Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Madwoman of North Coast Rep

Greedy financiers and rapacious corporate exploiters ready to do anything to get more oil to wage more war might well inspire the shock and awe of recognition, especially through the words of Jean Giradoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot, currently at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka. Written in the midst of World War II, the text is witty and incisive on currently painful topics, expressed in a program note by director Renee Grinell: “Forty years ago, when I first read The Madwoman of Chaillot, another war was raging, and so was I. I lost friends in the Vietnam War, and now, forty years later, I am losing the sons and daughters of friends.”

But while such parallels can cause shivers, this play’s insights are wrapped in a comic fable with reputedly batty old ladies as the saviors of civilization, symbolized by a Paris café where the poor and the jugglers are as welcome as the aristocrats and corporate con men.

As the main Madwoman—Aurelia, Countess of Chaillot and owner of the café—Michele Shoshani exudes Gallic charm and the warmth of the character, holding the play together with her stage presence and skill. Bob Service is effective as the philosophical ragpicker who in the second act mock trial demonstrates that the unitary executive has been tried before, under different names. Kicking her first act nun’s habit and broker’s suit, Gloria Montgomery holds center stage and our attention as the judge in that same scene. Pam Service has good comic timing as the Sewer Man. There’s a sweet but slight young lovers subplot that Delcie Moon and Sam Cord handle nicely.

Darcy Daughtry works small miracles with the costumes, and except for a dubious brick wall, Calder Johnson’s set serves the play well. I wasn’t so taken with some of the exaggeration and awkwardness that undercut the satire in an admittedly wordy play, and there were stretches that on opening night just weren’t funny. The cast’s increasing familiarity with the words and with each other could change that.

Perhaps the most famous line from this play is Aurelia’s observation that ''Nothing is ever so wrong in this world that a sensible woman can't set it right in the course of an afternoon.'' It’s disingenuous in a practical sense, but apart from the danger of confirming the complacency of the well-meaning, it does support the proposition that once the relatively simple truths about war for profit are faced, it’s just as natural to live decently as it supposedly is to live rapaciously. There is that hope.


Bill Rauch's Romeo & Juliet at OSF
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and Farewell!

Libby Appel's The Tempest at OSF
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Hail and Farewell at OSF

The revels of Libby Appel’s 12th and final season as artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival are ending, and incoming artistic director Bill Rauch has been in residence to begin the transition. So the opportunity to see Appel’s last Shakespeare play (The Tempest) and Rauch’s first, at least as A.D. designate, (Romeo and Juliet) seems one of those gifts to journalistic cliché—the changing of the guard.

The younger Rauch arrives with a reputation for originality, so it’s not odd that his direction of Romeo and Juliet would be noted for its innovations, and some reviews of that temper led me to expect some radical dislocation that violates the text, as has become all too common elsewhere. But that’s not what I saw.

He does dress the elder Capulets and Montagues in Elizabethan costumes, while the younger wear prep school uniforms and carry Ipods. But that turned out to be a minor bit of flavoring, lending emphasis to a “generation gap” interpretation that basically updates the approach Franco Zeffirelli took in his 1968 film, and is even less radical than Baz Lurhmann’s 1996 film. Other major character interpretations seem familiar from W.H. Auden’s famous 1946 lectures.

Which is not to say Rauch didn’t do some daring and interesting things, such as the scenes in which Romeo and Juliet separately and passionately bemoan Romeo’s banishment. He plays them simultaneously, creating a powerful counterpoint. But it seemed to me that the greatest virtues of the production were more typical of OSF than different, especially that the whole play is performed. The early scenes that set up the politics of the feud, and Romeo’s infatuation with the unseen Rosaline that leads him to attend the party where he first meets Juliet, are all crucial to understanding the logic and the passions of this play, yet many productions reduce or drop them.

The performances are of the usual high quality, especially Dan Donohue as Mercutio, and Rauch seems to have quickly learned how to use the advantages and work around the disadvantages of the outdoor Elizabethan stage. It’s a venue that suggests to me the combination of a grand old London theatre and a small baseball stadium. Seeing Shakespeare surrounded by such a large audience (1,190 at full capacity) under the night sky provides unique moments, but the acoustic environment is less favorable to the human voice than the indoor Bowmer Theatre. Yet the huge playing area, which extends beyond, below and especially above the stage (to another two or three soaring levels) provide great opportunities—and perhaps demands—for spectacle.

