6 questions for August Wilson scholar/director Harry J. Elam Jr.

C. Kelly Wright and Aldo Billingslea head a top-notch cast of Bay Area actors in the TheatreWorks production of August Wilson’s final play, Radio Golf. Photo by David Allen

August Wilson, according to Harry J. Elam Jr., is one of our greatest American playwrights. With two Pulitzers, the late Wilson was the most produced playwright of the 1990s and he looks to take that title again in the first decade of the 21st century.

Elam knows what he’s talking about: he’s the Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities for Stanford’s Drama Department. He’s the author of The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson, but even more than that, has acted in Wilson plays (including the 1986 production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and he has directed Wilson’s plays.

He’s currently readying the TheatreWorks production of Radio Golf, the last play Wilson completed before his death at age 60 in 2005. Radio Golf, set in Pittsburgh in the 1990s, is the final piece of an epic 10-play cycle documenting African-American life in the 20th century.

Previously for TheatreWorks, Elam directed Wilson’s Two Trains Running and Fences.

Juggling a schedule of classes and rehearsals, Elam managed to find a few minutes to answer some questions about Wilson’s legacy and the Bay Area premiere of Radio Golf, which begins previews Wednesday, Oct. 8, opens Saturday, Oct. 11 and closes Nov. 2.

What was your relationship like with Wilson himself?

I first met him when I was in the second production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. As with many other academics, he was incredibly helpful and very, very accessible to me. The relationship was great. I remember one time when I was finishing a book about him, I wet to see King Hedley at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and we sat and talked for 3 ½ hours. He gave up his time to me, but I know many colleagues who had relationships like that with him. The last time I saw him was when he performed his solo piece, How I Learned What I Learned, in Seattle. He gave me a big hug. That’s the kind of person he was in my experience.

You teach Wilson to your students. How do they respond to him?

What you want as a professor is texts that open themselves up to explore issues within larger issues and that merit re-reading, close reading and close critical examination. His work is all of that and it energizes students. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which was Wilson’s favorite of his plays, and is my favorite, is the one that people tend to respond to most. And then because of the family dynamics, they often respond to Fences and The Piano Lesson. Those are the more accessible ones.

How does working as a director inform your work as a scholar?

The writing informs the directing and the directing informs the scholarship. When I write a book, I’m looking at an audience of mostly other scholars – maybe it’s a little wider for a Wilson book – and I’m looking to interpret for that audience. When you direct, you’re interpreting for a non-academic audience, a wider audience that needs to get what the work is saying. What’s more, working with actors getting on their feet and moving around and making the play make sense or thinking about what this moment means in context – it all informs the critical thinking of what the play is doing. It’s a really enjoyable process.

Where do you think Radio Golf sits – not chronologically but critically – in the Wilson canon?

What Wilson said about Radio Golf and Gem of the Ocean, the last two plays he completed, was that they were umbrellas under which the other plays can sit. He wrote this play pretty consciously to connect it and make it coherent within the cycle. One of the interesting things is Radio Golf’s relationship to Gem, which is set in 1904. The characters in the earlier play are literally the ancestors of the characters in Golf. There are other connections to other plays as well because Golf is a play looking back through the cycle as a whole, and there’s another process of looking back, looking back on his own process of writing.

Radio Golf was written in 2005 and tells the story of a black candidate for mayor and the way politics and race and class all factor into his campaign. It seems fairly prescient.

There are definite resonances to now. The character, Harmond Wilks, has to figure out what he values most – his relationship to the community, to culture, to the past and how all of that relates to economic advantage. Wilson deals more with issues of race and class here. He was very interested in examining middle- to upper-class blacks, which he hasn’t dealt with significantly in other plays. He was interested in commenting on the connection of middle- or upper-class blacks to the community as a whole or to the black masses. As for looking ahead, a character named Old Joe says something along the lines of, “America is a giant slot machine. Wonder if your quarter is working or if the machine is broke, what do you do?” That’s pretty amazing.

You have a pretty amazing cast of Bay Area actors – Aldo Billingslea, C. Kelly Wright, Anthony J. Haney, Charles Branklyn and L. Peter Callender – all of whom have experience with Wilson’s work.

Definitely. These are some of my favorite actors. The hard question for me right now, because I’m so much inside the play, is does it measure up? Our task is to make it measure up and make people see the value that is in it. I’ve heard criticism that the language isn’t as poetic as other plays, but it’s set in the ’90s. The language is closer to who we are now. I think the language is poetic, but in a different way. Another criticism is that it’s not as spiritual as the other plays – no ghosts, no Aunt Esther, no City of Bones. But the spiritual aspect is implicit. In directing, my own impression of the play changes. I see so much more in this play now than on first response.

Radio Golf begins performances Oct. 8 and continues through Nov. 2 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$61. Call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org for information.

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