16 March 2017

From My August Wilson Archive, Part 1

[On 24 February, I posted a report on the Broadway première of August Wilson’s Jitney, the last of the playwright’s 10-play Century Cycle to make it to the Great White Way.  It was also the ninth of Wilson’s cycle plays that I’ve seen; I’m missing only Radio Golf now, the play that covers the 20th century’s final decade and the last play Wilson composed before his death in October 2005.  (He saw Radio Golf début at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2005, but didn’t survive to see it open on Broadway two years later.) 

[I started Rick On Theater on 16 March 2009, eight years ago today, so there are many play reports I wrote before I launched the blog in what I call my archive, which stretches back to the 1970s, soon after I moved to New York City.  (There are also, as you’ll hear, many plays that I never wrote about as well; I didn’t start writing up all the plays I see until 2003.)  Of the now nine Wilson cycle plays I’ve seen, I’ve posted blog reports on The Piano Lesson (13 December 2012);and Jitney.  (There’s also a report on How I Learned What I Learned, 30 December 2013, Wilson’s solo performance piece he didn’t live to deliver in New York City; I saw Ruben Santiago-Hudson perform it.)  The plays I saw when I wasn’t writing them up were Fences (July 1987), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (Fall 1996), and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Fall 2002); there are no reports on those three.  I also saw the Broadway premières of Two Trains Running in May 1992 and Seven Guitars in May 1996, before I regularly reported on performances, but I saw them again Off-Broadway in December and October 2006, and I did write about those productions.  (Two Trains will be in Part 2 of this short series.) 

[When I wrote the report on Jitney, I suggested that I might post my archival reports on the August Wilson plays I saw before ROT existed.  In the second part of this archival series, I’ll post the reports on Two Trains, the cycle play that covers the 1960s, and Gem of the Ocean, the one about the 1900s.  Below, in Part 1 of “From My August Wilson Archive,” I’m presenting my reports on Seven Guitars and King Hedley II, the only two plays in Wilson’s series that are narratively linked: Seven Guitars, set in 1948, includes a character named King Hedley and the title character of King Hedley II, set 12 years later, is an unborn child in Seven Guitars who’s named for Hedley.  I thought it’d be appropriate to present these two old reports together for that reason.]

Signature Theatre Company
New York City
22 October 2006

Diana, my subscription partner, and I managed to get to see August Wilson’s Seven Guitars Friday evening, 13 October [2006]—but it was touch-and-go for a moment.  We just seem to have bad luck with that show!  Our originally-scheduled performance at the Peter Norton Space on far West 42nd Street last month was canceled at the last minute—we had actually gotten to the theater before we learned—because a member of the cast got sick and Signature Theatre doesn’t use understudies.  Friday night, an actor had an accident on stage (or just off stage—I’m not sure where it happened exactly) and apparently gave himself a small cut just above his right eye.  They had to stop the scene—one early in the show—so he could exit and have it attended to backstage.  Then they returned about 15 minutes later, rewound a few beats, and picked up again.  Since I haven’t seen any other performances, I don’t have the basis for a real judgment, but as far as I could tell, the work was as strong as it probably would have been if they hadn’t had the mishap and the interruption.  

I suppose that’s the big “news” for this show, which is about Pittsburgh Blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton.  Set in the back yard of a dilapidated house in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1948, the Second World War has been over for just three years.  At the start of the play, Floyd’s friends have gathered after his funeral; he died suddenly and inexplicably.  (This production was staged just 10 months after Wilson’s own death at 60 from liver cancer.  The plans for STC’s August Wilson season were laid before the playwright announced he was ill.)  Then the play flashes back to the week leading to Floyd’s death.

Just released from jail, Floyd’s invited to sign a record deal when a song he recorded months earlier becomes an unexpected hit.  After a year of difficulties, Floyd is ready to correct the mistakes of past years and return to Chicago with a new understanding of what's important in his life.  Unfortunately his means of righting wrongs are inherently flawed.

