The Collage Artist

NEW YORK -- August Wilson sits in a scruffy, linoleum-floored eatery in the heart of the theater district holding a sheaf of discount coupons for "Miss Saigon."

He's not planning on seeing the show, but he's put the coupons to good use. Neat black handwriting progresses in even lines down the back of the coupons, each barely larger than a theater ticket. These are rewrites for Wilson's newest play, "King Hedley II," which opens in Boston next month.

"King Hedley II" is the latest installment in Wilson's decade-by-decade chronicle of African-American life in the 20th century. It's one of the most ambitious bodies of work in American theatrical history -- two of the plays have won Pulitzer Prizes -- and much of it has taken shape on scavenged bits of paper.

"You never know when an idea is going to strike you, and I still like the idea of writing on napkins or scraps of paper because it doesn't count," he says.

Wilson claims collage artist Romare Bearden as a chief inspiration, so his method seems fitting. Just as Bearden fashioned pictures of black American life out of small scraps of cloth, photographs and found objects, Wilson has pieced together characters, monologues and images to create a stunning opus.

"No one else -- not even [playwright Eugene] O'Neill," the New Yorker wrote in 1996, "has aimed so high and achieved so much."

Although he spends more and more time writing at his Seattle home, Wilson remains drawn to the spontaneity of jotting things down in cafes and bars. "I like the noise and the music, the distractions," he says.

In New York, his favorite hangout is the Edison Hotel coffee shop. Here Wilson hunkers down over successive cups of coffee, writing whatever comes to mind. First, however, he washes his hands. "I always approach my work with clean hands," he explains, settling down for a chat on a brisk April morning. "Maybe it comes from my altar-boy days."

'Jitney' rides into New York

These days, director Marion McClinton is generally the recipient of Wilson's scraps of paper. "I soak up whatever he's got whenever he's got it," McClinton says. "When you work with him, you have to stay on your toes because he works. You have to keep up."

Wilson is in New York working on "Jitney," the 1970s installment of his play cycle. Begun in 1979, "Jitney" was his first full-length play.

It also was the first in which he used vernacular black speech, freeing him from writing what he has described as stiff and unnatural dialogue.

Under McClinton's direction, "Jitney" will make its long-delayed New York debut on Tuesday at Second Stage Theatre, after performances at regional theaters across the country, including Center Stage last season. Tuesday's opening, however, marks a departure for Wilson; it will be his first New York production to open off-Broadway instead of on.

Though his characters often launch volubly into rapid-fire monologues, Wilson, who turns 55 this week, is soft-spoken, choosing his words slowly. He has introduced American audiences to any number of powerful stage characters -- mystics, musicians, even murderers. But their creator conveys the shyness of a poet, his chosen field before he became a playwright.

Only when he pulls out a handful of snapshots of his 2 1/2 -year-old daughter, Azula Carmen, does a twinkle break through the seriousness of his expression. (His other daughter, Sakina Ansari, 30, from his first marriage, lives in Baltimore.)

Wilson is known for writing lengthy first drafts that get chiseled down during rehearsals and pre-New York productions. That's one advantage of the collage approach. Pieces can be shifted around, or removed entirely. "Jitney," however, holds the distinction of being the sole Wilson play to expand along the way.

Set in a jitney, or gypsy cab, station in Wilson's hometown of Pittsburgh, the play concerns a group of drivers, focusing in particular on Becker, the man who runs the station. Becker faces two major hurdles: His jitney station is slated to be torn down for urban renewal, and his estranged son, Booster, is about to be released from prison, where he has served 20 years for murder.

"Jitney" was produced twice in the 1980s, then went into a drawer, not to re-emerge until 1996. By then, Wilson had become one of the country's leading playwrights, with a slew of awards to his credit, including Pulitzer Prizes for "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson."

Four years ago, he took "Jitney" out of the drawer and agreed to a production at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. The work of a young playwright still learning his craft, the script ran only 90 minutes the first time it was read by the cast. "I looked at Marion and Marion looked at me and we thought, 'We've got a long way to go,' " the playwright recalls.

In Pittsburgh, Wilson added the type of lengthy monologues for which he has become known. He also eliminated repetitive dialogue, according to Joan Herrington, who wrote a book about Wilson's writing process, "I Ain't Sorry for Nothin' I Done."

