Fences comes home to the Curran Theatre

FENCESDenzel Washington is Troy Maxson and Viola Davis is his wife, Rose Maxson, in the screen adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences. The Paramount Pictures release, which Washington directs as well as stars in, opens Christmas Day everywhere. Below: Washington’s Troy walks home from work with Jim Bono, played by Stephen McKinley Henderson, a veteran of Wilson’s plays. Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Hard to know which was more exciting: the art or the venue. Let’s go with both.

The Curran Theatre formally reopened Thursday, Dec. 15, after more than a year of renovations and refurbishments, and it’s gorgeous. In shades of elegance and Curran red, Carole Shorenstein Hays’ palace has once again cast open its doors.

The first official event, preceding the January bow of the Fun Home tour (get tickets now), was a homecoming of sorts. Thirty years ago, Hays launched August Wilson’s Fences, a play that would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize and sweep the 1987 Tony Awards. But before its Broadway glory, the play bowed at the Curran, and this week, the play returned in a manner of speaking. Denzel Washington directs and stars in the movie adaptation of the play, and the film had its San Francisco premiere at the Curran followed by a panel discussion with Washington, members of the cast (sadly, the busy Davis was absent due to work commitments) and Costanza Romero, a costume designer and Wilson’s widow.

There were more San Francisco roots in play: Washington spent some of his formative years nearly 40 years ago studying with the Curran’s neighbor, the American Conservatory Theater and worked across the street at the now-shuttered soup emporium, Salmagundi’s. After the movie screening and the panel discussion, Washington did something he said he’d always wanted to do but never imagined he could: he took a bow on the Curran stage.

It was a well-earned bow, certainly for Washington’s extraordinary body of work, his two Academy Awards and the stature he holds as one of the best of the best. But it’s also well earned for his achievement in Fences, a beautiful adaptation of the play that feels opened up (but not too much and not egregiously) and keeps the focus on the language and the performances, all of which are stellar. Music and underscore are used sparingly because, as Washington said, “the magic of August’s words, those are the notes. You don’t need an orchestra for Shakespeare. There’s Williams, Miller, O’Neill, Albee and Wilson. August’s work is rich, deep and wide.”


One reason the performances are so good may have to do with the fact that most of the cast (minus the younger actors who got too old) were in the 2010 Broadway revival that, once again, nabbed a passel of Tonys, this time for best revival and for its stars, Washington and Davis. Their chemistry and connection can be felt, even on screen, which is rare. And the supporting cast is just as good, especially Stephen McKinley Henderson, who plays best friend and fellow Pittsburgh garbage man to Washington’s Troy Maxson. Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s war-wounded brother Gabe does such finely tuned, extraordinary work it would seem his performance was always destined to be captured on screen. Russell Hornsby is Troy’s older son, Lyons, and Jovan Adepo makes a remarkable big-screen debut as Troy and Rose’s son, Cory.

Washington says he has fond memories of seeing the original Broadway production of Fences starring James Earl Jones, Mary Alice and Courtney B. Vance, so when producer Scott Rudin and Paramount Pictures approached him about seven years ago to talk about a movie, he was interested, but he wanted to do the play first. That’s how the revival was born. Now, six years later, Washington and his “core squad,” as Washington calls them, have returned. It’s rare for a movie adaptation to feature so many members of a stage company, but Washington says, “I remember when I was in A Soldier’s Play and when they made the movie, they used me and Adolph Caesar from the original cast but passed over another actor, Samuel L. Jackson. When it came time to make Fences, I thought, why should I go anywhere else? The band was tight. We had 114 some performances. It would be hard to get in the band.”

So, with his dream cast, Washington decided to film the movie in the actual location where it (and all of Wilson’s work) takes place: the Hill District in Pittsburgh. The choice lends even more richness to a film that is already dense with drama, remarkable language and performances that stun.

Washington says he felt Wilson, who died in 2005, on the set with him. There’s a scene toward the end of the film, when much of the cast is assembled, and a gate in the yard opens by itself. “That happened on its own,” Washington insists. “I knew August was with us and that we were all right.”

There will be more Wilson adaptations for the screen. The playwright’s epic 10-play cycle about African-American life in the 20th century, one play per decade (Fences is the ’50s), has been optioned by HBO with Washington producing. The idea is to do one play from the cycle each year for the next nine years. “We already have a script for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom [set in the 1920s and the only one of the plays not set in Pittsburgh].”