The acting (and Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s directing) was superb.  This was one of the best ensemble casts I’ve seen in a very long time—everyone was solid, alive, and in touch with one another; no one seemed to be overshadowing anyone else, and they were all in the same play.  I’ll single out two performers, but mostly because of their characters—though, of course, it’s important to add that the actors communicated those characters exceptionally.  First, Kevin T. Carroll, who plays Canewell, just seemed to be in a  kind of special spotlight (not literally, of course).  I can’t really say why his performance stood out for me—he was just real, though so were his comrades, and at the same time, special.  I’m going to take a wild-ass guess here, but what it felt like to me was that Carroll wasn’t doing straight Stanislavsky, with all that inside work.  It seemed as if he was working from some portion of the British method, which is more technical.  Not exclusively—he didn’t come off as technical.  You can often tell when one actor in a cast is working externally while the rest are working internally.  No, what I felt was that he somehow blended the two techniques so that he enhanced the Stanislavskian verisimilitude so that his Canewell was more sharply etched.  I don’t even know if that makes any sense.  (This is the role for which Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the director of this revival, got his 1996 supporting-actor Tony.)

The other actor who stood out was Charles Weldon who plays Hedley.  The character is a little contrived—Wilson makes him slightly nuts so that he can get away with being oversized and outrageous—but Weldon pulls it off marvelously.  (I will cavil that his accent was a little confusing.  At first I thought the character was West Indian—I saw this play back when it was on Broadway in ‘96, but I don’t recall this aspect of the role—but I realized from the lines that he’s from Louisiana, and it’s Cajun-spiced speech—bayou English, I guess (as opposed to Louis Armstrong “Southern Brooklyn.”  It wasn’t a significant problem.)  Hedley, of course, is the character that connects to the ’80s play in the series (Seven Guitars is set in 1948), King Hedley II.  (One of the women in Seven Guitars, Ruby, played by Cassandra Freeman, is pregnant, and even though Hedley—whose actual first name is King—isn’t the father, Ruby says she’ll name the child after him; that would make the child ”King Hedley II.”)

By the way, there’s a cop series on now, The Wire on Showtime cable [it ran from 2002 to 2008].  Well, the actor who plays Floyd Barton, the focal character of Seven Guitars, is Lance Reddick who plays Lieutenant—now Captain—Daniels in that show.  (He’s the actor who had the accident at the start of the performance.)

Seven Guitars is really a study in Wilson’s work.  He writes terrific characters—characters that actors can just devour—and he captures a milieu, both a moment in time and a place in the world, that sparkles and shines.  Santiago-Hudson and the actors nailed this just about perfectly, I’d say—with tremendous assistance from Richard Hoover’s set.  (I remember complaining about an Arena Stage production of Awake and Sing! back in February that the cast didn’t seem to be living in the play’s world.  That was decidedly not true of this troupe.)  

Wilson also writes soaring dialogue that is absolutely vernacular prose poetry.  It sounds both natural and extraordinary at the same time.  And he conjures wonderful scenes, little moments of truth and life that are simply magic on stage.  But his plots are rudimentary and meandering.  He doesn’t tell stories—which is certainly his right as a dramatist; he shoots word-photographs, snapshots of a certain world.  It can get a little frustrating watching as he lets his plays go off on little side trips or stay put for a little extra while.  (Wilson’s plays aren’t short.  He’s also not an editor.)  And even when his plot does come to fruition, it’s not necessarily a surprise or a particularly significant event.  The journey, not the destination, is his focus.  But that can be hard on the spectator, I think.  (I remember saying to my companion after seeing Fences with James Earl Jones that if it weren’t for Jones’s performance, the play wouldn’t be very interesting because so little actually happens.  I can’t prove it’s related, but shortly after Jones was replaced by Billie Dee Williams on 2 February 1988, the play closed—on 26 June.)

