NEW YORK -- August Wilson sits in a scruffy, linoleum-floored eatery in theheart of the theater district holding a sheaf of discount coupons for "MissSaigon."
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'snewest play, "King Hedley II," which opens in Boston next month.
"King Hedley II" is the latest installment in Wilson's decade-by-decadechronicle of African-American life in the 20th century. It's one of the mostambitious bodies of work in American theatrical history -- two of the playshave won Pulitzer Prizes -- and much of it has taken shape on scavenged bitsof paper.
"You never know when an idea is going to strike you, and I still like theidea of writing on napkins or scraps of paper because it doesn't count," hesays.
Wilson claims collage artist Romare Bearden as a chief inspiration, so hismethod seems fitting. Just as Bearden fashioned pictures of black Americanlife out of small scraps of cloth, photographs and found objects, Wilson haspieced together characters, monologues and images to create a stunning opus.
"No one else -- not even [playwright Eugene] O'Neill," the New Yorker wrotein 1996, "has aimed so high and achieved so much."
Although he spends more and more time writing at his Seattle home, Wilsonremains drawn to the spontaneity of jotting things down in cafes and bars. "Ilike the noise and the music, the distractions," he says.
In New York, his favorite hangout is the Edison Hotel coffee shop. HereWilson hunkers down over successive cups of coffee, writing whatever comes tomind. First, however, he washes his hands. "I always approach my work withclean 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 ofWilson'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 becausehe works. You have to keep up."
Wilson is in New York working on "Jitney," the 1970s installment of hisplay cycle. Begun in 1979, "Jitney" was his first full-length play.
It also was the first in which he used vernacular black speech, freeing himfrom writing what he has described as stiff and unnatural dialogue.
Under McClinton's direction, "Jitney" will make its long-delayed New Yorkdebut on Tuesday at Second Stage Theatre, after performances at regionaltheaters across the country, including Center Stage last season. Tuesday'sopening, however, marks a departure for Wilson; it will be his first New Yorkproduction 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. Hehas introduced American audiences to any number of powerful stage characters-- mystics, musicians, even murderers. But their creator conveys the shynessof 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-olddaughter, Azula Carmen, does a twinkle break through the seriousness of hisexpression. (His other daughter, Sakina Ansari, 30, from his first marriage,lives in Baltimore.)
Wilson is known for writing lengthy first drafts that get chiseled downduring rehearsals and pre-New York productions. That's one advantage of thecollage approach. Pieces can be shifted around, or removed entirely. "Jitney,"however, holds the distinction of being the sole Wilson play to expand alongthe 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, theman who runs the station. Becker faces two major hurdles: His jitney stationis 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 tore-emerge until 1996. By then, Wilson had become one of the country's leadingplaywrights, with a slew of awards to his credit, including Pulitzer Prizesfor "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson."
Four years ago, he took "Jitney" out of the drawer and agreed to aproduction at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. The work of a young playwrightstill learning his craft, the script ran only 90 minutes the first time it wasread 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 hasbecome known. He also eliminated repetitive dialogue, according to JoanHerrington, who wrote a book about Wilson's writing process, "I Ain't Sorryfor Nothin' I Done."
Subsequent rewrites of "Jitney" further developed the relationship betweenBecker and Booster (now played by Carl Lumbly, the only cast change sinceBaltimore). Wilson continued to fine-tune that relationship during the show'spost-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 astrong 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 theson has betrayed the best hopes of the father, without knowing what thosehopes were," he says. "They just keep missing each other."
Wilson is disappointed and, frankly, baffled that this is not a Broadwayproduction. "No one stepped forward and said, 'Hey, I want to do this onBroadway,' which I find puzzling in the sense that it's done good box officeevery place it played," he says. "Jitney" was the most popular show in CenterStage's history.
On the other hand, he points out, "Everyone's always told me if my playswere off-Broadway they'd run for two, three years. OK. We're going to find outif that's true or not."
He's not sitting idly by and waiting, however. A playwright who makes apoint of beginning his next play as soon as he finishes the last, he'spreparing for rehearsals for the Boston production of his 1980s play, "KingHedley II," and he's also started work on the first play in his chronologicalcycle, an as-yet untitled drama set in 1904.
"King Hedley II," which debuted in Pittsburgh in December, picks up twocharacters from Wilson's 1940s play, "Seven Guitars" -- Ruby and the harmonicaplayer, Canewell, who is now known as Stool Pigeon.
Stool Pigeon's role is the subject of Wilson's longhand notations on theback of the "Miss Saigon" coupons. "King Hedley II," whose title character isthe unborn son Ruby is carrying in "Seven Guitars," is a play about"forgiveness and redemption and how, through forgiveness, you can arrive atredemption," the playwright says. Stool Pigeon serves as a kind of chorus, andWilson 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 slatedto be produced next season in Los Angeles, Chicago and at Washington's KennedyCenter. After that, Wilson hopes, it will open in New York in spring 2001.
