August Wilson did not invent African-American theater, although throughout the 1980s and ’90s it might have seemed that way.
Black actors and theater companies were active in New York by the early 19th century. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s saw the emergence of both major writers and active “little theaters.” Lorraine Hansberry bolted to fame with her masterpiece, “A Raisin in the Sun,” in 1959. And with the arrival of the civil rights movement and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s the scene took off in a multitude of directions.
But with the arrival of Wilson’s first successful play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which debuted at Yale Rep in 1984 and subsequently opened on Broadway, the American theater found its Shakespeare. Wilson would go on to create the 10-play Century Cycle, a mythic, poetic, streetwise chronicle of African-American life suggested by each decade of the 20th century. All but one of these plays was set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh where Wilson (1945-2005) grew up. (The sole exception was “Ma Rainey,” which was set in Chicago in the 1920s.)
Along the way, Wilson was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes — for “Fences” (1985) and “The Piano Lesson” (1990) — with such other outstanding works as “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “Jitney,” “Seven Guitars” and “Two Trains Running” easily worthy of the same acclaim. But all the prizes aside, the real greatness of the Cycle was that it created a repertoire of almost instant classics for the black actors and directors who were beginning to emerge from universities and conservatories and find their place on the stages of this country’s ever-expanding network of regional theaters. The Cycle also propelled the arrival of countless other playwrights, from Lynn Nottage and Charles Smith to Lydia Diamond and beyond.
‘TWO TRAINS RUNNING’
When: Previews begin March 7; opens March 15 and runs through April 12
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $27 – $80
Info: (312) 443-3800; www.GoodmanTheatre.org
From early on, the Goodman Theatre forged a relationship with Wilson, and eventually became the first theater in the world to produce all 10 of the plays in the Century Cycle. Now, to mark the 10th anniversary of the playwright’s death, the Goodman is mounting director Chuck Smith’s production of “Two Trains Running.” The play, set in a Pittsburgh diner in 1969, unspools in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the anti-war demonstrations, and all the rest of the chaos of the 1960s. But it is, as Wilson explained it, mostly about average people caught up in their own particular problems as they try to deal with the changes facing their neighborhood, the pitfalls of urban renewal, and matters of crime, poverty and business.
The Goodman production is serving as the centerpiece of The August Wilson Celebration, a citywide career retrospective running March 7 – April 18. Celebration curator Chuck Smith, in collaboration with Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, actor/director Ron OJ Parson, and Dr. Harvey Young, an associate professor at Northwestern University, are partnering with more than 20 theaters, schools and organizations for a slew of events including free “script-in-hand” readings of Wilson’s nine other Century Cycle plays, educational seminars, discussions, poetry and more.
I recently asked Smith and three members of the Goodman cast about “the Wilson effect.” Here is some of what they had to say:
CHUCK SMITH (director):
Childhood memories: “I have a special fondness for “Two Trains Running” because it takes me back to my childhood when my grandfather would take me to the barber shop and I’d hear all these old guys talking about what the black man and white man were doing. There were just endless conversations, and I was fascinated by how some would slang up the language, and the intellectuals didn’t.
Playwright as poet: “August was primarily a poet, and that poetry comes through especially in his monologues, with their rhythms that go into both American street dialect and rural dialect.”
His 1960s vantage point: “Two Trains Running” is set in the late ’60s. I got out of the Marines in 1963 and was about to go back in when I discovered theater was the thing for me. There was so much going on around us at that time — the March on Washington, the church bombings in Atlanta, the Black Panther Movement. I had to wrestle with joining or not joining the movement; I’d been trained for violence, not non-violence. But I was ready for a different kind of action.”
Urban renewal: “I know about urban renewal. As a kid we had to move out of our two-flat in old Bronzeville and down to Hyde Park. I lived through that period when the city was buying up people’s houses and Lake Meadows and Prairie Shores were being built.”
The cast: “Every actor in this cast [including Terry Bellamy and Alfred Wilson] was hand-picked by me; there were no auditions. And two of the actors — A.C. Smith and Chester Gregory — are former students of mine.”
ANTHONY IRONS (who plays Wolf, the numbers runner):
Discovering the plays: “I first discovered August Wilson as an undergraduate at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. I read ‘Fences’ and just felt the language of my family captured in a very real way. Coming from the South I heard my aunts and uncles — the themes of their conversations and their lingo. Of course by the time I got to him he was already in the fabric of American theater.”
Counterpoint: “This is only my second August Wilson production; I did the first one last year — ‘King Hedley II,’ with Congo Square Theatre. I began rehearsing ‘Two Trains’ while still performing Lucky in ‘Waiting for Godot,’ at Court Theatre. It was fun to bounce between those two different worlds.”
Generational rifts: “What I like in ‘Two Trains’ are the tussles between the two generations, and how a young guy is trying to break the cycle. My character is a numbers runner, who heads out to restaurants, bars and social clubs to get people’s cash. He’s part of an illegal system but he does well making deals, and lives by the code of the street. He also has a great heart.”
NAMBI E. KELLEY (who plays Risa, the waitress in Memphis Lee’s diner):
Her initiation: “There’s a monologue in ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’ — the first August Wilson play I ever saw [at the Goodman] — that talks about finding your song. When I first heard that it really hit me, and I knew what I wanted to do with my life — be in the theater. When I first saw ‘Two Trains’ I was still such a baby, and never thought I’d get to play Risa.”
The woman she plays: “I connect to my character very deeply. I think she is the most progressive female character in Wilson’s plays, and so multi-layered. I think she represents what we, as women, go through — the experience of being leered at, and what that teaches you regarding your power, or lack of it, as a woman. I’ve been aware for many years of how men perceive me and what men want. And it’s not just about sex; it’s such a journey we’ve all gone through, and Risa claims power over it in the way she has scarred herself for a kind of self-protection.”
A meeting: “I met August Wilson for dinner when I was an intern at the Goodman many years ago. He asked me about my own playwrighting and told me to send him the play I was working on at the time. It was such an affirmation. And I still remember what he said: ‘When someone asks you what your play is about you should have a succinct sentence that you can say in one breath.'”
ERNEST PERRY JR. (who plays Hambone, the mentally addled man in search of justice):
The language: “The most important thing in doing August’s plays is to be bilingual. He writes the way black people speak, especially in the Hill District in Pittsburgh, and that oftentimes is in exact opposition to the way we’ve been taught in the educational system in this country. There is a specific rhythm to it. And much like that Shakespeare guy, you must be exact. You can’t just ad-lib and change things around. Also, being exposed to August’s plays is much like a history lesson. He takes a specific time and place in history and gives you the rhythm of that era.”
A change of landscape: “August’s plays most certainly did change the landscape for African American actors and directors. Prior to August, as a black actor, you had to constantly prove and reprove that you were qualified. You’ve heard the phrase ‘throwing the rabbit in the briar patch’—well that’s how it was with August. We had lived his work, been exposed to what was in it. We were more than qualified to do it. After he started writing his plays, you didn’t have to worry about whether or not you’d work again.
That Hambone character: There are a couple of cats I knew and know who might qualify as Hambone types. Hambone is everywhere; he’s all around. People underestimate him and don’t recognize the talent he has, but he is exactly in tune with what’s going on. And he listens — especially to West [a prosperous undertaker], who says “the greatest thing you can ever do in life is to take your last breath.”
The legacy: “I met August when he first came to Chicago in 1986, with ‘Fences,’ and I was the understudy for almost every male in the show. He reminded me of my father; both were self-educated, both spent a lot of time in the basement with a stack of books. He was the greatest thing that happened in my theatrical career.”