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Mother Of An Era, August Wilsons

February 2, 2003

The Mother of an Era: August Wilson's


ON a stifling July night in 1982, an aspiring playwright named August Wilson sat in the airless barn that served as the main stage for the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn. Nearing 40, he had lately been earning his living as the staff cook for a social service agency in Minnesota. Beside him perched his mother, who had never seen any of his efforts at drama performed. This one was called "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

A few rows away, Lloyd Richards gingerly settled into his customary chair. Though respected as the leader of both the O'Neill Center and the Yale Repertory Theater, he had gone almost a quarter-century since his zenith as a director — with Lorraine Hansberry's "Raisin in the Sun." Portly and gray, he was deep enough into middle age to have bad hips.

Down beneath the stage, in what had been a livestock pen, several actors paced, scripts in hand. One was a former dry-cleaner, another a songwriter, the third a convicted killer who had entered the Yale Drama School while on parole. That young man, Charles S. Dutton, had been considering passing on the O'Neill because it paid only $25 a week, except that Mr. Richards had told him in an oracular way, "We might have something there for you."

By the final blackout four hours later, American theater had changed forever. The point is not simply that the staged reading of "Ma Rainey" led to the acclaimed 1984 production that marked Mr. Wilson's Broadway debut. It is not that "Ma Rainey" announced Mr. Dutton to the theatergoing world and that it proclaimed Mr. Richards's re-emergence as a discoverer and shaper of dramatic talent. With the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, one can posit that the maiden performance of "Ma Rainey" inaugurated the August Wilson era. As both an individual playwright and a hub of theatrical activity, he has defined his time in the way Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, Neil Simon and Edward Albee defined the three preceding generations.

The revival of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" that opens on Thursday at the Royale Theater — starring Mr. Dutton and Whoopi Goldberg and directed by Marion McClinton — invites retrospection. The production arrives with a modest advance, some public friction between stars and producers, and a sense of Mr. Wilson's career coming full circle.

The playwright has already completed the ninth in his 10-play cycle about African-American life in the 20th century; that drama, "Gem of the Ocean," will have its premiere in April at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. An unrepentant black nationalist, a self-described "race man" who likens crossover artists to slaves amusing master, Mr. Wilson has managed simultaneously to ignore the mainstream and to stake his place in it. For its effect on American culture at large, Mr. Wilson's work finds its closest parallels not in theater but in music — gospel, jazz, even hip-hop.

"There's a concept in theology called the 'scandal of particularity,' meaning when the universal God becomes a particular Jewish guy named Jesus," said Michael Eric Dyson, a prominent cultural critic who is a professor of African-American studies and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. "August Wilson's scandal of particularity is his unyielding attention to the specific details of black life. What it means for black identity to be assaulted, but also elevated. Assaulted by racial oppression, economic misery. But elevated because, in his plays, moral vision is not the property of the elite. There's ethical wisdom in the everyday struggles of black people. August Wilson has no desire to translate this for whites, to give a grammar of explanation or a thesaurus that might illumine. Just put black life there onstage and assume it exists. And yet by doing that, people can tap into it and it can resonate universally, because it dares to be particular."

Certainly, no playwright of Mr. Wilson's generation — he is 57 — has proved as ubiquitous. Every one of his first eight dramas has played in New York, seven of them on Broadway, and collectively they have received nearly 2,000 productions, from amateur companies to regional theaters to London's Royal National Theater. Mr. Wilson has won two Pulitzer Prizes ("Fences" in 1988 and "The Piano Lesson" in 1990), been a Pulitzer finalist four other times ("The Piano Lesson" in 1989, "Two Trains Running" in 1992, "Seven Guitars" in 1995 and "King Hedley II" in 2000), and taken seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards (for all his plays except "King Hedley"). The search-engine Google makes 17,000 hits for "August Wilson": study guides, video clips, homework tips, discographies, selected quotations. The Library of Congress lists 30 books by or about Mr. Wilson. Doctoral dissertations on his plays ponder such topics as "strategies of coping with social oppression," "power acquisition theory and the tragic legacy," and "reforming the black male self."

The object of such postmodern rhetoric was born in the industrial reality of Pittsburgh in 1945. By now, the rudiments of Mr. Wilson's biography are widely known — the son of a resilient, principled black mother and an abusive, absentee white father; the bright student driven into dropping out by bigoted teachers and classmates; the young poet inspired by the black arts movement in the 1960's; the nascent playwright who found his voice and subject only after leaving his black neighborhood, the Hill, for the vanilla climes of Minnesota.

Figuratively, and often literally, Mr. Wilson's plays have taken audiences to the Hill and the joys and torments of the black working class. Jitney drivers, preachers, railroad porters and boardinghouse landladies populate his stage. While slavery and its legacy hover over every Wilson drama, whites themselves rarely appear. His plays admit white viewers to a wholly contained black world of lunch-counter banter and bid-whist games, and reawaken blacks to the memories of thriving communal life before the mixed blessing of integration.