The veteran Libby Appel really knows how to use that space in The Tempest, with acrobatic spirits dancing and dangling in space. (Deborah Dryden's costumes are also spectacular.) Appel sees Prospero as overcoming his hate and desire for vengeance, and liberating himself through forgiveness, guided by the luminous love of his daughter Miranda (Nell Geisslinger) and the empathetic magic of Ariel, played with such an unaffected contemporary style and yet with a timeless innocence by Nancy Rodriguez that she becomes the animating spirit of the production. Her desire for freedom evokes such sympathy that the theme of various enslavements emerges (emphasized for some of us that night because we saw several in this play’s cast in Gem of the Ocean just a few hours before).

The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last work as a playwright before he retired from the theatre, and now it is Libby Appel’s. As a parting gift she gave us a season to remember. Romeo and Juliet ends on October 5, The Tempest on October 6, but the plays indoors—including Gem of the Ocean, On the Razzle, Distracted and As You Like It continue to the end of that month. Plays that I didn't get a chance to see are Tracy's Tiger (Oct. 28), Tartuffe (Oct. 27) and The Taming of the Shrew (Oct. 7.) And never let it be forgot, this season's The Cherry Orchard, directed by Libby Appel.

This North Coast Weekend

Also reviewing the North Coast Repertory Company production of The Madwoman of Chaillot: Silas Knight at the T-S and Willi Welton in the E-R.

Jeff DeMark performs his baseball show, Hard as a Diamond, Soft as the Dirt, at Ferndale Rep this Saturday, Sept. 29, at 8 p.m. What? I'm actually going to be in town when he's doing a show? I'll be there!

If you're making plans for next weekend, the HSU production, HOMO EXPO: A Queer Extravaganza begins a two-weekend run on Thursday, Oct. 4 at 7:30 p.m. in Gist Theatre. More info here.

Also next weekend, Dell’Arte hosts the Brazilian ensemble Lume Teatro for a production called Sopro, in the Carlo Theatre, Oct. 4-7 at 8 p.m. Sanctuary Stage presents their 24-hour 10 Minute Play Fest at the Eureka Theatre on Oct. 5 at 7:30 p.m.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Gem of the Season

Greta Oglesby as Aunt Esther and G. Valmont
Thomas as Solly Two Kings in the OSF production
of Gem of the Ocean by August Wilson.
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Gem of the Season at OSF

There’s a little more than a month left in the current Oregon Shakespeare Festival season, and a couple of the plays I liked and wrote about are still running (As You Like It, Stoppard’s On the Razzle), as well as a few I will write about later in the column (Lisa Loomer’s Distracted) and next week (Romeo & Juliet, and The Tempest, which end October 6.) But I’ve just seen the production I would favor over all others. If I were closer than 4 hours drive away, I’d see it several more times before it closes on October 27. It’s August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean.

Before his untimely death in 2005, August Wilson completed his ten-play “Pittsburgh Cycle” of one play about the African American experience set in each decade of the 20th century, an unprecedented achievement in American theatre. Gem of the Ocean is chronologically the first, set in 1904, but it was the next to last he wrote. New York Times critic Ben Brantley calls it the “touchstone” of his work, and it is that, on many levels.

Stylistically, it’s most like Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, set in 1911, and Wilson’s favorite of his previous plays (his least favorite is his most lauded, Fences, which OSF will do next season.) But in other ways, Gem of the Ocean is singular: it may well be the most assured and resonant of his plays, with August Wilson’s voice at its clearest and most oracular.

The character at the play’s center is Aunt Ester, a presence prepared for in other plays in the cycle, when she is invoked as a spiritual healer of mythic dimensions, said to be as old as African presence in America. She appears in “Gem” as a flesh and blood woman, although she claims to be 285 years old.
Though Phylicia Rashad (of Cosby fame) played the role to great acclaim on Broadway, the first to play Aunt Ester (at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago) was Greta Oglesby, who plays her in this production in Ashland. So not only did we see a sterling, moving performance, but it was by the actor August Wilson reportedly had in mind when he wrote the part.

As you can just about tell by their names, the characters in this play are both realistic and mythic: Black Mary, Aunt Ester’s protégée (played by Shona Tucker); Citizen Barlow, the young stranger who needs Ester’s guidance (Kevin Kenerly); Caesar, the villainous black constable (Derrick Lee Weeden); Rutherford Selig, a white traveling peddler (Bill Geisslinger), Eli, Ester’s gatekeeper (Josiah Phillips) and in particular, Solly Two Kings, the larger-than-life former slave who had escaped to Canada but returned to spirit other slaves to “Freedomland” on the Underground Railroad. G. Valmont Thomas gives a tour de force performance as Two Kings (named after both King Solomon and King David) who continues a more complicated fight for freedom and compassion in industrial Pittsburgh.

