Thursday, February 22, 2018
Stage

St. Petersburg's American Stage one of 12 theaters worldwide to complete the August Wilson cycle

ST. PETERSBURG

In the past decade at American Stage, we've witnessed more than 100 years of life.

We've met the residents of Pittsburgh's Hill District. We've seen their struggles with gentrification, watched them try to escape the aftereffects of prison or change an oppressive system by running for office.

We've sat for three hours at a time to hear the kind of dialogue that feels much faster.

We've seen these stories of black America, presented for an often mostly white audience. We've gotten to know a self-educated poet and playwright, who wrote a play for each decade of the 20th century, all but one of them set in his hometown.

And now, in a feat few other theaters have conquered, we'll see the cycle end.

• • •

This weekend, American Stage opens Joe Turner's Come and Gone, its 10th and final offering in playwright August Wilson's epic "Century Cycle." Many theaters have tried to complete all 10 of the plays and faltered. This production will make American Stage one of just 12 theaters in the world to make it.

It's a big achievement, in part due to the reflected glory of Wilson's own. A poet whose work pulsed with universal themes — love and loyalty, betrayal and redemption, a search for meaning while struggling for survival — all through the lens of black Americans rarely heard from, Wilson left a permanent imprint.

RELATED: Here's how critics reviewed all 10 August Wilson cycle plays at American Stage

Before his death in 2005, the playwright had won the highest accolades, including Pulitzers for Fences and The Piano Lesson, and fervent admiration by some of acting's biggest names, including James Earl Jones, Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Leslie Uggams and Phylicia Rashad, all of whom have acted in plays written by Wilson. Washington stars alongside Davis in Fences, currently in theaters and getting Academy Award buzz.

The characters he gleaned from diners and juke joints, boardinghouses and barbershops populated a community that has been compared with William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and Thomas Hardy's Wessex novels, and its dispossessed residents to the working-class heroes of Eugene O'Neill.

Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel in 1945, the son of a white German immigrant and an African-American mother, Daisy Wilson. His parents divorced, and he legally adopted his mother's last name. At 16, he dropped out of his Catholic high school, where he had endured daily racial taunts. As a young man he submitted poetry to magazines and co-founded a theater.

Critics found some of his plays overlong, their momentum periodically stifled by exposition, another letter to read or monologue to deliver. Wilson's strong preference for black directors to handle his work struck some as separatist, as did his disapproval of colorblind casting. Most critics ended up praising his contributions.

"I refer to August Wilson as the Shakespeare of our time," said L. Peter Callender, the director of the latest American Stage production. The artistic director of San Francisco's African-American Shakespeare Company, Callender had crossed paths with American Stage producing artistic director Stephanie Gularte, who directed a nonprofit theater in Sacramento, Calif., before coming to American Stage least year. In her first year, the theater produced Jitney, which zeroes in on unlicensed taxicabs in a gentrifying neighborhood.

"It's a privilege and it's humbling," Gularte said, "to be coming to the conclusion of August Wilson's cycle in the final couple of years, and to be able to celebrate with the community of artists and the community itself."

• • •

Getting Wilson's work to American Stage required a long incubation period.

In the late 1990s, Todd Olson was a theater director studying at Harvard University's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. His professor at that time, institute founder Robert Brustein, had been engaging in a public and sometimes bitter debate with Wilson about black America and its representation in theater.

Brustein said Wilson's work was ideological and promoted a kind of racial exclusion. In response, Wilson pointed to the paucity of black theaters, and said that only theater by and for black Americans could reflect the experience of those communities. Until 1997, they aired their differences on the pages of the New Republic, for which Brustein served as theater critic, and American Theatre magazine.

In January 1997, the Theater Communications Group brought the two men face to face in a debate. At $20 a ticket, "On Cultural Power: The August Wilson/Robert Brustein Discussion" packed New York's Town Hall. Olson, who knew his professor's views and wanted to hear the other side, was in the audience.

"The buildup was like a prize fight, which made some of us uncomfortable," Olson said.