Before taking that bow onstage at the Curran, Washington added, “This work, these plays, these movies – this is what I was meant to be doing at this time in my life.”

Fences, rated PG-13, opens wide Dec. 25.

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Wilson’s Fences hits hard at Marin Theatre Co.

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The cast of Marin Theatre Company’s Fences by August Wilson includes (from left) Eddie Ray Jackson as Cory, Margo Hall as Rose and and Carl Lumbly as Troy Maxson. Below: Lumbly and Hall are joined by Steven Anthony Jones as Jim Bono. Photos by Ed Smith

I’ve always been moved by August Wilson’s Fences, the 1950s installment of his extraordinary Century Cycle of plays depicting African-American life in the 20th century. But the current production of the play at Marin Theatre Company under the direction of Derrick Sanders made me feel the play in a whole new way.

This has largely to do with Carl Lumbly’s wrenching central performance as Troy Maxson, a complicated man whose life is ruled by ego. And that’s what struck me about this production: how much the play is about the destructive nature of ego – not the “I’m so great, look at me, check out my Google Glasses” ego but rather the insidious part of ourselves that divorces us from real life and forces us to live under the weight of preconceptions and regrets and fear and walled-off (perhaps fenced-off is more appropriate) emotion.

Troy has seemingly done everything right. He survived a gruesome childhood with a shabby father, struck out on his own and, after fighting the rampant racism of the early 20th century, nearly making it in baseball minors and surviving incarceration, finally put down roots inn Pittsburgh’s Hill District. He wasn’t a father to his first son, Lyons, whose childhood flew by while Troy was in prison. But with wife Rose, a saving grace in his life, he raised a second son, got a steady job as a garbageman and made a home for his family.

That’s the history of a good citizen, maybe not someone who started out that way but who eventually took responsibility for himself and his family in a big way. So what’s wrong with that? Plenty, and that’s what makes the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences so interesting. Troy is a proud man, an angry man who fights to live the life he thinks he should and struggles hard when it feels like parts of him are dying.

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Lumbly’s performance is so powerful and so achingly real, it’s easy to see why Rose (a fine Margo Hall) and son Cory (Eddie Ray Jackson) are afraid of him to varying degrees. They aren’t really allowed to be themselves (just as Troy isn’t able to be himself) but rather the image he holds of them. Rose isn’t a person so much as a person to be loved, protected and provided for, and Cory isn’t a talented football player whose skill could be his ticket to college but rather a young black man who will have to fight, like Troy did, to make his way in the world.

Troy’s vision of his life has been pretty easy to uphold for nearly two decades, but unsupported facades fall away, and that’s where we are in Fences as secrets, resentments and outright hostilities send everything crumbling down.

Wilson’s set-up in the first act can get a little draggy, but once Troy is challenged – first by his son, then by his wife – the action and the emotional wallop are significant.

Sanders’ cast, which also includes Steven Anthony Jones as Troy’s best friend, Tyee Tilghman as Troy’s first-born son, Adrian Roberts as Troy’s damaged brother, Gabriel, and Makaelah Bashir and Jade Sweeneysharing the role of Raynell, is as sturdy as it gets, even though the drama belongs mostly to Lumbly. Later in the play, though, Wilson hands the play to Rose to bring everything into perspective, and Hall handles the shift with her usual grace and vigor.

Fences is a great American drama about the true cost of doing the “right” thing and living the life you think you should live rather than the life you’re actually living. That’s a fascinating clash and one that will remain relevant as long as we’re operating under the illusion of the American Dream.