Subsequent rewrites of "Jitney" further developed the relationship between Becker and Booster (now played by Carl Lumbly, the only cast change since Baltimore). Wilson continued to fine-tune that relationship during the show's post-Baltimore stops in Rochester and Buffalo, N.Y., Chicago and Los Angeles. In most respects, however, the play that opens in New York this week bears a strong resemblance to the one audiences saw at Center Stage.

"I think it says what I want it to say. Basically it's the idea that the son has betrayed the best hopes of the father, without knowing what those hopes were," he says. "They just keep missing each other."

Wilson is disappointed and, frankly, baffled that this is not a Broadway production. "No one stepped forward and said, 'Hey, I want to do this on Broadway,' which I find puzzling in the sense that it's done good box office every place it played," he says. "Jitney" was the most popular show in Center Stage's history.

On the other hand, he points out, "Everyone's always told me if my plays were off-Broadway they'd run for two, three years. OK. We're going to find out if that's true or not."

Always working

He's not sitting idly by and waiting, however. A playwright who makes a point of beginning his next play as soon as he finishes the last, he's preparing for rehearsals for the Boston production of his 1980s play, "King Hedley II," and he's also started work on the first play in his chronological cycle, an as-yet untitled drama set in 1904.

"King Hedley II," which debuted in Pittsburgh in December, picks up two characters from Wilson's 1940s play, "Seven Guitars" -- Ruby and the harmonica player, Canewell, who is now known as Stool Pigeon.

Stool Pigeon's role is the subject of Wilson's longhand notations on the back of the "Miss Saigon" coupons. "King Hedley II," whose title character is the unborn son Ruby is carrying in "Seven Guitars," is a play about "forgiveness and redemption and how, through forgiveness, you can arrive at redemption," the playwright says. Stool Pigeon serves as a kind of chorus, and Wilson has just decided he wants the character to open and close the play, starting with the line: "Times ain't what they used to be."

A finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, "King Hedley II" is already slated to be produced next season in Los Angeles, Chicago and at Washington's Kennedy Center. After that, Wilson hopes, it will open in New York in spring 2001.

Meanwhile, there's his 1904 installment. This play will revisit a character named Aunt Ester who is an offstage presence in two other plays, "Two Trains Running" and "King Hedley II.'

"She became increasingly important to my thinking," Wilson says of Ester, an ancient seer who is the same age as the American institution of slavery.

"I tried to get her to talk one time. She said, 'There's a lot of things I don't talk about.' And for a long while that's all she would say. It suddenly occurred to me: Why don't I go back and ask her what it is that she doesn't talk about?

"And so now it reads, 'There's a lot of things I don't talk about. I don't talk about the water, and I don't talk about Geechee Dan.' And I said, 'I'm off and running.' "

Wilson feels this is not a bad start. He's got a sense of the character and why she won't talk about the water, a reference to the slaves who died at sea, or as he describes it, "the largest unmarked graveyard in the world." He also expects Aunt Ester to show up in the final play he writes in the century cycle, which, fittingly, will be set in the 1990s.

With only two plays left, Wilson has a definite sense of the overriding theme of the series: "It's the notion of going back and picking up the ball," he says, "going back and maintaining those connections with your past that may have been broken."

The playwright also has a few pieces he'd like to add to his writing collage. "I actually have some ideas for some plays that didn't fit into the cycle," he says.

One is called "Seven Guitars, Too." Stemming from his original idea for "Seven Guitars," it features seven blues musicians performing a series of short scenes, each perhaps only five minutes long.

Another idea is a one-man show, to be performed by Wilson himself and called "I'm Not Spalding Gray." The title refers to the monologuist, a quintessential New England WASP.

"I said this jokingly, and then I started formulating the idea and seeing that it may work," he says. "In the title is the essence of the play."

He explains that even if a writer is black, "sometimes America expects you to be Spalding Gray. So it's really about all the ways that I'm not him."

In addition, he recently finished the screenplay for the movie version of "Fences," his cycle's 1950s installment, which was sidelined for years by his insistence on having a black director. Now producer Scott Rudin is in his corner and the project is back on track, although a director has not yet been named.

The screenplay, written for Paramount, has given Wilson a chance to open up the stage play, which took place entirely in the yard of the home of Troy Maxson, a former Negro League baseball player. Film audiences, for example, will see Troy with his lover, Alberta, who doesn't appear on stage.