While the steel mill down the street employs but virtually enslaves black immigrants from the South, leading to a riot, a fire and inevitable death, Aunt Ester’s house becomes the fulcrum of several fates, worked out on economic, political, spiritual and personal levels. (This by the way is intentional--the author made sure that all these aspects are covered.) There’s action and interaction, but also Wilson’s characteristic storytelling, sounding as natural as overheard talk, yet with no word wasted and every word weighted—this time even more heightened and sharpened by the themes being set for the entire cycle.

When Aunt Ester sends Citizen on a tranced voyage to the undersea City of Bones clutching a paper boat, and that paper unfolded by Caesar contains writing that shatters his argument for law over justice—you know you are in the hands of a great poet of the theatre at the height of his achievement.

The play works with precision on several levels at once, and challenges the production to do so as well. The actors, director Timothy Bond and the other responsible parties at OSF meet the challenge, with inventive lighting, choreographed movement and especially some wonderful singing, that together bring the metaphorical to life, and the sense of conscious consequence to the flow of days. Life is a battlefield, Solly says, “And the battlefield’s bloody! The field of battle is always bloody. It can’t be no other way.” And yet, Aunt Ester says, “Don’t you know life is a mystery? I see you still trying to figure it out. It ain’t all for you to know. It’s all an adventure. That’s all life is. But you got to trust that adventure.”

There seemed to be more black people on stage than in the audience (but then, that was also true of OSF’s The Tempest)—still, the play connected and even though we were less demonstrative than a black audience might be, there were irrepressible bursts of applause and sounds of approval during the show, as well as the obligatory—but in this case, fully deserved-- standing ovation.

That’s fitting, because August Wilson’s plays connect all over the world. At his funeral service in Pittsburgh, director Marion McClinton (who directed Greta Oglesby in this play in Chicago) said, “August Wilson changed the lives of young men and women, of old men and women, of men and women in between, black, white, red, yellow. If they came from Mars, he changed them."

Distracted is a contemporary play by Lisa Loomer about a family dealing with a child who may or may not have Attention Deficit Disorder. Loomer creates the properly capacious context, and uses the incisiveness of visual as well as verbal humor without neglecting the pathos and complexity inherent in the subject. The OSF production fully supports and expresses the play. With its ability to surprise that energizes its honesty and involves the audience moment by moment, I felt this was a more effective treatment of a family issue than was Rabbit Hole earlier this season, but that play won the Pulitzer Prize so what do I know. The OSF’s New Theatre was a perfect venue for this play, and this kind of play is perfect for that smaller, more focusing, in-the-round theatre, as evidenced by the fact that absolutely everyone was talking about their experiences with ADD as they left the show. Distracted runs until Oct. 28.
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More on August Wilson

I admit that when the OSF production of Gem of the Ocean started I wasn’t so sure I was going to like it. The somewhat generic set was unconvincing, and I was afraid the production would be as well. After all, I’d seen three of August Wilson's plays in his “Pittsburgh Cycle” in Pittsburgh, including the world professional theatre premiere of Jitney, where parts of the set weren’t just authentic reproductions of the Hill District setting—they were from the real location, including the actual neon sign. Perhaps the uniform color of the set at OSF (that Early American dark green you see in all the Early American malls) was necessary for the striking lighting effects later. In any case, within a few minutes it didn’t matter. The actors took over, and so did the magic of the play itself.

The music of August Wilson's plays was never stronger than in "Gem." Not just the blues music that had originally inspired him to acknowledge the reality of black life around him and find his own voice, but the music of his words.

August started out writing poetry, but when he began writing for the stage, one of his biggest problems was dialogue (if you can believe it.) So he asked a friend in Pittsburgh (Rob Penny), "How do you make them talk?" "You don't make them talk," Penny said. "You listen to them."

But it was only when he was away from Pittsburgh--living in St. Paul, Minnesota--that he began to hear them speaking, the characters who emerged from his Pittsburgh memories. And he really did listen--his plays began and proceeded for a long while just from what the characters told him. One character even emerged to demand that she have her own scene, which completely changed the play.

