Sunday, August 28, 2005

Blues Cycle

Word comes, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that playwright August Wilson has liver cancer and doctors give him no more than a few months to live. He learned the news just as the last play in his epic cycle of plays about the African-American experience in the 20th century is about to have its second production.

According to the Post-Gazette:

"I'm glad I finished the cycle [of plays]," Wilson said, referring to his famed Pittsburgh Cycle. An unequaled achievement in American drama, it chronicles the tragedies and aspirations of African Americans in 10 plays, one set in each decade of the 20th century.

The final and chronologically latest in the cycle, "Radio Golf," set in 1997, takes place, like all but one of the other nine, in Pittsburgh's Hill District. It premiered at New Haven's Yale Repertory Theatre in April and is currently having its second production at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum (through Sept. 18).
The newspaper rattles off the list of prestigious prizes Wilson has received:

Wilson's plays include "Fences," "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "The Piano Lesson" and "Jitney." Together, the 10 of the Pittsburgh Cycle have won him a Tony Award, Olivier Award, two Pulitzer Prizes, five New Play Awards/Citations from the American Theatre Critics Association and seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards. He also was nominated for an Emmy award.

His many other honors include honorary doctorates (from the University of Pittsburgh, among others), Rockefeller and Guggenheim fellowships, a National Humanities Medal and the 2003 Heinz Award in Arts and Humanities. He is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

One additional honor of which Wilson is especially proud: He has the only high school diploma issued by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, testimony to his experience of leaving school at 15 in disgust at being accused of falsifying a paper he wrote on Napoleon Bonaparte and then educating himself in his local Carnegie Library.

Nearly ten years ago, early in my career as a drama critic, I was able to review a production of Wilson's Two Trains Running at Washington's Studio Theatre. Here is my review, more or less as it appeared in The Metro Herald in February 1996:
Two Trains Running: A Marvelous Ride
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

August Wilson is one of America's most distinguished playwrights. If his two Pulitzer Prizes for drama (Fences, 1987; The Piano Lesson, 1990) are not enough to convince you of that fact, then go see Two Trains Running, extended through February 11 at the Studio Theatre in Washington.

Wilson understands the natural cadences of the English language, like David Mamet, but without Mamet's rough edges. He draws deeper and more complex characters than Terrence McNally. And, like Neil Simon, he seems to approach a play like a piece of music, with internal rhythms and harmonies, crescendos and diminuendos. He can be tender or harsh, raucous or philosophical.

August Wilson is most of all a storyteller. In a series of plays, including this one, he chronicles the black experience in 20th century America. (Each play is set in a different decade of our century; Two Trains Running is set in May 1969, barely a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and coinciding with what would have been Malcolm X's 44th birthday.) The story he tells and the approach he takes parallels, remarkably, the short fiction of Sholem Aleichem from turn-of-the-century Russia.

Although Wilson and Aleichem wrote on different continents and in different languages, their themes share strong similarities. Both chronicle self-contained communities (Russian Jews and African-Americans) set apart -- by race or religion -- from the surrounding majorities. Both communities are repressed by law or custom. Both communities cling proudly to their traditions and identities in the face of adversity. And, in the later stories and plays, the writers address the problem of the breakdown of community, the collapse of the self-contained systems. For both East European Jews and African-Americans, identity is contained in a fragile vessel -- the slightest cracks allow "the others" to seep in and "our own" to seep out.

Two Trains Running is about choices. Wilson suggest it is the age-old choice between assimilitation and separation (again, a theme of Aleichem's), but he underestimates the power of his own voice. Two Trains Running is about the choice between love and death; it's about the remembrance of things past and the yearning for what might have been.

Director Thomas W. Jones III has assembled an immensely talented cast, one of the best I've seen on a Washington stage in many years. Each actor evokes a warm sense of identity and identification -- one feels, sitting in the audience, that one knows each and every one of the characters: perhaps a grandfather, or the girl next door, or the swaggering cut-up from junior high. All the performers added true dimension to the characters Wilson has created.

Because it is a genuinely ensemble cast, no single actor stands out. All deserve mention equally: Elliott Hill (Wolf), Michael W. Howell (Memphis), Donald Griffin (Holloway), James Brown-Orleans (Hambone), Lester Purry (Sterling), Kenneth W. Daugherty (West) and -- on the night I saw the play -- understudy Samarra Green as Risa. It is clear from their performances that the actors understand the interrelationships of people who have lived among each other for decades -- and how they relate to newcomers, to strangers, and to loss.

The heavy dose of death imagery -- much of the conversation revolves around funerals, caskets, embalming -- could be off-putting. Wilson handles it agilely, treating it as naturally as a discussion about cooking. As the deaths of individuals are discussed, we learn how a neighborhood -- a community -- is also dying. Set in 1969, this play deals with the "urban renewal" and "slum clearance" of that era -- programs that promised prosperity but instead destroyed stable black communities, scattering the urban middle class and displacing successful businesses. Our cities have not yet recovered, and Wilson reflects this loss in Two Trains Running.

Yet loss is not inevitable. If one stands up for oneself, if one believes in the future, if one has hope -- then loss can be overcome. As Memphis says: "You're born free. It's up to you to maintain it."

I hope that some smart TV or movie producer has plans to film Wilson's complete chronicle of the 20th century. The series deserves a permanent record. In the meantime, run, don't walk, to the Studio Theatre.

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