August Wilson’s Fences continues through May 11 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $37-$58. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Seven Guitars, ably played

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Marc Damon Johnson (left), Tobie Windham (center) and L. Peter Callender star in the Marin Theatre Company production of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars. Below: Shinelle Azoroh (right) is Ruby, who struts her stuff in front of the rest of the cast (from left) Tobie Windham, Omoze Idehenre, Margo Hall, L. Peter Callender and Marc Damon Johnson. Photos by Kevin Berne


Marin Theatre Company’s beautiful production of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars is the third I’ve seen, and it amazes me how similar and how different those productions have been. The first was in 1995 when American Conservatory Theater hosted the Broadway-bound version of the show as part of its season. The distinctive thing about that night of theater was the overwhelming wash of lyrical language that poured from the stage. For 3 ½ hours. I called it “indulgent” and “overly long” in my review for the Bay Area Reporter, but I also called the writing “lucid and full of gorgeous natural rhythms.” Of Viola Davis’ performance as Vera, of whom I wrote, “One of the play’s best scenes occurs early in the first act when Vera gives Floyd every reason she can think of why she won’t take him back. She does take him back, of course, but her aching, shattering litany – brilliantly delivered by Davis – is probably the truest torch song that was never sung on stage.”

The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre produced Seven Guitars in 2003 under the direction of the late Stanley Williams, and by then the show had been trimmed to a more manageable three hours, and in my review for the Oakland Tribune, I commended the ensemble (seven characters, hence the title) when they were able to “revel in the beats and rhythms of Wilson’s almost-musical writing.”

And now Marin Theatre Company, tackling its first August Wilson play, enters the fray with special attention to the music. Director Kent Gash had the good sense to hire Bay Area folk music legend Linda Tillery to help shape the bluesy sounds of the show, which takes place (like most of the plays in Wilson’s mammoth 10-play Century Cycle) in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. The year is 1948, and one of the characters, Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, has had a surprise radio hit with the bluesy “That’s Alright.” Music erupts spontaneously throughout Wilson’s drama, and the ensemble must play together with Wilson’s lyrical tapestry of words and individually on some of the most exquisite solos – arias almost – in the Wilson canon.

Tillery’s work here is sublime, and you leave the theater fully convinced that words and music can combine in powerfully emotional ways both in and out of songs, in the cadence of poetry and in the rhythm of everyday language.

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The look of Gash’s production is also quite stunning. The central playing area of J.B. Wilson’s set is a realistic courtyard between brick buildings, and Kurt Landisman’s lighting goes mostly for realism except for some extreme moments of theatricality when characters are caught in a solo spotlight. Surrounding the real-world playing area is a patchwork mural reminiscent of the paintings of Romare Bearden. And there’s a sumptuously lit backdrop of the Hill District behind the set that allows streetlights and houselights to hover somewhere between reality and artistic fantasy.

There’s not much action in Seven Guitars beyond some romantic shuffling, some smalltime crime, lots of longing and more than a few hints of mysticism. So without heavy plot, Wilson’s plot relies heavily on character detail and group interactions. Gash’s ensemble is fantastic: Margo Hall, L. Peter Callender, Marc Damon Johnson, Omoze Idehenre, Charles Branklyn, Tobie Windham and Shinelle Azoroh. Each actor has at least one moment of transcendence, and that fact alone makes this show worth seeing.

The night I saw Seven Guitars, real life interfered with theater. A gunman holed up in a hotel room had closed the Richmond Bridge and wreaked havoc on Bay Area roads, especially in Marin County. One of the actors coming from the East Bay was stuck on a bus trying to cross the Richmond Bridge, which was shut down for hours. The 7:30pm curtain time came and went, and MTC’s producing director, Ryan Rilette, came out to inform the audience of the situation. The actor was going to be fetched from the bus stop in San Rafael, but in all the traffic mess, the car sent for him had been in an accident. So the actor was in a cab on a slow crawl to the theater.

Rilette handled the situation perfectly. With the audience’s permission, he moved the post-show discussion to a pre-show position. He introduced the play and placed in the wider frame of Wilson’s cycle of plays about African-American life in the 20th century. He took questions and offered patrons free coffee or water from the snack bar. Some audience members chose to bail, which was understandable as they were facing a late-starting three-hour play.

But for those of us who stayed, the play offered rich rewards. I suspect the pre-show tension threw the actors a little. Ensemble rhythms were somewhat off, but the solo moments were spot on – especially Hall’s humorous ramble as Louise.

I also have to mention Branklyn’s turn as Hedley, the play’s spiritual connection. Branklyn played the same role eight years ago at the Lorraine Hansberry, and in that production, his performance was out of synch with an ensemble that wasn’t fully in control of the language. Here, his performance is infinitely more incisive and compelling.