But as much as he picked up real black speech, it wasn't just that. It was August and his way with words and their music. In his remembrance after August's death in 2005, New York Times critic Ben Brantley quoted actor Charles S. Dutton, who starred in several of the Wilson plays, as observing that the dialogue is not strictly speaking the way black people speak. "It is a lingo that has an inherent rhythm of its own. Most of us have been black all our lives. But we kid each other about August's writing. We'll say, 'I've never heard anything in my life like that, have you?' "

The early action in "Gem" is triggered by an offstage act by a character we never see, who is accused of stealing a bucket of nails, and refuses to be arrested because he's innocent. Instead he dives into the river and refuses to come out, until he drowns.

August's plays often have such a character, who draws a line and stubbornly sticks to it, even when the principle seems trivial. Hambone in Two Trains Running, for example, who continues to demand the ham he believes he was promised for some work he did, nearly ten years before.

There are some roots to this in August's early life: once, when he was the home run hitter on a prep league baseball team, the coach tried to replace him at bat with his talentless son. August refused, walked off the field and was thrown off the team. When he was fifteen, the decision was even more consequential. A teacher (who was black) accused him of plagarizing a paper he wrote, because it was too good. August walked out of school and never went back. He continued his education on his own, at the main Carnegie Library in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, which was then very close to Forbes Field, where the Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers played. Those glorious if faded rooms I know well have educated some other Pittsburgh literary figures, including critics Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley.

This stubbornness over apparently small matters can have tragic consequences (as when Levee turns his misdirected rage to murdering a fellow band member for stepping on his shoes in "Ma Rainey") but it can also be at the moral center of these plays, and the black experience. In August's view, black people have been told they would have to assimilate into white culture, and give up their own culture, in order to succeed. But some have stubbornly refused--they insist on keeping their culture, whatever the cost--and he admits that the cost might be economic. But he stands with those who refuse to give up who they are, even though it looks self-destructive. That turns out to be a strong theme in his last play, Radio Golf.

At the center of Gem of the Ocean is a mystical reenactment of the voyage over the oceans made by countless African slaves. Those that died and were thrown overboard, as well as symbolically those who died needlessly in bondage, form the "City of Bones" at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, where one character in this play, and another in Joe Turner's Come and Gone, go to have their souls washed--that is, to be redeemed. But apart from Aunt Esther, the redeemer figure in this play is Solly Two Kings. He talks of blood, and sacrifices his, and his life, to save as many of his people as he can. Perhaps he's misguided in some of his acts, but he's clearly a redeemer and also a leader, the man with the staff, the Moses, too.

I'm sure white audiences will remember what he says about taking escaped slaves to "Freedomland" in Canada: "They got civilized people up there. I seen them. White as cotton. Got smiles on their faces. Shake your hand and say, 'Welcome.' I seen them. Don't never let nobody tell you there ain't no good white people. They got some good white people down here but they got to fight the law. In Canada they ain't got to fight the law.'"

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

This photo is the one that reminds me
most of August at the O'Neill in 1991.
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Running with the Wilson Gang

August Wilson's subject was the African American experience in the 20th century. Especially with his speech, "The Ground on Which I Stand," he was a foremost advocate for an independent black theatre. In practice however, his plays were produced mostly by non-black theatres. He was consciously working within an art form as it developed in Europe. He acknowledged its basis in Aristotle, both to mixed and black audiences.

As a person, he was perfectly at ease with white people, especially at the O'Neill, a temporary community concentrated on creating theatre. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we had a fair amount in common. We both grew up in western Pennsylvania at around the same time, so we had the history, the cultural mileu and the sports of Pittsburgh as a common background. We both had gone to Catholic schools. There were things about him I could immediately identify as characteristic of Pittsburgh and western PA, and Catholic school.

It's possible we even shared some European genes: his father was German, mine was of Polish extraction, but there are Kowinskis in Germany and parts of Poland were either in Germany or largely German for part of their history. So who knows? But August's mother was black, and he grew up as a black person in black neighborhoods. And for all the commonalities, there are meaningful differences. Which play a part in our little adventure.

The O'Neill is centered at an old farm (where Eugene O'Neill played as a boy--and was once chased off by the owner with a shotgun) , close to the beach but driving distance from the nearest town of Waterford, Connecticut. One afternoon, somebody was taking one of the O'Neill's station wagons into town, and several people wanted to hitch a ride to take care of some town business. There were four of us in the car. I recall three: playwright Patricia Cobey, August Wilson and me. Several of us--maybe all four--were in need of cash from a bank cash machine. But in those days, all the machines weren't networked, and we wound up driving around to several banks to find machines that would work for all of us.

