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O'Reilly Theater: Wilson again proves home is where the art is

Sunday, December 05, 1999

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

"Pittsburgh, far away."

Imagine that in the small, piping voice of Azula Carmen Wilson, 2 1/4 years old, speaking to her playwright father on the phone from distant Seattle.

  August Wilson on the Hill, 1999: He He gave his first public speedh in the hall above the New Granada Theater. (Bill Wade Wade - Post-Gazette)

"I spent three months home this year," August Wilson says, enjoying a rambling breakfast conversation in the deliciously greasy heart of the Strip. "I've seen my share of the cities of this country. The idea is to stay home more."

By home, he means Seattle, the second cool Northern city he's lived in since leaving his native Pittsburgh in 1978, then age 33. But home is also Pittsburgh, into whose deep wells of memory he keeps dipping the ladle of his art, coming up with the rich talk and driven characters of his seven major plays -- now to be joined by an eighth when the Public Theater stages the world premiere of "King Hedley II" next week to open the Cultural Trust's new O'Reilly Theater.

"King Hedley" is here, Wilson says over a full platter, "because in 1996 when we were doing 'Jitney' [at the Public] I went to dinner with Eddie Gilbert who asked if I'd like to inaugurate the new theater with my next play. I certainly think my work deserves that, but you don't always get what you deserve. It's the most thrilling thing ...," and though he doesn't finish the sentence, his smile completes the idea.

He has had his problems with Pittsburgh -- who doesn't struggle with mixed feelings about his native place, even without having to survive a legacy of mid-century racial apartheid? But Wilson is moved by this tribute. It is fitting that "King Hedley" is here, and it is an additional gift of convergence that its premiere should be given this glamorous showcase.

" 'King Hedley' is a play I probably would have written a year earlier," he says; he actually put off writing it so it could fit the schedule of the new theater. You don't write a new August Wilson play and keep it in your drawer for a year, and Wilson's preferred process is to work closely with the first several productions of a play, refining and sharpening as it goes.

So he held himself back from his usual creative onrush, letting a couple of years elapse since the debut of "Seven Guitars," the play from which "King Hedley" stems. "I think it's good it had a longer gestation period," he says. "It also gave me a break. 'Jitney' filled in the gap, so to speak."

Gap? "Break"? Only the prolific dynamo at the center of this gentle bear of a man would call it that.

Wilson's office may be elsewhere, but his creative home remains Pittsburgh. That's why he spent six weeks here last spring to work on his screenplay for "Fences" and on "King Hedley." Pittsburgh stirs his creative juices. Not that he has any fear of drying up: "In 20 minutes I bet I could come up with ideas for two or three plays."

What stirs Wilson about Pittsburgh is history -- his own and that of the culture in which he grew to manhood. When his plays first came tumbling over each other onto the national scene, most evident was his fertile gift for stories. Setting one play in each decade of the 20th century might have been just a structural device. But no. History was central to his creative imagination from the start.

"When I was younger, I was fascinated with the '40s -- styles, hats, jazz clubs." In his own 20s, when he "arrived down in the community on Centre Avenue," he'd hang out at Pat's Cigar Store, watching the older men and wondering what life had been like for them when they first hung out there, 30 years before. "It was living history," he says. "I'd look at those guys and think of the content of their lives."

Historical imagination led Wilson to the drama of those lives. In the '70s, he thought himself a poet. History broadened his creative sympathies toward theater. Hence the necessity of Pittsburgh. For Wilson, even the derelict sections of the Hill are eloquent with historical signals and echoes -- "spiritual resources," he calls them. Now, he finds memories at every turn. "I always remember the names of my elementary school classmates. And the guys I knew at 14, 15 -- the guys you stood under the street lights with, joking until 3 in the morning."

In early 1998, Wilson spent two months in residence at Dartmouth College, teaching a course in playwriting -- fun for the man who famously dropped out of high school and educated himself at the Carnegie Library and on the street. "I don't think you can teach how to write a play, and if you can, you certainly can't in two months, but you can teach them how to open themselves up to understand their experiences." So he decided to start each class with "When I lived in Pittsburgh ... ," telling a story from his own life. "I wanted to show that you're living a full, rich life and there are stories all around you."

