Turn of the Century: A Fitting End to August Wilson Cycle

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

At the curtain call Sunday night for the final performance of the final drama in the August Wilson marathon at the Kennedy Center, the project's artistic director, Kenny Leon, led the audience in a roll-call shout-out to the entire decade-by-decade 10-play cycle.

"Number one!" Leon intoned. " 'GEM OF THE OCEAN'!" the audience shouted back.

"Number two!" he continued. " 'JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE'!"

"Number three!" " 'MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM'!"

And so it went, enthusiastically and kind of crazily, all the way through " 'RADIO GOLF'!" -- the play that completed Wilson's visionary excursion through black America in the 20th century. In its way, the impromptu call-and-response was one last burst of exuberance in what proved to be the most artistically successful theatrical venture at the center since the Sondheim Celebration six years ago.

It's an issue of marginal consequence that the ticket-buying pool for "August Wilson's 20th Century," held in the 500-seat Terrace Theater, was smaller than that for the six Stephen Sondheim musicals that were staged in the 1,100-seat Eisenhower Theater. Or that the actors in the 10 Wilson plays -- which were marketed to the public as "staged readings" -- held on to scripts, each with a cover embossed with a sketch of the playwright's profile. (I heard only an occasional grumble from anyone who found the scripts too distracting.)

No, what really mattered was that each of the 10 plays got the passionate treatment it deserved, from an acting corps that performed at a consistent level of distinction. And on the kind of platform that vibrantly acknowledged -- and perhaps even enhanced -- the stature of a playwright of the first rank. As Leon put it Sunday, while surrounded on the Terrace stage by many of the month-long presentation's 41 actors and seven directors: "This is what the national theater should be about."

He's certainly right. The Kennedy Center tends to be a little event-obsessed, tying together all sorts of offerings in the performing arts in neatly labeled topic packages. Some of them, such as "August Wilson's 20th Century," not only live up to expectations, but also exceed them. And as befits an arts institution that seeks to help move the national consciousness, the center has with this $3.5 million enterprise made a statement about how vitally this premier storyteller -- who died in 2005 at age 60 -- should remain in the country's theatrical conversation.

Going in, the script-in-hand format had a makeshift feel, and the concern was that the preparation would be all too hurried and the result all too informal; each of the complex plays, some up to three hours long, was only to be rehearsed for about 10 hours over three days. Fortunately, though, through the casting of experienced Wilson hands such as Anthony Chisholm, Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Stephen McKinley Henderson, and a number of talented younger actors -- including Russell Hornsby, Anthony Mackie, Crystal Fox, Michole Briana White and Jason Dirden -- the turnaround time didn't seem to matter. Maybe in some strange way, the brevity of the process added an urgency to what made it to the stage.

"It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do, but also the most enriching," Leon said yesterday. The logistics might have been treacherous, but the actors, he added, felt a special sense of mission. To audiences, the plays are filled with intriguing characters, but to actors they're parts. And it's safe to say no dramatist did more to supply more invigorating employment for the past generation or two of African American stage actors than Wilson.

Leon rallied his troops -- he had T-shirts made up for them emblazoned with the slogan "Wilsonian Soldiers" -- with the idea that this project would be a partial payment for what the participants owed to Wilson's legacy. "August Wilson was a giver, and for 25 years he gave in the plays he laid out," Leon said. "So now I asked these Wilsonian soldiers: 'What are we going to do? How are we going to carry out this work in the culture? Let's all put our egos at the door.' "

Actors such as the terrific Hornsby, cast in four major roles in the plays -- and who added a fifth when another actor fell ill -- say that the collective commitment of the group had an impact. "August wrote whole people, there was no half-anything," Hornsby said. "August put blood on the page, and we had to put it on the stage. You had to commit, and that's why audiences stand up: They saw truth."

"Radio Golf," directed zestfully here by Santiago-Hudson, is neither the fiercest nor the funniest of Wilson's plays. Even so, it wraps up the cycle of works -- one set in each decade of the century and, with the exception of "Ma Rainey," all set in a black neighborhood of Pittsburgh -- in a rewarding way. It charts the birth of conscience in Harmond Wilks, a man from the community about to become rich in a renewal project that will require illegally demolishing a run-down house.

It just so happens that the house at 1839 Wylie Ave. is the one and the same residence in which "Gem of the Ocean," the first play in the cycle, takes place. You didn't necessarily need to know this to appreciate "Radio Golf." But if you were lucky enough to take the one-of-a-kind journey in the Terrace from one end of the century to the other, the truths of Wilson's plays became that much more indelible.

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