It was down to August and me who needed a cash machine, and it was getting close to 4 o'clock, when the banks closed. We finally found one small branch bank that had the right machine, but it was inside the bank. So just a minute before closing the four of us ran in together, and looked frantically around. Everybody in the bank--all the tellers and so on--were staring at us. It suddenly occured to me that we might look like a gang of bank robbers. I saw a nervous August Wilson explaining to a teller who we were and why we were there. I learned later that he'd had exactly the same thought at the same time.

It struck me as very funny, especially when the teller smiled and said, "We know who you are, Mr. Wilson." He looked confused for a moment-- it's required that everyone at the O'Neill wear their name tag every day, but it doesn't take long to get so used to it that you forget it's there. And August hadn't taken his off before we left. So there was little mystery why she knew who he was.

Driving back we compared notes and learned we'd had that same thought--that we were alarming the bank employees by acting like robbers. "The August Wilson Gang!" I said, laughing. But August wasn't laughing. It was not necessarily a laughing matter for a black man to be suspected of intending to rob a bank. Rationally he realized there wasn't much risk, but again, rationality doesn't always pertain when race is involved in America. It was an object lesson in that reality, running with the Wilson Gang that day.

Greta Oglesby as Aunt Ester in
the OSF production of Gem of
the Ocean.
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Who is Aunt Ester?

Aunt Ester, referred to in Two Trains Running and King Hedley II, is a central character in Gem of the Ocean. In the preface to King Hedley II, August Wilson wrote: "Aunt Ester has emerged for me as the most significant persona of the cycle. The characters, after all, are her children. The wisdom and tradition she embodies are valuable tools for the reconstruction of their personality and for dealing with a society in which the contradictions, over the decades, have grown more fierce, and for exposing all the places it is lacking in virtue."

There is a symbolic dimension in her reputed age, which makes her precisely as old as the first slaves brought from Africa to the Americas. Her home is at 1839 Wylie Avenue, a real address but one which signifies the year of the Amistad slave rebellion. (No building currently exists at that address, although as far as I know, what stood there before hasn't been researched.)

But there may be an historical ancestor to the character of Aunt Ester. The title of the play comes from the 19th century song"Columbia, Gem of the Ocean," which was about an actual ship, the Columbia Rediviva, the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe. By then, the figure of "Columbia" as a symbol of America, and a female one (counterposed to Columbus) was well known as well. According to the OSF guide to this season's plays, the latest scholarship suggests that Columbia was first used in this way by Phillis Wheatley, an ex-slave who became the first black poet living in America to publish a book of poems, in 1773.

I think she may also be something of a model for Ester Tyler. Both were taken from Africa and sold as slaves when young girls, both were domestic servants to white women, took their last names and stayed with them until their deaths. Both have first names with slightly unconventional spelling. There are differences, the most obvious being that Phillis Wheatley died at the age of 31.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Feingold was the first to spot "Ma Rainey" in the
submissions, and Lloyd Richards selected it. They're
under a signature tree at the O'Neill.
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I Call Him August

It's a journalistic convention to refer to people by their last names, and as an elder of accomplishment and authority, he certainly ought to be called "Mr." Plus there is the unfortunate precedent of black men being called by their first names only, another way of calling them "boy."

But Mr. August Wilson is always going to be August to me, because that's how I knew him. It's what I called him and what others we knew in common called him. And more than anything now, it expresses how I feel about this great playwright and teacher, his works and his life. It's all personal to me. Not personal only, but certainly that.

I met August Wilson in 1991 at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Connecticut. I was there to write a magazine piece, and he was one of my first interviews. It was the O'Neill and its artistic director, Lloyd Richards, who pulled an unfinished Ma Rainey's Black Bottom out of the submissions pile, and brought August to the summer conference where a dozen or so plays went through the "O'Neill process," which ended up with a bare-bones production. Not only did Lloyd Richards then become its director at Yale and forward to Broadway, but August returned with his next several plays in subsequent summers. By all accounts, he flourished in this process, arriving as a quietly suspicious but willing participant and becoming a confident enthusiast. It was nearly a decade later, and he was back at the O'Neill for the first time not as a playwright but as a dramaturg, an advisor on the text of someone else's play. (He returned as dramaturg at least once more, and as playwright a couple of more times, including in 2002 with Gem of the Ocean.)