His plays do that -- harvest and shape the stories he finds all around him, past and present, especially in Pittsburgh, to which he regularly returns, either in memory or in person, to refresh his art.

"One of the first times I became aware of theater was Pearl Bailey in 'Hello, Dolly.' My mother was in New York and brought back the program, her first and only Broadway show." That all-black "Dolly" was David Merrick's brainstorm, tapping a whole new set of actors. "And a new audience," Wilson points out, a reminder of the new audiences his plays have tapped for regional theaters like the Public.

"Before that, I remember in 1952, 1953, hearing that next week Nat King Cole was going to be on 'Ed Sullivan.' We were aware of that all week." They all assembled at a friend's house to watch -- "we'd get there two hours early and all gather around. With the adults, the big thing was, 'Is Ed Sullivan going to shake Nat King Cole's hand after his number,' as he usually did. But he just waved to him."

August Wilson stands near the Bedford Street house where he lived until about age 12. The area is the basis for the set of "King Hedley II" at the Public Theater. (Bill Wade - Post-Gazette) 

Wilson does that awkward Sullivan wave, imagining the singer far away on the TV set -- so Sullivan couldn't shake his hand, could he? Did white America notice what the Hill did? Beneath Wilson's affable surface he remembers that Hazelwood residents once threw bricks through his family's window. He remembers Central Catholic High School in 1958, "when your fellow students decided you shouldn't be there" and made that painfully clear. "We're only 40 years from apartheid in America," he says in passing.

The first play he remembers was in 1965. "Someone brought a 30-minute excerpt of 'The Rhinoceros' to the Fifth Avenue High School. Nick Flournoy said, 'Come along with me.' What the hell is this, I wondered -- there was nothing to relate to in it. I wasn't impressed." When John Hancock's company was at the Playhouse in 1966, "I met some actors and went to a preview of 'Man's a Man.' I lasted about 20 minutes. So the two plays I stumbled on served to distance me from theater."

But in 1968, "Rob Penny wrote a play." That year, Wilson and his fellow poet started doing theater with a group of friends. "It never occurred to us there had been [black] people doing theater before us. Every day we walked by Walter Worthington's record store, never knowing that 20 years before he'd had a theater, the Pittsburgh Negro Theater. Had we known, we could have tapped into that. No institution had developed out of that for us to fit into. It was our failure to access our history, and a failure on their part not to hand it on, to preserve cultural values. We missed each other."

When the teen-age Wilson had read his way through the shelf of "Negro books" at the library, he didn't find any plays. But gradually the handing-on improved. His and Penny's group did the plays of Ed Bullins and Amiri Baraka (né LeRoi Jones). "And the Tulane Drama Review had a special issue on black theater -- that was the first time I'd seen black plays in print. So we did them all."

Still, Wilson's discovery of his own playwriting gift was gradual, not fully realized until he'd moved to St. Paul in 1978. But he started "Ma Rainey" in 1976, still living in Pittsburgh. "Then I wrote 'Jitney' in 1979 and 'Fullerton Street.' And 'Ma Rainey' popped back into my head, so I found the box with my hand-written pages. Because I'd written 'Jitney,' I now knew how to make the band members talk."

"Ma Rainey" won him his first session at the National Playwrights Conference at Connecticut's O'Neill Theater Center. There he met Lloyd Richards, legendary director of "Raisin in the Sun," and the key creative partnership was formed. Richards went on to direct his six plays that have reached Broadway and his first film, "Piano Lesson."

Wilson vividly recalls the first Broadway preview of "Ma Rainey." "Since I smoke, I was always first out of the theater. But this time some guy beat me out the door, looked up and down the street, threw his program down, said 'What a piece of s -- -' and walked away. I wanted to yell, 'Don't you be throwing my stuff on the ground!' Fortunately the rest of the audience came out then" -- and Wilson's career was under way.

Visiting the Hill with photographer Bill Wade, Wilson stops in front of the boarded up Granada Theatre. The Malcolm X rally that shows up in "Two Trains Running" took place in the dance hall upstairs. That's where he gave his first public speech. Further along, they visit what used to be his mother's house. He points to a vacant space -- "That's the 'Hedley" set!," he says, a vacant lot and the small house on either side.