Seven Guitars is a tough play, full of small, deeply connected details that add up to a brooding portrait of hope and desperation in the middle of the 20th century. Marin Theatre Company production is good enough that it leaves you wanting more. Perhaps the other nine plays in the cycle?


August Wilson’s Seven Guitars continues through Sept. 4 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $34-$55. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Hail to the Broadway chief!


Not to get too political here, but isn’t it refreshing, theater fans, to have a First Family that enjoys and advocates the arts – and specifically theater?

President and Mrs. Obama are scheduled to attend a Broadway show tonight: August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

Here’s from the New York Times report:

Set in a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone centers on a group of African-Americans searching for their place in the world and coming to grips with the legacy of slavery. Lincoln Center Theater produced the play, which first ran on Broadway in 1988; this production was directed by Bartlett Sher, who has been nominated for a Tony for his work.

The Tonys will be handed out next Sunday night. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is in a tough contest for best play revival against three other oft-praised Broadway productions: Mary Stuart, The Norman Conquests and Waiting for Godot.

Seems like after a First Family visit, that Tony might be a distant second in the thrill category.

Review: `Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’

Cast members of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone feel the spirit (from left): Barry Shabaka Henley as Seth, Kim Staunton as Bertha, Don Guillory as Jeremy and Brent Jennings as Bynum. Photos by kevinberne.com


Berkeley Rep delivers an extraordinary `Joe’

At Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Wednesday night opening of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, a powerful drama by the late August Wilson, it was hard not to think about the turning wheels of history.

The night before, election night, we elected our first African-American president, and on Wednesday, in the Roda Theatre, we were taken back to Pittsburgh circa 1911, when the scars of slavery were fresh and its legacy of pain keenly felt by generations attempting to move on.

Joe Turner, the second chapter in Wilson’s extraordinary cycle of plays depicting African-American life in each decade of the 20th century, is set only 97 years in our nation’s past yet it seems like ancient history. But what is so extraordinary about Wilson’s work here is that his history is not dates and facts and events so much as emotion, spirit and the weight of humanity.

Director Delroy Lindo, who starred in the original 1988 Broadway production, pays close attention to the details that infuse Wilson’s play with so much intensity. There’s the play we see and hear, and then there’s the subtext, where chains of the past, religious beliefs and the supernatural are waging a mighty battle.

Seth Holly (Barry Shabaka Henley) is somewhat removed from the history that infuses the Pittsburgh boarding house he runs with his wife, Bertha (Kim Staunton). Seth was born in the north and has, as he puts it, never even seen cotton, which makes his experience vastly different from the hordes of men, women and children migrating north from the South.

An enterprising metalworker, Seth is a man ruled by common sense. He doesn’t have much tolerance for boarders’ nonsense such as the “heebie jeebie” spirit work of Bynum Walker (Brent Jennings) or the late-night carousing of young buck Jeremy Furlow (Don Guillory).

But Seth’s primary test comes in the form of an intensely wound stranger who arrives with his 11-year-old daughter. Herald Loomis (Teagle F. Bougere in the role originated by director Lindo) is fresh from seven years hard labor on Joe Turner’s illegal chain gang, and he’s in search of the wife who abandoned him and his daughter, Zonia (Nia Reneé Warren, who shares the role with Inglish Amore Hills).

Herald hires Rutherford Selig (Dan Hiatt), a former finder of runaway slaves who is now an itinerant metal goods salesman, to find his wife, and that’s about it for plot save for Jeremy’s adventures with the women boarders, Mattie Campbell (Tiffany Michelle Thompson) and Molly Cunningham (Erica Peeples, above with Jennings). Jeremy is what will later be called a player, but he also represents a younger generation’s refusal to accept the secondary status of black people and is poised – with a woman on each arm and a come-hither line about his “ten-pound hammer” – to fight back.

Plot is secondary in this beautifully acted 2 ½-hour drama, which also features fine work from cast members Keanu Beausier (sharing the role with Victor McElhaney) and Kenya Brome. Wilson’s rich dialogue comes to vivid life in the hands of such remarkable actors as Jennings, who brings an otherworldly quality to the enigmatic Bynum, and Bougere, who elicits as much fear as he does compassion.

There’s a warmth and a camaraderie that emanates through the Holly boarding house (Scott Bradley’s set combines realistic detail with sketched-in flourishes), and there’s an extraordinary scene that involves Sunday dinner, music and unexpected rhythms of the spirit.