By the end of the interview we had begun to explore what we had in common, like the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates. August was a year older, and in many ways his neighborhood in the city of Pittsburgh was farther away than the 35 miles to the town where I grew up, but we did have a number of common points of reference.

The conference summer lasts a month, and that year I was there for two weeks of it. So I spent a fair amount of time with and around August, talking and listening (mostly) over communal meals in the dining hall, over tons of coffee and on one occasion, a few too many beers. August was dramaturg to the playwright I was principally following, but the atmosphere at the O'Neill was so open and embracing that it was only natural to have that much daily contact. We even had a kind of adventure, which I'll describe later.

One evening as a few of us at our table lingered after dinner, August spontaneously launched into the stories his characters were telling him. That's when I first heard of Aunt Ester. Later I learned that he often does this, testing out ideas and stories for the play he's working on. He was a mesmerizing storyteller in person as well as on the page and the stage.

Even though I was not strictly speaking part of the process at the O'Neill, I discovered that I was part of that summer's community (and one of the playwrights volunteered that my presence was positive.) The thing about the O'Neill is that once the bond of that summer is formed, it remains. So whenever I saw August again, whatever the circumstances, I was greeted warmly, and he talked to me as a friend. Once was at the Public Theatre in Pittsburgh, when he was preparing the first professional production of Jitney.

The Public was another node in the network that began for me at the O'Neill, and involved others who directed and acted in his plays, and brought their own work as playwrights to Pittsburgh. August not only provided opportunities for African American theatre artists, but those who worked with him seemed to carry his spirit with them. He was always a presence.

I'm not making any great claims for this limited relationship. But it was enough for me to feel personal affection as well as admiration, and to feel his loss in a personal way. These feelings can't ever be detached from the feelings evoked by seeing or reading his plays. And that's why I'm comfortable only calling him August.

My account of that summer's conference, including my Smithsonian article, is here. I was thrilled to discover in the course of research that I'm quoted about the O'Neill from this article, in a book, "The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson" by Sandra G. Shannon, I wrote more about him at the time of his death and various memorials in 2005 , here.

August Wilson. Photo: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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August Wilson: Connections in the Cycle

Success is often a matter of talent and timing: the right work at the right time in the hands of the right people. That after a long, improbable, improvised apprenticeship as a writer, August Wilson deserved, got and made good use of his lucky breaks is a fairly familiar American story. But what doesn’t happen as often is making a success of success.

August Wilson went from an unknown to a sensation (for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and a Pulitzer Prize-winner (for Fences) in a few years. But it’s what he did with this success that made the difference.

One crucial move was apparently audacious. He noticed that the few plays he’d written (and a couple in process) were set in different decades. He decided on a goal---to write a play about the African American experience set in every decade of the 20th century. This would be an unprecedented achievement, but for subsequent years that wasn’t as important as what it did for him: it gave him an artistic goal and a guide for his time, that set a dominating context for any other considerations. "I never had to worry about what my next play was going to be and come up with an idea," Wilson said later. "I would just pick a decade and go."

No matter what happened with each play, commercially or within the changing American theatre context, he always had this goal, and he always knew what he was going to do next. Even false starts were easily accommodated, because there were clear but limited alternatives. No matter what did or didn't happen, the task wouldn't be done until all ten plays were completed.

Writing the cycle over a couple of decades changed him, Wilson wrote. The cycle itself changed with him, as he used his increasing craft and growing power as an artist to not only hone in on what was crucial in each new play, but to see the cycle more as a whole, and the relationships of the plays to each other.

The most obvious connections are the characters. Some recur, like Rutherford Selig in Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904, who appears also in Joe Turner's Come and Gone, set in 1911, but written 17 years earlier. (The same actor played him in both Broadway productions--he suggested August wrote the part for him in "Gem" because he liked him in "Joe Turner.")

Then there are families and generations. "Ruby" appears in Seven Guitars, set in 1948, where she meets a man named King Hedley. She returns in 1985 as the mother of the title character in King Hedley II.