The history that stirs Wilson now includes his own work. For "King Hedley" he has done something new, following up on a story begun in an earlier play. The 37 year-old title figure is the baby about to be born in "Seven Guitars" in 1948; his mother, Ruby, then a sassy, sexy 20-year-old, now appears as an older, still-sassy singer. Audiences won't need to have seen "Seven Guitars," but those that have will find an extra fillip in the ways the plays dovetail.

"I found that exciting," Wilson says about rediscovering his own characters. Of course, they aren't just his. He starts a play with an image or scrap of dialogue, often without knowing who's talking, and as he writes the characters tell him themselves. In "King Hedley," another "Seven Guitars" character emerged completely unexpected.

"Marion says 'Hedley' is a hard play to cast," he says of his director, Marion Isaac McClinton, who seems to have succeeded the retired Richards at the top of the August Wilson directorial pecking order. "It needs six good actors. We got one from New York and five from LA and we just finished casting Oct. 24 and started rehearsals Oct. 29." They lost time because one casting director dropped out at the last minute. Another director didn't seem to know the black acting pool. "So we went to LA." The new westward tilt to the national acting pool is "maybe even more true of black actors. There are few black plays in New York."

The Public is co-producing "King Hedley" with Seattle Repertory Theater, where it will play in the new year. There are no plans beyond Seattle. "We've had offers, but first I want to see what still has to be done."

August Wilson in back of his mother's house on Bedford Avenue. The vacant lot on left, along with a house on either side, is the basis for the "King Hedley" set at the Public Theater. (Bill Wade - Post-Gazette) 

Wilson always has a bundle of other projects simmering. "Jitney" will next appear at LA's Mark Taper Forum in January, directed by McClinton as it was here in 1996 and several other cities since, breaking box-office records in Boston and Baltimore as it had here.

Wilson has continued to re-write, getting "Jitney" ready for its off-Broadway debut in the spring -- the first of his plays not to begin on Broadway. "Frankly, my preference would be to do it on Broadway. It's important to claim that as a place to do serious drama. But no producer was stepping forward and I wanted to get a play into New York."

As to "Fences," the long-delayed movie is still in the works. Scott Rudin will produce.

Wilson has promised to finish the revised script by spring. He talks happily about the scenes he's added to open up the play -- Troy at Cory's school, with his lover Alberta, with the garbage collection boss. He's full of ideas about casting: "I'd like to get Oprah Winfrey or Whoopi Goldberg to play Rose. Or Alfre Woodard, one of the finest actresses out there -- she's old enough to play Rose now. Or maybe Oprah could play Alberta." There's some talk of mounting a short New York revival with the movie cast to give them a running start. "Let's say you get Morgan Freeman -- he doesn't yet know the play."

His 45 minute TV play, part of ABC-TV's "Millennium Project" commissioned from such major playwrights as Arthur Miller and David Mamet, is still in the works. He signed his contract a year and a half ago, accepted half the money up front, outlined the project, then forgot about it. But as soon as they call, he figures he can finish it up in a few weeks, nine five-minute scenes dramatizing seminal African-American experiences over 400 years.

Then there's his biggest project, the 10-play 20th-century sequence. "When I finish one play I force myself to come up with a line of dialogue, a title, something about my next play." For his last two, the first and last decades of the century, he's considering a "book-end" effect. "It could be one long play but also two full-length plays -- we could have their premieres a month apart."

Frequently, Wilson has to put down his pencil or laptop to be honored. In September he canceled a meeting with Rudin because he had to go to the White House and get the National Humanities Medal along with Stephen Spielberg, Garrison Keillor and Jim Lehrer. "I was at Hillary's table at dinner. I met Aretha Franklin!"

From Aretha to Azula: "Daddy, medal on," his little daughter commands. She likes to see him wear his award.

Their latest separation has ended now, with Azula's and Constanza Romero Wilson's arrival here to share in the opening festivities for "King Hedley." They were all going back to Seattle for Christmas, but another call came from the White House -- an invitation for New Year's Eve. The Millennium! Who could resist?

If anyplace is Y2K safe, the White House ought to be. Looking forward recalls looking back. Does Wilson ever wish he were somewhere else in the historical continuum?

"No, this is perfect. This is when I'm living. I'm fast approaching the age of those guys I used to see on Centre Avenue, the elders. I wouldn't trade this. I've earned it, every year of it."

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