One costume question, however:  When did seamless stockings arrive on the market?  In one scene, one of the women strikes a deliberately provocative pose and asks, “Are my stockings straight?”  But they were seamless, so how could anyone really tell?  In 1948, wouldn’t women still have been wearing stockings with seams?  Small point.

In the end, though, I’m very glad I managed to see the production.  It takes an exceptional production to overcome Wilson’s dramaturgical problems, and this one qualifies, no question. 

The next Wilson at the Signature, which I’m not seeing until December, is Two Trains Running, which I also saw on Broadway (with Laurence Fishburne).  I’ve heard that the regular run at STC was sold out within a few days of opening the sales to the public (since Diana and I subscribe, we get advanced notice to book our seats), the run was extended, and the extension is sold out.  (The regular runs are all $15 seats this season [it’s now up to $30] due to a subsidy the Signature got.  The extensions, however, go for $55 a pop.)   King Hedley II is the third play in the season, and I haven’t seen that one before.  (Actually, I’ve been expecting some theater to announce a presentation of Wilson’s complete cycle since his death, but so far no one I’ve heard about has done so.  My mom told me, though, that the Kennedy Center has announced a series of staged readings of all the plays next year.  [In 1986, Chicago’s Goodman Theatre became the first company in the world to launch productions of the entire 10-play cycle, concluding in 2007 with Radio Golf.  The first company to produce the cycle after Wilson’s death was the Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, New York, which from 2007 to 2011 presented the 10 plays in order of their setting.])

Signature Theatre Company
New York City
3 April 2007

Well, I saw the last of the August Wilson series at the Signature Theatre’s Peter Norton Space Friday night, 30 March [2007].  (I have now seen eight of the ten plays in Wilson’s decalogue of the African-American experience.  I missed Jitney, and Radio Golf, his last play, opens on Broadway later this month for previews.)  I can say that King Hedley II measures up creditably to the two previous Wilson shows at Signature (and Gem of the Ocean at Arena which I saw in February.) in terms of production, and especially the acting.  (Charles Isherwood’s Times review earlier in March, which was a near rave, pointed out that Hedley’s Broadway run had been miscast with Brian Stokes Mitchell, a romantic lead usually appearing in musicals, in the title role.  I can now see how that would throw off the dynamic of the play.  I didn’t see the 2001 Broadway production—this was the only play in the Signature series that I hadn’t seen before—mostly because it only ran two months and I didn’t get to it before it closed.  By many accounts—some critics actually didn’t like it—this production is better an all ways, and I don’t doubt it.)

Though occasional characters do figure in more than one of Wilson’s plays (Sterling Johnson, the ex-con of Two Trains Running, reappears in Radio Golf; Aunt Ester, the focal character of Gem, is mentioned both in this play, in which her death is reported, and in Two Trains—though she doesn’t appear in either of the last two), King Hedley II is the only play that is actually a kind of sequel to a previous one.  Set in 1985 or so, Hedley picks up the story of Ruby (Linda Gravatt) from Seven Guitars, set in 1948.  She had arrived in Pittsburgh’s Hill District from Alabama, pregnant and fleeing a violent situation in which the baby’s father had been killed by a rival.  Living in the house of Louise, she became acquainted with the off-balance Hedley—a Louisianan whose given name was King—and in an act of empathy, decided to name her unborn baby after him as if Hedley were its father.  Thirty-seven years later, Louise, who raised the boy in Ruby’s absence, has died and Ruby has returned to the Hill District—and her son (Russell Hornsby), who has recently been released after seven years in prison for killing a neighborhood antagonist—to a house next door to Canewell (now known as Stool Pigeon; Lou Meyers), a fellow musician of Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, who also lived in Louise’s house in 1948.  (Canewell/Stool Pigeon is now the slightly unbalanced character, the seer and griot who appears in almost all Wilson’s plays, having become something of a religious fanatic.  “God’s a bad motherfucker!” he warns us every now and then.)  King Hedley II, the title character and focal figure of the play, has rejected Ruby for abandoning him, though he knows “Mama Louise” wasn’t his actual mother.  He does believe, however, that Hedley was his father, and Ruby doesn’t want him to know different.  (This truth will ultimately light the fuse that implodes King’s world.)

