Theaters revive parts of August Wilson’s ‘Decades Cycle,’ reavealing unease over race


OLNEY, MD, May 6, 2014: Dress rehearsal of “The Piano Lesson” at Olney Theatre Center. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post )

Race relations news from the past few weeks: Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s bigotry eclipses his 15 seconds of folk hero fame as a federal grazing fee resister. The NBA playoffs nearly grind to a halt over plantation-style remarks by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. The Supreme Court allows states to ban affirmative action in university admissions.

Meanwhile, Washington theater has stealthily begun reviving nearly half the works in August Wilson’s acclaimed “Decades Cycle” — 10 dramas chronicling black American life across the 20th century. With no planning or prior communication, four theaters just happen to be presenting four Wilson plays over a span of 10 months.

“I think the collective just knew,” says Timothy Douglas, director of two of the four Wilsons.

This is the impromptu wave:

●“Two Trains Running,” set in 1969, with civil rights unrest moving toward the forefront in a rundown Pittsburgh diner. The show, directed by Douglas, closed at the Round House Theatre after extending its run for a week.


The late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson poses during a visit to a coffee shop Friday, May 30, 2003, in his Seattle neighborhood. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

●“The Piano Lesson,” set in 1936, about a brother and sister arguing over an heirloom piano with the family’s rich history carved into it. The Pulitzer-winning drama is now playing at the Olney Theatre Center.

●“Seven Guitars,” set in 1948 and flashing back over the life and troubled times of a slain musician. No Rules Theatre will present the drama in September at Signature Theatre, and again in October at its second home in Winston-Salem. “Seven Guitars” will be directed by Michele Shay, who was in the 1996 Broadway cast.

●“King Hedley II,” set in 1985, about an ex-con struggling to open a video store in a drug and crime-infested neighborhood. Arena Stage will produce “Hedley” on its largest stage, the Fichandler, next February with Douglas in the director’s chair again.

“I think a lot of us artistic directors wanted to wait a decade or so after the plays had been produced in the market,” says Round House artistic director Ryan Rilette. “And that’s where we are.”

Round House hadn’t produced a Wilson play since “Fences” in 2004, when it was the company’s box office champ. Rilette says “Two Trains” likely will be his top earner this season, even with a three-hour running time — a common length for Wilson’s stately, blustery tales, but which had Rilette a little worried about sales.

“People don’t have that kind of patience anymore,” Rillette says.

Wilson’s plays have been seen on every size stage in Washington, from the grand platforms at the Kennedy Center and the Arena to intimate venues of the Studio Theatre and the African Continuum Theater Company. The Olney is placing “Piano Lesson” in its 150- seat lab space; the first thing audience members will see as they enter the theater is a peekaboo glimpse though a window into a small 1930s living room.

At that scale, director Jamil Jude says, “You’ll see small things that normally might get lost, or that you’d have to go big with.”

Going big is always an option with Wilson: Nine Tony Awards have gone to actors in powerhouse Wilson roles, including two for Viola Davis. That performance punch partly explains Wilson’s continuing appeal, along with what Douglas characterizes as the plays’ very direct effect.

“Right between the eyes, they revealed the state of black America, and without diatribes against white people,” Douglas says.

But Douglas, whose association with Wilson goes back to understudying roles in 1980s productions at Yale Repertory Theatre, where many of the plays were nurtured, also sees a post-Obama wrinkle. The history-making fact of a black American president tends to divide people into those who think race is over, and those who feel a different kind of conversation can finally begin.

“We are at a particularly kooky time about race,” Douglas says. “August organizes the thoughts and paradigms and principles in a way we can grab onto. There’s no apologizing, no mincing.” Staging the plays in our current context, he contends, reveals “this whole other layer in terms of how dis-eased America is about race relations.”

Is the Wilson flurry also an easy reach toward diversity, especially by suburban theaters? Rilette and Olney artistic director Jason Loewith don’t think so, billing their Wilson entries more as “American classics” than as strategic demographic wedges. No Rules artistic director Joshua Morgan, on the other hand, enthusiastically says “Seven Guitars” will broaden his young troupe’s creative range and diversify his audience.

There is no gainsaying the enthusiasm for Wilson: Douglas has directed eight of the 10 dramas, including the world premiere of “Radio Golf.” “Piano Lesson” is Jude’s “favorite play ever,” and Loewith waxes lyrical about how deeply it influenced him watching it on Broadway as a college student. Morgan wrote an undergraduate thesis on Wilson’s cycle.

But so much Wilson on the schedule raises a separate question: what about the current generation of black playwrights? Is the august August crowding them out?

Loewith is sensitive to the issue. He’s the former executive director of the National New Play Network (NNPN), which plugs new scripts into multiple theaters, and he originally asked Jude to suggest five new works that perhaps could stand beside “Piano Lesson.” (Jude is currently the NNPN producer-in-residence at Minneapolis’s Mixed Blood Theatre; you can see him online in the company’s music video to Jessie J’s “Price Tag” championing the Mixed Blood’s “radical hospitality” free ticket initiative.)

Jude says he hears that kind of “what about us?” pushback from playwrights, and he rapidly ticks off names of current writers who ought to be contenders for more slots in theatrical seasons — Brandon Jennings Jacobs, Kia Corthron, Katori Hall, Lydia Diamond.

“I like to believe a well-balanced American theater has room for all of it,” Jude says. But he adds that if he were in the playwrights’ shoes, “I would gripe back, too.”

“They do have a case,” Douglas says. But because the latest Wilson surge is exposing what he calls “new chambers” to explore in the country’s past and in its present, he says, the current writers will be called on: “We will need new voices.”

nelson.pressley@washpost.com

“The Piano Lesson,” by August Wilson. Through June 1 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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