But the key character to the whole cycle (as August noted) is the former slave and spiritual healer Aunt Ester Tyler. She was talked about and visited by characters in Two Trains Running, and her death (at age 366) is announced in King Hedley II. She is center stage for Gem of the Ocean, where she takes the young stranger, Citizen Barlow to the undersea City of Bones, which was first evoked by the character Loomis in "Joe Turner." While Aunt Ester and Solly Two Kings kid about getting married, the young Citizen Barlow and Ester's housekeeper and protege, Black Mary, seem to be sparking a romance. Black Mary's brother is Caesar Wilks, the black constable and landlord who is the villain of the piece.

"Gem," the first in the cycle chronologically, was the next to last to be written. The last in the cycle, set in 1997, was the last to be written: Radio Golf. It turned out to be the last play August Wilson was to write. Late in Radio Golf, one character reveals he is the son of Citizen Barlow and Black Mary, who apparently took the name of Esther Tyler. He reveals this to another character who is the grandson of Caesar Wilks. At the heart of this play is a crumbling old house scheduled for demolition. It is the very house where Aunt Ester had lived, and is the location for Gem of the Ocean. In "Golf,"Caesar's grandson even repeats a statement his grandfather made in "Gem," but in a very different cause. (There's also a character who appeared in Two Trains Running, and other connections as well.)

These plays of course make perfect sense without knowing about these connections. But the connections add to the richness and to the meaning. In particular they add a dimension to Radio Golf, because the characters themselves don't seem to realize the importance of that house in their own family history, as well as to the community.

The connections double back on the plays and even create possible new meanings outside the plays. For instance, at the end of "Gem," Citizen takes up the cause of the fallen elder, Solly. Now that we know he and Black Mary did marry, and that she took on Ester's name, it is as if they completed the marriage of Solly and Aunt Ester. (Black Mary taking Ester Tyler's name was foreshadowed--or foretold--in "Gem." "Miss Tyler" passed the name on to her, she told Black Mary, and "If you ever make up your mind I'm gonna pass it on to you."

Which leads to the question of whether the Aunt Ester referred to in the 60s and the 80s was really Black Mary, and even whether Aunt Ester had been a succession of women, who passed on spiritual knowledge. Or did Black Mary take Ester's name just to further repudiate her brother Caesar, who she separates herself from in Gem of the Ocean? Or both?

Thursday, September 6, 2007

From the film version of Angels
in America
by Tony Kushner.
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This North Coast Weekend and This Week's Column

A stage-related film, Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner will be shown at the Morris Graves Museum in Eureka on Thursday at 6 PM. Discussion afterwards will be led by Michael Field and Joan Schirle of Dell'Arte and Christina Accomando of HSU.

At the Arcata Playhouse on Friday and Saturday at 8PM, the Redwood Curtain production of Blown Sideways Through Life concludes its run. I review it in my North Coast Journal column this week, and Barry Blake reviews it in the T-S. We both praised it, and coincidentally both found it worthwhile noting (with gratitude) that Christina Jioras, the star and only actor in it, didn't attempt the Brooklyn accent of the writer of this apparently autobiographical piece, Claudia Shear.

A word missing in the first paragraph of my column makes the sentence seem a little odd, as if answering the phone at a whorehouse is a fairly common job for actors. It's not, of course, but on the other hand, Claudia Shear's is not the only account I've heard by someone in show biz who did this.

Also I forgot to change a word in another paragraph, which I will now do without saying which one it is:

Part of the brilliance of this piece is that audiences can connect with her unique experiences while recalling moments of their own lives and their own similar feelings -- not only about crappy jobs, but the anxieties, indignities and injustices of almost any job, from the "no reading" and "no opinions" rules of busywork to the arbitrary bosses whose cold ire appears as mysteriously and disproportionately as their praise.

I note in my "Coming Up" paragraph that Jeff DeMark will be bringing one of his one-person shows to the Arcata Playhouse next weekend--specifically on Saturday, Sept. 15 at 8 PM. The show is his most recent composition, They Ate Everything But Their Boots. I note that, like "Sideways," it deals with insane jobs, but Jeff corrects me: there's a story or two that touches on the subject but the show with jobs as the main topic is Went To Lunch, Never Returned.

This will be Jeff's second show at the Arcata Playhouse, and the second time I'll be out of town at the same time. And I don't get out of town that often! I'll be in Ashland to catch most of the remaining plays of this season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, for my column the following week. But I have seen the show he's doing--and so should you.

Jeff DeMark will be performing his baseball show, Hard as a Diamond, Soft as the Dirt at Ferndale Rep on Saturday, September 29. That's the one show of his I haven't seen yet, and as far as I know, I'll be around to see it this time.