Wilson's forcefully argued positions stayed in his mind. By 2004, he had been artistic director at American Stage for a year. During a break from auditioning actors, he caught a matinee of Wilson's new play, Gem of the Ocean. It moved him to tears.

"In short, Gem of the Ocean knocked me out more than any other play I saw that year," Olson said.

He considered booking the show for American Stage, but balked at the price tag.

"In those days, we watched our pennies and tried to limit our choices to those works which required five actors or fewer," Olson said. "Because Gem required seven actors, I thought it would be too expensive for us in the 2005-2006 season. Another Tampa Bay theater would get it, I was sure."

But none did. Olson's anxiety deepened in 2005, after Wilson died of lung cancer at age 60.

"I was overwhelmed with the feeling that, if theaters did not do these remarkable, worthy new American plays — and from a playwright who could no longer add to his canon — then who would do them?"

Late in 2006, American Stage got $200,000 from Bank of America. The grant removed any doubt about which play would open the following season. Olson hired Bob Devin Jones, an African-American actor and director who founded the [email protected], to direct Gem of the Ocean.

Olson fretted about the play's three-hour length. Jones replied that shortening the play would cheat the audience out of what they came to see, which includes its leisurely pace and richness of language.

"You can't be a rude shepherder of the work," Jones said. "If I invited you over for sweet potato pie — and then left out the sweet potatoes — you might have a problem with that."

Gem was a major hit, captivating the audience.

"Gem of the Ocean is so rich with humanity, and this production is so fine, that it virtually demands American Stage return to the other plays of Wilson's cycle in seasons to come," then Tampa Bay Times performing arts critic John Fleming wrote.

According to the August Wilson House, the Pittsburgh historical organization that preserves the playwright's childhood home, only 12 theaters in the world have produced all 10 of Wilson's American Century Cycle plays. On Tuesday, the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in New York opened Jitney, the only cycle play not to have previously made it to Broadway.

Committing to produce all 10 plays can be risky, and some theaters don't make it.

"It is a financial challenge for any theater to say, 'I have four shows to do every season, and one of them will be an August Wilson,' " Callender said. "That is huge. It's like going off the top diving board, and hopefully you get your dive right."

Within a year of Gem of the Ocean, requests started coming in, asking American Stage to schedule the shows during winter, Florida's tourist season. The theater made that move, coinciding with Black History Month. The cycle plays have become top sellers.

• • •

Joe Turner's Come and Gone, which explores the fears and dreams of the descendants of former slaves who have migrated north, is said to have been Wilson's favorite play. All of the characters who populate this Pittsburgh boardinghouse have lost something, from family members to a basic sense of identity — what one of the tenants calls the "song" each person must find from within.

"I see the play as a religious opus and a celebration of being given peace, of being baptized and finding your own song," Callender said. "There are black people in the past who have discovered their song. The song of peace is Martin Luther King's song, the song offreedom is Sojourner Truth. The song of 'Yes, we can' is Obama, and Nelson Mandela is a song of peace and reconciliation."

In the play, boardinghouse owner Seth Holly is watching his pennies. Born free in the North, he is luckier than most.

"Everybody has a backstory," said Kim Sullivan, who plays Holly. "All of us are immigrants here. What we bring with us to the new land is our love, our religion, our laughter and our pain from being snatched over here involuntarily. We turned it all around to make silk purses out of a sow's ear."

With Joe Turner, Sullivan, who was part of American Stage's Gem of the Ocean cast, is celebrating a milestone of his own, as one of the few actors to have performed in all 10 of the cycle plays. Jones, who directed Sullivan in Gem and three other cycle plays at American Stage (King Hedley II, Seven Guitars and 2 Trains Running), said Sullivan "knows how to get the value out of language, like John Gielgud."

In the weeks before opening night, a sense of quiet euphoria had settled in among the cast and crew. Just as Wilson's plays articulated complex truths about African-American experience, performing the entire cycle underscores commitment to that message. That means something.

"It's huge for any actor of color," Callender said. "Our names will always be connected to August Wilson."

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

     
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