King is immediately revealed to be a bitter, angry, self-centered, and violent man and I wondered how Wilson was going to make him the play’s protagonist, even hero, without simply brushing aside the fact that he’s pretty much a bad man.  Aside from having killed another man, essentially for consistently calling him “Champ” when he insists his name is King—in a confrontation born of this conflict, the other man had slashed King’s face and King hunted him down later and shot him numerous times in broad daylight in a barber shop—King makes his money to support his wife and unborn child by selling stolen goods (refrigerators at the moment) and committing armed robbery.  He always carries a Glock automatic pistol (the cousin of the man he killed is looking for him) and at the slightest provocation, intentional or not, bursts out in threats of violence and uncontrolled anger.  (King tells of an incident at school when a teacher grabbed him and he kicked her, after which he was permanently branded “unruly.”  He obviously can’t see it, but that’s an understatement.)  Now, you can psychologize about the roots and causes of King’s temper and tendency to violence—his abandonment, the lack of opportunity, the unfair treatment he’d been subjected to all his life, the heritage of his real father—but in the end, he’s a violent thug (with, given Wilson’s hand in his creation, a poetic tongue).  Yet he’s the center of the play, and it was hard to imagine how Wilson was going to construct a play around him.  Be assured, he does—and it’s not a cheat.

In all of Wilson’s other plays I’ve seen, there’s some kind of redemption at the end.  In some, like Two Trains, everyone pretty much gets what they’ve been chasing after; in others, like Gem, a stormy sea is crossed, a corner turned.  Even in Seven Guitars, in which the action is inexorably leading to the death of Floyd Barton (the play’s a flashback: the opening scene takes place right after his funeral), that event acts as a kind of catalyst for the transformation of other characters.  But Hedley is a tragedy—I think you can call it that, in Wilsonian terms in any case.  No matter what he does, no matter what anyone else does, King is heading for disaster.  He doesn’t get anything right—every choice he makes, no matter what advice he gets, is wrong and you can see him careening toward a bad end, like a runaway car rolling downhill, gaining speed on its way down.  (It is ironic that King wants money for him and his buddy so they can open a video store—a business we know will become doomed in a decade or two.  I suspect Wilson knew that when he wrote the play in 1999.)  The configuration of his end is a surprise, but you know it’s going to be bad.  (I’m loath to reveal the end beyond this in case anyone of you hasn’t seen the play and still might.  It’s so clear King’s fate is going to be bad, telling you that isn’t a spoiler, but any more might be.)

What Wilson seems to be doing is including in his panorama of life in black America a picture of the less redemptive side of that world—the violent, brutish, nasty aspect that results in some cases from the never-ending sense of never being allowed to get up off your knees.  The Reagonomic 80s, the decade of greed that drove the permanent wedge between the working people and the Midas-like CEO’s, is the perfect matrix.  “I used to be worth twelve hundred dollars during slavery,” King laments. “Now I’m worth $3.35 an hour.  I’m going backwards.  Everybody else moving forward.”  

Even King’s legit job, working deconstruction, is a trap.  His (African-American) boss has put in the lowest bid for a demolition job, but loses the contract because the contractor says the bid’s too low!  (The demolition man is in court to force the contractor to honor the rules, and he actually wins, but it comes too late for King.)  Even the small things seem part of the conspiracy: King goes to Sears to get his wife’s photo taken, but when he returns to collect the portrait, the clerk tells him there’s no record of the job, and the receipt King shows him doesn’t mean anything.  It’s not an excuse: Wilson never apologizes or excuses King, but he does show us the increments by which that man becomes part of society.  And just to clinch the fact that Wilson doesn’t put the blame for everything on white society or the establishment, King’s death doesn’t come at the hands of any of those forces—it comes from one of his own.  And it comes out of his own past, his heritage, you might say.

