They may not have realized it at first, but for more than two decades, New York theatergoers were witnesses to an extended theatrical journey that would rank as one of the great achievements of modern American drama.
Ten plays by August Wilson opened here (nine of them on Broadway and one off-Broadway), starting with "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" in 1984 and ending last year with "Radio Golf."
All became part of a grand design: a decade-by-decade chronicle of the black experience in 20th-century America _ years plagued by the memories of slavery, persistent racism, violence and as the middle class beckoned, a forgetting of the turbulent and painful past. They were produced for the stage as Wilson, who died of liver cancer in 2005, wrote them: out of chronological order and with varying degrees of artistic and commercial success.
Now the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., is putting Wilson's enormous accomplishment in perspective: a monthlong festival celebrating these works, presented sequentially from "Gem of the Ocean," set in 1904, to "Radio Golf," which takes place in 1997.
Called "August Wilson's 20th Century," this $3.5 million (euro2.3 million) retrospective will showcase the plays in what the event's artistic director Kenny Leon calls "a step above a reading and a step below a full production. The most important thing is to hear August's words under one roof _ as if they were cut from the same cloth."
These staged readings, at the Center's 500-seat Terrace Theater March 4-April 6, will feature directors, actors and production designers closely associated with Wilson's works. The actors will hold scripts, and set and costume designs will be minimal.
Consider the directors.
Besides Leon (who will direct "Gem of the Ocean," "The Piano Lesson" and "Fences"), they include Gordon Davidson, a veteran of the regional-theater scene, where most of Wilson's plays were presented as they worked their way to New York. Also in the mix are Todd Kreidler, Lou Bellamy, Israel Hicks, Derrick Sanders and Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
People will come away from the readings with a sense of "what a monumental career of writing this was _ truly unequaled," says Davidson, who for years ran the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and who will oversee "Jitney" in Washington. "I think early on (in August's career) nobody knew the magnitude of his accomplishment."
Kreidler, Wilson's dramaturge, will direct "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," which, along with "Gem of the Ocean," were the two works the playwright considered his favorites.
"Those plays are the most Wilsonian," says Leon, who shepherded Wilson's last two plays ("Gem" and "Radio Golf") to Broadway. "They have characters who speak of themselves in long monologues. They present a natural and a supernatural world. August brings those worlds together. When you close your eyes and hear those plays, you know they are him."
"`Joe Turner' has a perfect balance of poetics, action and mythology," Kreidler says. "All of August's criteria for culture is met in that play _ from economics to religion to history."
More than 25 actors have been recruited to play 77 roles. They include such names as Lou Gossett Jr. (starring in "Fences") and Keith David (appearing in "Joe Turner" and "Seven Guitars"), as well as charter members of the unofficial Wilson acting company such as Anthony Chisholm, Stephen McKinley Henderson, James Earl Jelks and Michele Shay.
"We are dealing with veteran August Wilson actors," Kreidler says. "We may only have two days of rehearsals but we (also) have the resources of most of these folks' careers. For a lot of them, (their careers) have been based on his work."
Santiago-Hudson starred in two Wilson plays on Broadway and won a Tony Award for his performance in "Seven Guitars." He will direct "Radio Golf" at the Terrace as well as appear in "Gem of the Ocean" and "The Piano Lesson."
As for acting in a Wilson play, Santiago-Hudson says, "You either have it or your don't have it. It's not something you can work at.
"August's language is the natural rhythm and language of Southern black folk _ what I call `Northern colored people' _ people who came from the South to the North but brought all their colored ways and colored style in the beauty, the nuance and the integrity that they always had down South. It's very warm, very vivid, very passionate."
"August is a lot like Shakespeare," says Sanders, who will direct "King Hedley II."
"His words are living and breathing things. You have to stay on top of the poetry of the dialogue in order to get a true sense of what he is saying."
Sanders, who runs Chicago's Congo Square Theatre, was embraced and mentored by the playwright, who saw him as a member of the next generation of Wilson directors. "I have the benefit of being a ... recipient of the passing of the torch," Sanders says.
Hicks ("Two Trains Running") and Bellamy ("Ma Rainey") represent Wilson's early career, particularly Bellamy who worked with the playwright in Minnesota before he had his New York successes.
Discussions about an ambitious project encompassing all 10 plays began shortly after Wilson died, says Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center.
"There were informal conversations among a whole group of people," he recalls. "Just `What do we do about the 10 works?' because clearly they trace an arc, and they have never been done that way."
But Kaiser realized that to do fully staged productions of each play and run them for a while, would take a long time. "So no audience member was going to get the arc," Kaiser says. "And while they all stand on their own, there is something very powerful and exciting about seeing what August was saying about the entire century."
The staged readings idea then surfaced. "That way you could do them quickly _ 10 of them in a relatively short amount of time," Kaiser recalls, and Leon was picked to head the project.
The plays will run in a modified repertory format. The first week: plays one, two, three. The second: plays four, five, six. The third week: plays seven through 10. And then the final week, all 10 presented in chronological order.
"We hope to show how the plays talk to each other," Leon says. "How does `Radio Golf' talk to `Fences,' or `Fences' talk to `The Piano Lesson'?
"Plus, by doing it in the nation's capital, I am hoping it will keep August's voice alive and out-loud for people all over the country. Maybe they will decide to have their own festival." Leon adds.
"All of us were blessed to have lived during the time he lived. August wasn't just any old playwright. He was up there with Shakespeare and Ibsen and Chekhov. He's earned his place. I feel we should do our part to keep his words alive."
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