'Wilson's 20th Century': An August Occasion

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 6, 2008

Several years ago, a young Howard University grad named Derrick Sanders nervously approached August Wilson at a drama festival at which the playwright had just given a speech. Sanders wanted to tell him he was a great admirer, and to ask whether Wilson might talk to him some time about Sanders's dream of starting a theater.

"What are you doing right now?" was Wilson's startling reply. "Let's go grab some coffee."

The encounter was an epiphany for Sanders, who not long after would help to found a Chicago theater devoted to the work of Wilson and other dramatists of the African diaspora. And now Sanders is, at 33, a key player in perhaps the most ambitious reckoning ever of the dramatist's extraordinary oeuvre: a staging at the Kennedy Center of Wilson's entire 10-play cycle -- one drama for each decade of the 20th century -- that addresses from a multitude of perspectives the stain of slavery, the ills of racism and poverty and deprivation. It's a vast portrait of the struggle of a people to overcome the tragedy of their past.

Since Wilson's death two years ago, at age 60, the theater world has been grappling with how to offer in toto Wilson's collection of 20th-century plays, nine of which went to Broadway -- two of which won Pulitzer Prizes and one of which won a Tony Award. The Kennedy Center stepped in with a proposal for staged readings of the 10 plays, for March and April, in a format calling for more than actors reciting from music stands but not the fullness of finished productions.

"I think when these plays open in D.C., people will really see the power of August's words," says Kenny Leon, the Atlanta-based director who staged Wilson's last two plays on Broadway and who was picked by Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser to serve as artistic director for the event. It is believed to be the first time the works will be presented on one stage, in chronological order, in a program of this scope.

"It's one thing that August never got to do: analyze it all as a bigger piece of work," Sanders says of the project, which runs from March 4 to April 6, and during which he will direct "King Hedley II" and "Seven Guitars." "My question is, from 'Gem of the Ocean' to 'Radio Golf' " -- chronologically, the bookends of the cycle -- "what have we lost, in terms of our culture and our spiritual connection and our understanding of our ancestry? And how can we recapture it?"

A cast of about 30 is being recruited -- including such experienced Wilson hands as Charles S. Dutton, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Anthony Chisholm, Keith David, Rosalyn Coleman, Ebony Jo-Ann, Raynor Scheine and John Earl Jelks. The marathon begins with "Gem of the Ocean" and ends 33 days later with the final performance of "Radio Golf."

Seven directors, including Sanders and Leon, are dividing up the 10 plays.

The works set in the earliest decades will run in revolving repertory first, with later plays rotated in during succeeding weeks. The final week is reserved for a run that will strike a special nerve with Wilson's fans: Each of the 10 will be performed, in sequence.

"Can you imagine starting on Sunday at the beginning of the century," Leon asks, "and by the following Sunday being at the end of the century, through theater, told through one writer's eyes?"

The guiding principle behind "August Wilson's 20th Century" is that the plays -- encompassing everything from "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson" to the lesser-known "King Hedley II" and "Seven Guitars" -- have a burning desire to be heard as much as seen. This is why Leon and his fellow directors feel justified in arguing that none of the impact of Wilson's work is lost when actors recite his lines with scripts in hand.

A Broadway set designer, David Gallo, will provide suggestions of scenery -- Wilson's plays take place on porches and in diners, in kitchens and offices -- and the costumes by Reggie Ray will reflect the style of each decade. But the real mission of the event is being determined by something more ephemeral: the idea that some new perspective will be gained on the plays when they are rolled out for the public in a steady parade, marching forward in time.

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