The acting and directing (by Derrick Sanders, founder of Chicago’s Congo Square Theatre where his production of Seven Guitars won a Joseph Jefferson Award) are, once again, excellent.  Wilson has lots of dramaturgical problems, as I’ve observed before.  (Hedley, though it has more plot than most other Wilson plays, still clocks in at just under 3 hours.)  And while they’re not insignificant deficiencies, he still writes plays that are more than worthy of attention because of what he says and the wonderful language in which he says it.  His characters are so vivid, and his individual scenes so powerful that he attracts top actors, making the productions special pleasures for audiences.  (In a break with the trend I spotted up to now, this cast has no actors who list either The Wire or Homicide as credits. [I mention this in my reports on Two Trains Running and Gem of the Ocean, both in part 2 of this Wilson archive series, 19 March.]  All three of the other Wilsons I saw this season had at least one actor who worked those shows.  One actor, however, did appear in an earlier Wilson at the Signature: Stephen McKinley Henderson plays Elmore, Ruby’s former lover for whom she left Pittsburgh and King, but he played Red Carter, one of Floyd Barton’s musicians, in Seven Guitars.  Ironically, Mister (Curtis McClarin), King’s running buddy in this play, is Carter’s son.  Henderson also appeared as Stool Pigeon on Broadway.) 

While everyone gives a strong performance, the standout has to be Russell Hornsby as King.  While he assuredly doesn’t play for sympathy, his most remarkable achievement in the role is that he manages to make King seem like a reasonable man until he erupts.  (Early in the play, and several times afterwards, he asks other characters if they see a halo around his head.  This is the residue of a dream he had—but, of course, no one sees anything.  That he takes the vision seriously says something about who King might have been if things—everything—had been different.)  This is no Bill Sykes villain, no psychotic bully, but a man with a hair trigger.  It doesn’t take much to set him off, but until something does, he’s just a rough guy in a rough part of town.  (It is easy to see why an actor like Brian Stokes Mitchell would be wrong for this role.  It’d have been a little like seeing Cary Grant switch parts with, say, Charles Bronson.  In Kabuki terms, King is an aragoto—rough style—part, but Mitchell is a wagoto—soft style—actor.  I also can’t see Leslie Uggams as King’s mother, Ruby, played with an earthy force here by Lynda Gravatt.  If a star were needed, Della Reese would have been a better choice.)  Once again, however, the actors each carved out a distinct, credible, unique, and wholly believable person—I don’t want to say “character.” 

Speaking of acting: for some reason I was really focusing on the dialogue this time.  I don’t know why—it wasn’t as if the cast weren’t doing anything else—but I was listening to the actors speak Wilson’s lines.  I believe I’ve compared Wilson’s language to that of Chekhov, Ibsen, and Tennessee Williams before.  They all share something in common: They write dialogue that at first sounds like ordinary speech, but isn’t.  They all write a heightened, a lyric Realism.  Spectators think they are hearing common speech, but no one really talks that eloquently, that expressively, that aptly, that poetically.  (This was a quality that was missing in Gem of the Ocean, I noted. [See part 2 of thus series, 19 March.])  Of course, the actors have to sense this because they have to voice these extraordinary words without either crossing over into “declaiming verse” or falling into Mamet-speak, maintaining the illusion that they are talking ordinary street talk.  Obviously, Wilson’s language is one of his main attractions for actors, and Signature’s casts have been excellent at doing this.  (There are some magnificent monologues in Hedley—make a note, all you acting teachers with African-American students!  Look especially at Tonya’s blistering explanation of why she doesn’t want to bear King’s son.) 

