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'Wilson's 20th Century': An August Occasion
One Month, 10 Plays and Infinite Insights

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.

"I think you'll discover how universal it is when you see them all," says Gordon Davidson, former head of the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles, who will direct "Jitney," the gently comic play about Pittsburgh cabbies set in the 1970s. "You're telling an American story coming out of the heart of a great artist. But to see it all together, for us to experience it all together and then for audience to be brought into that, I think that is unique."

Early in the fall, Leon and his directing team got together at the Kennedy Center to begin to map out the project. (The other directors are Santiago-Hudson, Todd Kreidler, Lou Bellamy and Israel Hicks.) They're meeting again this weekend to, among other things, finalize casting and further develop the physical dimension of the readings.

Kreidler, who had worked as Wilson's dramaturge, or literary adviser, on his last few plays, says the marathon could be the fulfillment of a notion that became ever more apparent as Wilson worked on the plays over the course of about 23 years, until shortly before his death. "It's an extension," Kreidler says, "of what August was always talking about: writing all 10 plays as if they were cut from the same cloth."

Perhaps because Wilson did not begin to conceive of the plays as a cycle until he had written a few of them, the works are not composed as if they were, say, chapters of a book. Nine of them are set in the same struggling African American enclave, the Hill District of Pittsburgh, which also happens to be the city of the dramatist's birth. Only the scalding '20s entry, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," about racism in the music business, is set in another city, Chicago.

A few characters, such as Aunt Ester, a mystical, 300-year-old pillar of the Pittsburgh neighborhood, are recurring names in the plays. (Phylicia Rashad, who portrayed Aunt Ester in the Broadway "Gem" and was to play her again at the Kennedy Center, now has a conflict, having been cast in the new Broadway revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.")

Still, each of the 10 plays is distinct from the others in plotting and tone. The unifying theme has to do with the traumatizing effect of slavery and a need to reconcile with the past, to divine how even the memory of suffering leaves scorch marks on the soul. In the introduction to a new 10-volume anthology of the plays, "The August Wilson Century Cycle," published by Theater Communications Group, critic John Lahr avers that Wilson "transforms historical tragedy into imaginative triumph. The blues are catastrophe expressed lyrically; so are Wilson's plays."

Wilson's passion will no doubt be apparent, as will his lyricism. Kreidler says that one idea he has been thinking about suggesting is having the prefaces that Wilson wrote for the plays read out, as part of the productions. He cited a line that the playwright included in the establishing preface to the drama Kreidler is staging, the sublime "Joe Turner's Come and Gone": "The sun," Wilson wrote, "falls out of heaven like a stone."

"What if we start the show with that," Kreidler wonders, "to set the poetic context?"

Casting of all 77 characters is not yet complete, although many of the big parts have been filled, some very intriguingly. Dutton, who originated two great Wilson roles on Broadway -- Levee in "Ma Rainey" and Boy Willie in "The Piano Lesson" -- takes on Troy Maxson, the embittered garbageman of what might be Wilson's best-known work, "Fences." Others, like Santiago-Hudson, who won a Tony Award playing Canewell in "Seven Guitars," here portrays Boy Willie.

Still others will reprise roles they have virtually stamped as their property: the inimitably grizzled Chisholm, for instance, will once again play Elder Joseph Barlow from "Radio Golf" and Fielding in "Jitney."

With only four scheduled staged readings of each work in the 500-seat Terrace, tickets are not expected to sit in the box office for long. Several performances have already sold out, although Kennedy Center officials say a theatergoer still can purchase seats for every production. That, of course, supposes many people have the time set aside for something on the order of 30 hours of Wilson.

Whether an audience member sits through one or all 10, however, those with responsibility for directing this extravaganza believe "August Wilson's 20th Century" has already achieved one of its pivotal goals: putting the playwright's output on the curatorial agenda of an institution that confers abundant prestige. In recent years, the Kennedy Center has offered similar kinds of platforms for the works of Stephen Sondheim and Tennessee Williams.

Wilson certainly earned that pedestal. For a director such as Bellamy, who heads the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minn., and who will stage "Ma Rainey," the symbolism of the stage in the nation's capital is what counts.

"It's the closest thing we have to a national theater in the country, and the reason I wanted so much to be a part of this was that it speaks to that import inside the country, and tells us perhaps more about the entire nation than it may even about the plays," Bellamy says. "Being here, under the Kennedy Center's artistic direction -- it's monumental."

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