THE MAGIC OF AUGUST WILSON
January 19, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
“August Wilson left such a tremendous body of work for us. He wanted to make sure that our culture did not become history without some life and love and breath in it. He wanted a heartbeat in the stories that we told.”
These are the words of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, an actor and director who has come to be one of the foremost interpreters of the work of August Wilson. Beginning his relationship with the playwright when he created the role of Canewell in the 1996 Broadway production of Seven Guitars (for which he won a Tony Award), Santiago-Hudson has performed in and directed a number of Wilson’s plays over the last twenty years. Tonight Jitney, the last of the 10-play-cycle of Wilson’s yet to be produced on Broadway, opens in a production directed by Santiago-Hudson at the Samuel Friedman Theatre, produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club. And unless I miss my mark, I’m confident that the reviews tomorrow will reflect favorably upon this most earthbound of Wilson’s plays: one which may stand up as one of his very best — even though it was the first one he ever wrote.
At first, the thought of writing a 10-play-cycle (one play per decade of the past century) wasn’t any scheme on the part of this poet-turned-playwright. “I didn’t start out with a grand idea. I wrote a play called Jitney set in ’77 and a play called Fullerton Street that I set in ’41, he told author and teacher Sandra Shannon. “Then I wrote Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which I set in ’27, and it was after I did that I said, ‘I’ve written three plays in three different decades, so why don’t I just continue to do that?’”
Looking for safe havens where he might have opportunities to deepen both Jitney and Fullerton Street, Wilson submitted them individually to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwright’s Conference, an incubator with a history of nurturing good plays to greatness. Dual rejections didn’t deter him, and with the third time being the charm, Wilson’s Ma Rainey was accepted by the Conference and its head, Yale Drama School’s Lloyd Richards — the man who had helped guide Lorraine Hansberry to the game-changer A Raisin in the Sun — saw something special in the thirty-seven-year-old unproduced playwright. In close collaboration, and after many iterations and productions, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom opened on Broadway in 1984 under Richards’s careful guidance. Wilson was immediately declared a new and important voice in the American theatre.
The former New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich, a staunch supporter of Wilson’s work, describes in Hot Seat, his collection of theatre reviews, what it was like to hear Wilson’s words for the first time: “At the Eugene O’Neill Playwright’s Conference in Waterford, Conn., a sort of summer camp for theatre people … the press is allowed to visit but not to review. I bent the rule slightly when in a long essay about the O’Neill ‘process’ I described my experience of seeing a raw Ma Rainey’s — really raw, some four hours in length and performed in a sweltering un-air-conditioned barn — during the summer of 1982. Nothing that the play had ‘virtually no story [and] some speeches that run, I would guess, ten minutes,’ I added that ‘like most of the audience, I was electrified by the sound of this author’s voice.’ … Despite the extreme heat and the late hour, no one in the barn walked out on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 27, 1945. His mother, Daisy Wilson, was of African-American descent. His German immigrant father, Frederick Kittel, was in and out of his children’s lives for years until Daisy divorced him. After re-marrying, the family of eight (Wilson had five siblings) moved only a small step up from the tiny two-bedroom house with no hot water to a nearby community known as Hazelwood. There, a fifteen-year-old Wilson was forced to fight the institutional racism at his high school where he was wrongly accused of plagiarizing a paper about Napoleon. The truth was that his teacher refused to believe an African-American student was capable of such quality in his work. This incident has been cited as the reason why Wilson left school and began studying the works of many different African-American writers, searching for inspiration while self-educating himself at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh.
Having taken his mother’s name, August Wilson is now a name that looms high for future playwrights to look up to. And when he died of liver cancer at the very young age of sixty, it was only fourteen days later that the Jujamcyn Theatre Organization chose to honor Wilson’s achievements by naming a theatre for him. The one they chose, the Virginia, had adorned the marquee for twenty-four years (having been named for the wife of one-time owner, James Binger). It was therefore fitting that the sixth name for the playhouse, first designated the Guild in 1925, would have a name attached to it of someone who gave something irrefutable to the theatre.
I referred earlier to Jitney as one of Wilson’s more earthbound plays, as there is always a hint (or more than a hint) of mysticism to the playwright’s work. Much of it was inspired by his first love, poetry, but he was also interested in digging into what lies beneath what we perceive as the surface of our daily lives. By earthbound I mean nothing pejorative or critical in any way. To the contrary, I think it’s even harder to hit the right notes (and notes they are — Wilson’s words are musical) the more realistic the play. With this new production of Jitney, beautifully enacted by a pitch-perfect company led by the incomparable John Douglas Thompson, this final play of the esteemed ten-play-cycle (and Wilson’s very first one) is a “welcome home” that starts this new year of 2017 with a glory all its own.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing. https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/