Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Incantations of August Wilson and "Fences" (City Theatre, February 26 - March 22)

You can find individual plays by August Wilson just about anywhere that dramatic literature is on offer. Half Price Books or Bookpeople, of course; and this combined edition is available at the Austin Public Library (Faulk Central Library). I spent a good deal of time with it over the past few weeks, preparing to review the City Theatre production of Wilson's Fences, which opens tomorrow, February 26, for a four week run (February 26 - March 22).

I didn't know Wilson, in large part because I'd spent a lot of the last three decades outside the United States. The press, the Kennedy Center, Wikipedia, and other sources call him one of the greatest American playwrights.

One account says that as he faced his imminent death from liver cancer at the age of 60, in 2005, Wilson teased his drama colleagues, asking them to make sure that his plays got produced "not just in February. I want them to be produced all year round." February, of course, is Black History Month.

Director Lisa Jordan and the Fences cast just about complied with Wilson's wishes. The scheduling hardly matters, though. Prince Camp, cast as one of two sons of the stolid former pro baseball player Troy Maxson, told me, "I read this play when I was just eighteen. I've always wanted to do it. I'm too young to play Troy and too old to play Cory [the other son]. But that doesn't matter. I would have swept the floor to be involved in this production."

The cast was running a full dress rehearsal this past Tuesday, happy to be at last in possession of the theatre and the set. They had been working since January in one temporary venue after another while North by Northwest Theatre Company had been doing The Shadow Box in the small but well appointed City Theatre. The theatre is tucked in a modest office building behind the Shell Station at Airport Road and 38 1/2 street. I met the cast in the semi-dark of backstage as they readied themselves for the opening scene, and some had the time to talk outside in the parking lot before they went onstage.

McArthur Moore plays Maxson's brother Gabriel, an invalided veteran of World War II, affable but slightly loony as a result of shrapnel wounds. A drama graduate from San Angelo State, Moore grinned when I compared Fences to Miller's Death of A Salesman. "In school I had to write an essay about that. Yes, they are a lot alike -- but there are lots of differences." Both plays center on a deep conflict between a father and a son; in each, the father's infidelity has a devastating effect on the marriage and the family.

In his preface to Three Plays, Wilson says that he was inspired to attempt play writing at the age of twenty when he first heard Bessie Smith sing the blues. Moore commented, "There's a lot of the blues in his plays -- in this one Troy sings about his 'Old Dog Blue.' But what I hear is jazz -- rhythms and changes, like Miles Davis or John Coltrane. And poetry. This is special language. Especially when you listen to the monologues -- some of them are structured like iambic pentameter."

Richard Romeo, who plays Cory, the younger son, agreed. "It's full of surprises, and sudden turns, both in the language and in the plot. And a lot of us can see ourselves in the relationship between Troy and Cory." Troy Maxson, retired baseball player from the Negro League, works on a garbage truck; he fiercely opposes son Corey's opportunity to earn a football scholarship, insisting instead that the boy should learn a trade -- something nobody can take away. "Cory is only 18," said Romeo, who is 21, an alumnus of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and studying drama at Texas State. "He wants to be like his father -- over and over, you see him swinging a bat. But Troy rejects that and finally throws Cory out of the house."

"It's tough love," said Camp (shown here, left, with Robert Pellette, Jr., playing Troy Maxson). "My father was just like that when I was offered a scholarship to study drama. He and my mother had six other kids, and they couldn't understand why I would do that -- even with a full ride." Camp, now 39, works for an Austin high tech company. He has appeared in film and in his own one-man show, presented at the Dougherty Arts Center. He's enrolled in the Dallas Theological Seminary, working on a master's degree in media arts and communications. "Another thing that's exciting is the amount of acting talent that's here in Austin," he said. "We didn't need to bring in anyone from the outside to play these roles. You could have had five times as many actors, and all of them qualified."

As the action continued, they returned to their places backstage. I sat for a while on an old sofa in the dimness, a silent observer. Backstage, one hears the play rather than sees it. Wilson's language is hypnotic, and I listened to Pellette as the dogged, self-confident Maxson teasing his wife Rose (Gina Houston), badgering Corey, and bantering with his brother Gabriel and his friend Jim Bono (Rod Crain).

Chicago actor/producer Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who worked with Wilson, commented for an AP piece on Wilson, ''August's language is the natural rhythm and language of Southern black folk - what I call 'Northern colored people' - people who came from the South to the North but brought all their colored ways and colored style in the beauty, the nuance and the integrity that they always had down South. It's very warm, very vivid, very passionate.'' And Derrick Sanders, who has also directed Wilson's works, was succinct but direct: "Wilson is a lot like Shakespeare."

August Wilson was prolific. He wrote a cycle of ten plays, setting one in each decade of the 20th century, locating them mostly in his own hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. He won a long list of awards. Fences, for example, received a Pulitzer prize, the New York Drama Critics Award and the Tony Award for Best Play.
In 2005 the Virginia Theatre on Broadway was renamed the August Wilson Theatre. Last year the Kennedy Center sponsored staged readings of the full ten-cycle series. This year, a revival of Fences will open on Broadway, taking Wilson's work back to where he had his great successes.

NPR interview with August Wilson, with links to extensive additional audio material

"August Wilson" on Wikipedia

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