A strong strain of traditionalism runs through Mr. Wilson's art, and it helps explain the work's accessibility across racial lines. Even as Mr. Wilson's plays freely incorporate African-American art and ritual — the ring shout in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," the blues songs in "Ma Rainey," the totemic carvings in "The Piano Lesson" — they embrace the now-unfashionable conventions of linear narrative and dramatic tension.

In "The Piano Lesson," for instance, a brother and sister argue over the fate of a family heirloom. In "Fences," a young athlete's dream of a college scholarship collides with his father's bitter experience of the color barrier in sports. Observing at least some of the Aristotelian unities, "Ma Rainey" unfolds in 1927 in a single place (a Chicago recording studio) in actual time (a recording session). At the most elemental level, the drama involves a power struggle between the imperious Ma (Ms. Goldberg), the ambitious trumpeter Levee (Mr. Dutton) and the white recording company boss Sturdyvant (Louis Zorich). Ma is acutely aware that, whatever her stardom, she cannot hail a cab or be welcomed in a white home. What she can do is undermine Levee's own desire to stamp her sound with his jazzier style. From an almost godlike remove in the studio control booth, Sturdyvant both mediates and manipulates the friction.

"In a sense, the dramaturgy reaches back to Miller and O'Neill," said the playwright Tony Kushner, who won the Pulitzer Prize for "Angels in America." "August is impressively out of step with a lot of what's going on in the theater. And yet there's a way those plays are only apparently 'well-made.' The famous example is that 'Death of a Salesman' was originally called 'Inside His Head.' 'Iceman Cometh' is a sprawling thing. Like them, August's plays make huge demands. They're not just family dramas; they're deeply connected to a moment in history. And they aren't about escape or respite, but going down the mine shaft into the heart of things."

In his person, as well, Mr. Wilson has hewed to an old-fashioned path. He has lived for the last quarter century in two cities — first, St. Paul, Minn., and now Seattle — that are distant from entertainment capitals, and he has almost entirely refused to write for film or television. He has adapted only "The Piano Lesson," for a Hallmark Hall of Fame show in 1995. Only now, more than 15 years after it opened on Broadway, is "Fences," with Scott Rudin producing and Mr. McClinton directing, being developed for a film. In the meantime, said Mr. Wilson's lawyer and adviser, John Breglio, the playwright has turned down literally hundreds of screenwriting offers, including projects as formidable as Stephen Spielberg's "Amistad" and Spike Lee's "Malcolm X."

"I wanted to have a career in theater," Mr. Wilson said in a recent interview at that most traditional Broadway lunch spot, the Cafe Edison. "That's why I stayed true to it. It's a matter of concentration, of critical mass, instead of doing this, doing that. I haven't seen many black playwrights who stayed. What happened to Lonne Elder? What happened to Joseph Walker? Charles Fuller? They went to Hollywood. I wanted to hang around, to put together a body of work."

A combination of the right comrades and an evolution in theater economics gave Mr. Wilson the financial freedom to do so. Lloyd Richards, with his multiple directorial positions, was able to ensure staged readings at the O'Neill Center for Mr. Wilson's first three plays, followed by full productions at the Yale Repertory. By the fourth play, "The Piano Lesson," Mr. Richards and the Yale Rep's managing director, Ben Mordecai, had assembled a circuit of regional theaters — particularly the Goodman in Chicago, the Seattle Rep, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and the Huntington in Boston — to present Mr. Wilson's work with the cast and director intact from the Yale premiere. The system allowed Mr. Richards and Mr. Wilson months to sharpen and burnish each play before coming to Broadway, and permitted the regional theaters to share in the risk or reward of the commercial production.

For theater professionals, this model represents possibly the most significant element of the Wilson era. "It's an extremely contemporary way of recreating the road," said Robert Marx, a former executive with both the National Endowment of the Arts and the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts. "When you think about the old days, with Miller and Odets and Williams and the rest, they developed their plays out of town. That system no longer exists. But with the process Lloyd and Ben created, you see nonprofit theaters come into their own as producing entities."

As commercial vehicles, Mr. Wilson's dramas have posted a mixed record. Three of the eight ("Fences," "The Piano Lesson" and "Jitney") turned a profit for investors, with "Fences" repaying original backers 10 times over, according to Mr. Mordecai. The Broadway runs ranged from 72 performances for "King Hedley II" to 525 for "Fences."

For black actors and actresses, though, the plays have provided an unqualified bonanza. More than 250 African-American performers have played in the Broadway productions alone. And while the plays have occasionally benefited from the wattage of an established star — Laurence Fishburne in "Two Trains Running," James Earl Jones in "Fences," Brian Stokes Mitchell in "King Hedley II" — more often they have inaugurated or revived careers, including those of Courtney Vance and Mary Alice in "Fences" and Angela Bassett and Delroy Lindo in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." Lloyd Richards had the luxury of replacing Samuel L. Jackson with Charles Dutton after the Yale production of "The Piano Lesson."