But listening specifically to the lines confirms something that makes the work of writers like Wilson really exceptional.  When I first taught writing, the text we were using made a point that has always stayed with me for some reason: “While we think of eloquence as being expressed in literary language, it is really the spirit that counts, not the words.”  The example the book had given for eloquence was a passage by Jesse Jackson in which he used the most commonplace diction to express the loftiest sentiments.  That’s what Wilson, Williams, Chekhov, and Ibsen do (taking into account for the last two that they were writing in the 19th century and we read them in translations): The words they use are perfectly ordinary, their syntax is simple—which is why we think we’re listening to common speech—but they assemble those elements to produce the most amazing images and sounds!  Now, I don’t think this is a revelation, of course.  Theater people—and I suspect literary people, too—recognize it.  Actors and directors certainly do.  But I do think that it’s an underestimatedly awesome achievement.  It comes close to pure magic.  Maybe “close” is an unnecessary equivocation.

I need to make a brief note about the set.  David Gallo, who also designed the Broadway sets (and Radio Golf as well, it seems), conceived a hyperrealistic backyard of two decrepit houses—one missing its top floor.  The two yards, Canewell’s and Louise’s, are contiguous and nothing but stony dirt, bound on two sides by rusted chain-link fences.  (King insists on planting flowers in a plot of it, but it’s not soil—it’s dirt.  Nonetheless, he coaxes life from the seeds!)  It is Wilson’s blasted heath, the barren terrain of Beckett’s Godot (without even the bare tree).  It is perfectly evocative of the dilapidated world and lives of King and his companions.  (Canewell/Stool Pigeon fills his house with discarded newspapers, his historical records—You got to know this!—like a Collyer brother; but his yard remains barren even as he buries Aunt Ester’s cat there, near King’s flower patch.  The flowers poke through the dusty earth—and the cat gives signs of resurrection!)  

A question I had, however—not especially important, I suppose—is whether this was supposed to be the same backyard as depicted in Seven Guitars.  I figure it is, but Gallo didn’t attempt to duplicate Richard Hoover’s set as it might have become 37 years later.  There’s no real reason he needed to, if I’m even right—though costume designer Constanza Romero, Wilson’s widow, says that it’s “practically the same back yard, only forty years later”; notes in a theater newsletter report that an urban renewal in the 1950’s known as the “Pittsburgh Renaissance” displaced many Hill residents, and maybe the old house has been demolished—but it might have been interesting, since most of the audience for Hedley would be Signature season subscribers and would have seen the earlier play, to make the connection.

I’m often a sucker for gimmicks, as you’ve no doubt discovered—especially clever ones.  Note the use by the Theater for a New Audience of the computer monitors to display the usual cell phone warning in Italian, English, and Hebrew/Yiddish before its production of Merchant of Venice [see my report, “TFANA’s Merchant of Venice (2007),” 28 February 2011].  Director Sanders has done his own version of this.  Using a radio broadcasting a local Pittsburgh station playing 80s rock music during preset, scene changes, and intermission, the DJ breaks in before opening curtain and, as if announcing a song or selling a product, makes the cell phone announcement.

Just a footnote, which some of you may already know:  The Kennedy Center in Washington is planning to do all ten of Wilson’s plays of this series in staged readings over a month in March ’08.  Apparently Signature intended to produce all ten of the plays, plus a new one, Wilson’s first after the completion of his decalogue, but when the playwright died suddenly in 2005, those plans were changed.  (In fact, Signature almost had to cancel the August Wilson Season altogether.)  So, unless another theater jumps in before the Kennedy Center gets underway, this will be the first Wilson marathon since he completed the cycle.

[I hope you found these old reports interesting—and maybe even illuminating.  Please come back on 19 March for the conclusion of this two-part series, “From My August Wilson Archive,” for the reports on Two Trains Running and Gem of the Ocean.  (For those interested, at the end of my 24 February report on Jitney, I appended a list of the 10 plays in Wilson’s Century Cycle with pertinent dates--setting, première, and Broadway début.  There’s also a brief discussion in the report on the decalogue as a theatrical and literary accomplishment.)] 

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