Meanwhile, there's his 1904 installment. This play will revisit a characternamed Aunt Ester who is an offstage presence in two other plays, "Two TrainsRunning" 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 Idon't talk about.' And for a long while that's all she would say. It suddenlyoccurred to me: Why don't I go back and ask her what it is that she doesn'ttalk about?
"And so now it reads, 'There's a lot of things I don't talk about. I don'ttalk about the water, and I don't talk about Geechee Dan.' And I said, 'I'moff and running.' "
Wilson feels this is not a bad start. He's got a sense of the character andwhy 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 alsoexpects Aunt Ester to show up in the final play he writes in the centurycycle, which, fittingly, will be set in the 1990s.
With only two plays left, Wilson has a definite sense of the overridingtheme 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 mayhave been broken."
The playwright also has a few pieces he'd like to add to his writingcollage. "I actually have some ideas for some plays that didn't fit into thecycle," he says.
One is called "Seven Guitars, Too." Stemming from his original idea for"Seven Guitars," it features seven blues musicians performing a series ofshort scenes, each perhaps only five minutes long.
Another idea is a one-man show, to be performed by Wilson himself andcalled "I'm Not Spalding Gray." The title refers to the monologuist, aquintessential New England WASP.
"I said this jokingly, and then I started formulating the idea and seeingthat 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 youto 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 hisinsistence on having a black director. Now producer Scott Rudin is in hiscorner and the project is back on track, although a director has not yet beennamed.
The screenplay, written for Paramount, has given Wilson a chance to open upthe stage play, which took place entirely in the yard of the home of TroyMaxson, 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 hiscontroversial 1996 speech to the regional theater organization, TheatreCommunications Group, in which he lambasted the practice of color-blindcasting and the dearth of major black theaters in this country.
A conference held at Dartmouth College after the speech led to the foundingof the African Grove Institute for the Arts, of which he is chairman of theboard. Since then, there have been a series of regional conferences. Aconvention 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 atleast five black regional theaters on the level of, say, Center Stage or thePittsburgh Public Theater.
If each theater produced five plays a season by five black playwrights, ina few years, "you've got 100 new playwrights all of the sudden," he says. "Arethere going to be 100 good plays? No. Out of the 100, there are going to belike nine. It's the same ratio [found in white theaters]. So you have to beginto 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 inloose-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 toa goatee, while McClinton has added a full beard to his previous mustache.
It is indicative of his satisfaction with "Jitney" that Wilson bypassesfurther discussion of that play with McClinton, and instead reveals his newideas for "King Hedley II," which McClinton also is directing.
" 'Hedley's' astounding," McClinton says after Wilson heads off to anotherappointment. "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 theateraudience, not a television or movie audience that occasionally comes to thetheater."
McClinton may mean that Wilson's work has a stylistic range, and hischaracters possess a profound humanity, rarely explored in the same depth onscreen.
Taken individually, Wilson's plays are exceptional documents. Takentogether, they may form the most detailed portrait of African-American lifethat mainstream theater audiences have ever seen.
Halfway through his sixth decade, Wilson has more writing years left. Andthere's not likely to be a shortage of discount theater coupons that he canfill with his distinctive black-inked script.
The century according to August Wilson
August Wilson has now written eight-tenths of his decade-by-decadechronicle of 20th century African-American life. All the plays but the newestone, "King Hedley II," have had major productions in Baltimore. Here's a lookat the plays and productions, by decades:
1910s: "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." The dispersal of blacks after theCivil War is at the heart of this tale of a man who arrives at a Pittsburghboarding house searching for the wife from whom he was separated by sevenyears of forced labor. (Had premiere on Broadway in 1988; produced at CenterStage in 1989.)
1920s: "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Cutting a record in a Chicago recordingstudio, the famed blues singer finds herself at odds with the white recordingindustry 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 anheirloom 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 beproduced at Center Stage in 2001. See Page 10F for the full Center Stage2000-2001 season.)
1940s: "Seven Guitars." Told in flashback, this ensemble drama opens afterthe funeral of a promising blues guitarist who had just had his first hitrecord. Wilson blends the seven characters' voices like a series of jazzimprovisations. (Broadway, 1996; Center Stage, 1997.)
1950s: "Fences." An embittered former Negro League star alienates his loyalwife and spars with his teen-age son in Wilson's most traditionally structureddomestic drama. (Broadway, 1987; Center Stage, 1993.)
1960s: "Two Trains Running." The patrons at Memphis Lee'sabout-to-be-demolished Pittsburgh diner confront changing times and anuncertain 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 thereappearance 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 thisexploration of escalating violence and a family's disintegration. Wilson'sonly sequel, the play revisits two characters from "Seven Guitars." (Attheaters around the country this season and next before anticipated 2001 NewYork opening.)Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times