Mr. Dutton embodies the ultimate example of a career trajectory. His starring roles on Broadway in "Ma Rainey" and "The Piano Lesson" led to film roles and the television show "Roc," which draw heavily from the casts of "The Piano Lesson" and "Two Trains Running." Those endeavors, in turn, positioned him to move into directing, with the acclaimed HBO mini-series "The Corner."

"August's plays open doors," said Carl Gordon, who plays Ma Rainey's sideman Cutler and who also appeared in "The Piano Lesson." "Not just for more roles, but for challenging roles. You work with characters that have substance, that get you to stretch."

Mr. Dutton recalled the exhilaration of first reading the "Ma Rainey" script at the O'Neill. "We knew it was special," he said. "We heard these stories. We knew this dialect. It was so full of black folklore. I remember wondering if white folks were going to get it."

The success of Mr. Wilson's plays in reaching whites has not been without its ironies and controversies. The embrace of his work by regional theaters with largely white staffs and audiences has coincided with the demise of several of the most prominent black theaters, including Crossroads in New Brunswick, N.J., and the Negro Ensemble Company in Manhattan. In a speech to the Theater Communications Group in 1996, Mr. Wilson insisted on increased financing for black theater companies and disparaged color-blind casting as an "aberrant idea" meant to "deny us our own humanity, our own history." Robert Brustein, the theater critic of The New Republic and the man whom Lloyd Richards replaced as dean of the Yale School of Drama, answered the diatribe with one of his own, likening Mr. Wilson's vision of separate development to Southern segregation. "What next?" he wrote. "Separate schools? Separate washrooms? Separate drinking fountains?"

Playwright and critic met in a public debate at Town Hall in early 1997. And while neither convinced the other of anything, and many spectactors felt alienated by both, their exchange marked one of the few times in decades when a dispute born in the inward-facing realm of theater exploded into the larger world of ideas and politics.

Mr. Wilson had come to a different kind of parting from his mentor, Lloyd Richards. The playwright and Mr. Mordecai in 1995 formed a partnership called Sageworks, which has produced every Wilson play since "Seven Guitars." With "Jitney," they replaced Mr. Richards with Mr. McClinton, who had staged many of Mr. Wilson's dramas in nonprofit theaters. While Mr. Wilson and Mr. Richards have remained on civil terms since, speaking privately and appearing jointly at theater conferences, the ascension of surrogate son over surrogate father serves as one more way of marking the 20 years since "Ma Rainey" made its debut in the O'Neill Center's barn.

This production is the first of Mr. Wilson's to reach Broadway without any road engagements to refine it and build word-of-mouth. It also depends more directly on stars than any show since "Fences" with James Earl Jones. Ms. Goldberg, who was appearing on Broadway in her own one-woman show when the original "Ma Rainey" was running, had long expressed interest in taking the title role in a revival. Last March, Mr. Wilson met with her and discovered that she had a seven-month block of time between films in early 2003. When it turned out that Mr. Dutton had the same period available, plans moved forward to raise the necessary $2.5 million. The project proved so attractive that two of the Broadway producers of the initial "Ma Rainey," Robert Cole and Frederick M. Zollo, claimed that they alone had the rights to a revival, and ultimately they were included with Sageworks and Ms. Goldberg among the investors.

Still, "Ma Rainey" had compiled an advance sale of only $500,000 by the time previews began in late January. (It has since grown to $875,000, comparable to the figure for the last two Wilson dramas on Broadway, "Seven Guitars" and "King Hedley II," Mr. Mordecai said.) Meanwhile, Mr. Dutton and Ms. Goldberg carped in a recent issue of Time Out magazine about the sort of matters — accommodations for supporting actors, the order of their own names in title billing — that are usually confined to backstage conversations or negotiated through agents rather than the media.

As of Thursday, critics and audiences will decide for themselves whether any of the brouhaha has affected the production onstage. Whatever his gripes to Time Out, Mr. Dutton also recognizes an obligation, both to the memory of the original and to the theatergoers who may have been in diapers or on training wheels when the August Wilson era began.

"I've had to get the original out of my system," Mr. Dutton said. "Because, I make no bones about it, for a long time my dream was to come back to Broadway with as many of the original folks — director, actors, tech — as are left. I had to let it go. I had to say the definitive production happened. It was August's discovery, my discovery, Lloyd's re-emergence. It had all those great circumstances. But that's not to disparage this one. Realizing now that there's a new generation of audience members who've never seen 'Ma Rainey,' I'm very hyped up. There's a sense of history. I want them to understand what the big deal was all about."  

Samuel G. Freedman, an author and associ ate dean of the Graduate School of Journal ism at Columbia University, has written about theater for The New York Times since 1983.

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