at $75+ seat).
We'll see if anyone (now that Mordecai, too, is gone) takes up the mantle of producing Radio Golf on Broadway, if nothing else but for the sake of completing the cycle. A tempting conclusion, which might either close the chapter of serious drama on Broadway, of which he was the last great author, or else challenge and inspire Broadway to remember what's possible. That happier outcome, though, can only materialize if Radio Golf is welcomed warts-and-all, if necessary, and heavily subsidized and supported so as wide a range of people as possible can come see it, and so it can actually run long enough for them to see it.... Or is it time for August Wilson to leave Broadway behind and find, posthumously, a new audience away from the commercial theatre which, frankly, has no more use for him. His longest run recently was Jitney, brought to New York by the non-profit Second Stage and smartly transferred and flourished in an extended Off-Broadway run. His now-classic plays have thrived and reached many more audiences in regional theatre (where, truth be told, they all started, as part of an elaborate tryout scheduled engineered by Mordecai and supported by the artistic directors of those theatres, like Peter Altman, formerly of Boston's Huntington). These productions have provided continuing work for African American theatre artists in theatres that might not normally take a chance on "black plays."
One cannot discuss Wilson's work outside the context of race, of course. He was proudly a "race man" to the end. He would have no separation of medium and message. But some of the eulogizing will also--appropriately--place him in a 20th-century American theatre tradition, one that they might say one day began with O'Neill and ended with him. A tradition of tales told on stage of personal suffering in a social context, in a magical realist format drawing on the iconography and archetypes of American history. He may have been the last great writer committed to the stage as his preferred medium for conveying such stories.
In other words, who would have thought Arthur Miller and August Wilson would die in the same year?
I wish I could brag of personal encounters with the man. I will, though, retain a memory of performances. Delroy Lindo's fiery magnetism as the tormented Loomis on the opening night of Joe Turner's Come and Gone in 1987. Then the way just weeks later Billy Dee Williams, a late replacement for James Earl Jones, had to implore audicences from the stage of the long-running Fences to go see Joe Turner, which was already ailing at the box office. (Now, two decades later, we see the Times critic confidently call that play his "masterpiece.") I remember lingering on the outskirts of the Boston tryout of Seven Guitars, picking up whatever scuttlebut I could of Wilson's struggle to keep the South African actor Zakes Mokae, for whom he had written the role of Hedley, despite his inability to learn the lines of the inevitable daily Wilson rewrites and having to go onstage with book in hand. (Mokae was soon fired.) And, most personally, I'll remember the moving experience of performing in an "outreach" production of Ma Rainey (yes, I played a white man in an August Wilson play) to a crowd of three people in Chicago in the midst of a February blizzard. The house could not have been more hot.
Some good coverage in the Times, especially a special online page, making up for their relative silence on his condition over the last month. For even more depth, see his hometown Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a Seattle based account (where he lived the last 15 years and where he died) in the Post-Intelligencer. Eagerly awaited: look for something from the Voice's Michael Feingold Wednesday who actually served as one of Wilson's first dramaturgs at the O'Neill center; and who will be the first to get Lloyd Richards on the record, to reflect on their collaboration, and finally reveal the nature of their falling out?
This just in: Feingold's obit is already posted....And American Theatre magazine will publish Radio Golf in its November issue.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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