Another of Wilson's continuing projects was launched after his controversial 1996 speech to the regional theater organization, Theatre Communications Group, in which he lambasted the practice of color-blind casting and the dearth of major black theaters in this country.

A conference held at Dartmouth College after the speech led to the founding of the African Grove Institute for the Arts, of which he is chairman of the board. Since then, there have been a series of regional conferences. A convention he calls "the gathering of the tribes" will be held in 2002.

Although the delegates will determine the direction the institute takes, Wilson is very clear about part of his vision -- the need to establish at least five black regional theaters on the level of, say, Center Stage or the Pittsburgh Public Theater.

If each theater produced five plays a season by five black playwrights, in a few years, "you've got 100 new playwrights all of the sudden," he says. "Are there going to be 100 good plays? No. Out of the 100, there are going to be like nine. It's the same ratio [found in white theaters]. So you have to begin to develop your talent."

Challenging the audience

Finishing his coffee, Wilson ambles over to Second Stage, where the cast of "Jitney" is starting to assemble.

Wilson is meticulously turned out in a navy sport coat and silk tie while, in the thick of rehearsals, director McClinton dresses comfortably in loose-fitting clothes. The two men, who have known each other for two decades, appear to have traded facial hair lately. Wilson has shaved his beard down to a goatee, while McClinton has added a full beard to his previous mustache.

It is indicative of his satisfaction with "Jitney" that Wilson bypasses further discussion of that play with McClinton, and instead reveals his new ideas for "King Hedley II," which McClinton also is directing.

" 'Hedley's' astounding," McClinton says after Wilson heads off to another appointment. "It's the densest play he's ever written."

"Writers like August and Tony Kushner [author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 'Angels in America'], they're challenging the audience to remain a theater audience, not a television or movie audience that occasionally comes to the theater."

McClinton may mean that Wilson's work has a stylistic range, and his characters possess a profound humanity, rarely explored in the same depth on screen.

Taken individually, Wilson's plays are exceptional documents. Taken together, they may form the most detailed portrait of African-American life that mainstream theater audiences have ever seen.

Halfway through his sixth decade, Wilson has more writing years left. And there's not likely to be a shortage of discount theater coupons that he can fill with his distinctive black-inked script.

The century according to August Wilson

August Wilson has now written eight-tenths of his decade-by-decade chronicle of 20th century African-American life. All the plays but the newest one, "King Hedley II," have had major productions in Baltimore. Here's a look at the plays and productions, by decades:

1910s: "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." The dispersal of blacks after the Civil War is at the heart of this tale of a man who arrives at a Pittsburgh boarding house searching for the wife from whom he was separated by seven years of forced labor. (Had premiere on Broadway in 1988; produced at Center Stage in 1989.)

1920s: "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Cutting a record in a Chicago recording studio, the famed blues singer finds herself at odds with the white recording industry in this look at the early exploitation of black entertainers. (Broadway, 1984; Center Stage, 1990.)

1930s: "The Piano Lesson." A brother and sister feud over the fate of an heirloom piano in Wilson's examination of the best use of a legacy. (Broadway, 1990; presented at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in 1992 and scheduled to be produced at Center Stage in 2001. See Page 10F for the full Center Stage 2000-2001 season.)

1940s: "Seven Guitars." Told in flashback, this ensemble drama opens after the funeral of a promising blues guitarist who had just had his first hit record. Wilson blends the seven characters' voices like a series of jazz improvisations. (Broadway, 1996; Center Stage, 1997.)

1950s: "Fences." An embittered former Negro League star alienates his loyal wife and spars with his teen-age son in Wilson's most traditionally structured domestic drama. (Broadway, 1987; Center Stage, 1993.)

1960s: "Two Trains Running." The patrons at Memphis Lee's about-to-be-demolished Pittsburgh diner confront changing times and an uncertain future. (Broadway, 1992; Center Stage, 1994.)

1970s: "Jitney." Urban renewal threatens a Pittsburgh gypsy cab station, whose owner -- a father figure to many -- is forced to contend with the reappearance of his estranged son. (Opens off-Broadway Tuesday; Center Stage, 1999.)

1980s: "King Hedley II." The title character struggles to make a living, and his mother faces the unexpected arrival of a figure from her past in this exploration of escalating violence and a family's disintegration. Wilson's only sequel, the play revisits two characters from "Seven Guitars." (At theaters around the country this season and next before anticipated 2001 New York opening.)