The search for identity – described in the play by Bynum as finding one’s song – is at the heart of Joe Turner. It’s no accident that the title comes from an old song about a terrible man just as most of the characters in the play are aching for something new to sing.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is graceful and deeply felt with surprising bursts of passion. With the skill of both poet and dramatist, August Wilson reminds us how close our past is and yet, on this day in November, 2008, how mercifully far away.


Joe Turner’s Come and Gone continues through Dec. 14 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$71. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Berkeley Rep play aids real-life rescue effort

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Yellowjackets, a drama about Berkeley High School’s student newspaper, The Jacket, had some real-life consequences. Audiences raised more than $6,600 to help rescue the flailing publication. Ben Freeman (left) and Kevin Hsieh were part of the just-closed show’s young cast. Photo by kevinberne.com


Sadly, it’s no secret that newspaper industry in this country is in a freefall.

But the crisis in print journalism has ripple effects that extend even into the world of high school newspapers.

The teenage staff of The Jacket, the Berkeley High School newspaper and the subject of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s just-closed hit show Yellowjackets, recently announced that the paper was in danger of going under because of “mounting financial challenges.”

As the play Yellowjackets by Berkeley High alum and former Jacket editor Itamar Moses, neared the end of its run, Berkeley Rep made appeals to audience members, who raised $6,688.81 to provide a student journalism bailout and ensure the 50-year-old paper survives.

“We’re so proud of our patrons and so glad we could be of help to local teens,” says Susan Medak, Berkeley Rep’s managing director. “After each performance of the show, the audience was encouraged to help save The Jacket through old-fashioned civic engagement: by putting donations in a coffee can on their way out of the theater. People responded with tremendous generosity. They contributed more than $6,000 – enough to keep the paper alive for at least another year.”

In other Berkeley Rep young people news, for local kids have been cast in the company’s next show, August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, running Oct. 31 through Dec. 14 in the Roda Theatre.

Director Delroy Lindo, returning to the show that earned him a Tony nomination on Broadway, says of his young actors: “The children in this show represent the future. They are the next generation in the evolution of people of African descent on this continent. They have critical scenes in this story, and I look forward to exploring them with these talented young actors.”

The lucky actors are:

  • 12-year-old Keanu Beausier of Oakland.
  • 10-year-old Inglish Amore Hills of Pleasanton
  • 11-year-old Victor McElhaney of Oakland.
  • 10-year-old Nia Renee Warren of Oakland.


For information about Berkeley Repertory Theatre visit www.berkeleyrep.org

Review: `Radio Golf’

Aldo Billingslea (left) is Harmond Wilks, C. Kelly Wright (center) is Harmond’s wife, Mame, and Anthony J. Haney is Harmond’s business partner, Roosevelt Hicks, in August Wilson’s Radio Golf at TheatreWorks in Mountain View. Photos by Mark Kitacka.


Superb cast tunes up Wilson’s `Radio’ at TheatreWorks
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Even the prodigious talents of August Wilson have a hard time making the ’90s interesting.

Radio Golf, Wilson’s final play and the last piece of his extraordinary cycle of plays documenting African-American life in each decade of the 20th century, receives its Bay Area premiere in a tightly focused, incredibly well acted production from TheatreWorks in Mountain View.

Perhaps because we have the least distance from the ’90s, as opposed to other plays in Wilson’s cycle (such as “Fences” in the ’50s or “The Piano Lesson” in the ’30s), it’s difficult to feel the dramatic weight of a decade that is best remembered for e-mail, the Internet and little else.

Curiously, there’s not a computer to be seen on Erik Flatmo’s set – a “raggedy,” as one character calls it, office space in Pittsburgh’s Hill District that was once the height of elegance with its embossed tin ceiling. The year is 1997, and the space is being used as home base for the Bedford Hills Redevelopment Project, an ambitious attempt to obliterate the blight of the black district’s poverty and hard times and introduce apartment complexes, a Starbucks, a Barnes and Noble and, of course, a Whole Foods.

The project is spearheaded by old college chums Harmond Wilks (Aldo Billingslea, right), owner of a successful real estate agency, and Roosevelt Hicks (Anthony J. Haney), a banker. This redevelopment is just the beginning, especially for Harmond, who grew up in the Hill District and wants to take the energy of this project and turn it into a bid to become Pittsburgh’s first African-American mayor.

There’s a lot of business talk in Radio Golf – maybe that’s another reason the ’90s are hard to enliven because the decade was all business – but with all the exposition of Act 1 out of the way, we get to the heart of what Wilson seems to be after here.

As time rolls on, and as “progress” pushes forward, we tend to want to deny – or at least ignore – the past rather than deal with it. But without the past, how do we know what our success really is? And without a clear view of where or who we’ve been, how do we know we’re aiming for success for the right reasons?

These are the issues faced by Harmond, a straight-laced, follow-the-plan kind of guy. His gorgeous, successful wife, Mame (C. Kelly Wright), has helped formulate the plan to get him into the mayor’s office, and together they are going to head all the way to the Senate.

But just as the plan is kicking into gear, the past shows up in the form of two men. One, Old Joe (the superb Charles Branklyn), is slightly crazy and has questionable motives, but he is deeply rooted in the past of the Hill District and even more rooted in Harmond’s past than he knows.

The other is Sterling Johnson (L. Peter Callender), a self-educated, hard-working man who brings a big dose of reality with him wherever he goes. Wilson, in a rather lazy narrative approach, makes him read from the newspaper a few too many times, but Sterling has the kind of integrity that makes businessmen and politicians nervous.

Director Harry J. Elam Jr. has a hard time kicking the long first act into gear, but in Act 2, the play and the actors catch fire because Wilson is focusing less on plot and much more on character.

With his open, honest face, Billingslea is superb as Harmond. There are dark currents coursing through this ambitious man who adopts as his election slogan: “Hold Me to It.” Faced with compromise and injustice, Harmond has to find some sort of balance between his ambition and his integrity.

Billingslea has an incredible scene with Wright, who never makes a misstep as the supremely well put together Mame. The couple watches their goals and their dreams of a perfect life in politics crumble around them. And in this one scene, they have to determine their future as a couple and what their past measures up to in the present.

There’s another extraordinary scene in the second act, this one between Haney’s Roosevelt and Callender’s Sterling. The two men – from opposite ends of the African-American male spectrum – clash in a profound way, each calling the other names and attempting to define one another through blame and accusation. It’s a difficult, chilling scene, and through it, Wilson cuts right to the heart of why race in this country has been for more than a century, and will continue to be, such a complex, polarizing issue.


Radio Golf 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.

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.

Bay Area defines NYC culture

Even 3,000 miles away, San Francisco helps define New York.

This according to New York magazine, whose 40th anniversary issue pays homage to the so-called 196 (why 196? why not 212 or a more conventional 25?) “most essential New York works of art from the past 40 years” that best defined the city since the magazine’s birth 40 years ago.

The only producer to have two shows included on the list is San Francisco’s own Carole Shorenstein Hays, the force behind SHN/Best of Broadway, whose two entries on the list were August Wilson’s Fences and Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out (labeled on the list as “the argument starter”).

Also on the list, shows such as Hair, Company, A Chorus Line, Chicago, Jennifer Holliday singing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” AIDS plays The Normal Heart and As Is, The Heidi Chronicles, Angels in America (also a show that started in San Francisco), Rent, The Lion King, The Producers, the 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd, Tom Stoppard’s trilogy The Coast of Utopia and the current Broadway musical In the Heights.

Congratulations to Ms. Shorenstein Hays, and let’s keep showing those New Yorkers what for.

Here’s the article.

Photo from the New York Times.

Building `Fences’

We’ve seen San Francisco’s Best of Broadway announcing shows in recent weeks, then canceling them. The Wiz disappeared, then Whistle Down the Wind, then the new Irish musical Ha’penny Bridge.

Well, when you can’t book a great show, you produce one. At least that’s what SHN/Best of Broadway head Carole Shorenstein Hays is going to do. She broke into the world of Broadway producing in 1987 with August Wilson’s Fences, and she has announced plans to revive the show this fall.

Suzan-Lori Parks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Topdog/Underdog (which Shorenstein Hays produced), is slated to direct.

Read the New York Times’ coverage here.
Read the San Francisco Chronicle’s coverage here.

For information about Best of Broadway, click here.