A Playwright's Work Is Never Done
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Two years after the death of the legendary playwright August Wilson, his final production is set to arrive on Broadway today. "Radio Golf" is the closing chapter of Wilson's ten-play cycle chronicling each decade of African-American life in the 20th century.
Mr. AUGUST WILSON (Playwright): For a long while, I didn't value the way in which black people talked. I thought in order to make art out of it, you had to change it, and so I was - in some of the earlier one acts, there was a heightened sense of poetic language like terror hangs over the night like a hawk, you know. Well, you won't find that in my plays today.
MARTIN: Wilson was putting the final touches on the play when he died, and so the opening of "Radio Golf" is a bittersweet moment for his longtime collaborators. We're pleased to be joined by Harry Lennix, who plays the lead in "Radio Golf"; Kenny Leon, the director of "Radio Golf"; and Todd Kreidler, August Wilson's assistant.
Mr. TODD KREIDLER (Associate Artistic Director, True Colors Theatre Company): Thank you, Michel.
Mr. KENNY LEON (Director, "Radio Golf"): It's very good to be here.
Mr. HARRY LENNIX (Actor): Thank you so much.
MARTIN: I'm just, you know, very, very pleased to have the opportunity to speak with you. Now, Todd, having worked so closely with someone...
Mr. KREIDLER: Yes.
MARTIN: ...and clearly assistant does not cover the range of the collaboration. But what's it like when that person isn't there?
Mr. KREIDLER: I can't describe it. I mean, the work has kept him alive for us, so I think May 8th is going to be a triumph and a day of great sorrow, a letting go of this final project that, you know, we felt a responsibility to carry on. But I don't know how to describe it.
MARTIN: How did it work before? Did he come to the theater? Did you bring him notes every day? How did it work?
Mr. KREIDLER: We'd start our days at about 8:00 o'clock in the morning. He'd say, Todd, man, let's meet at this spot. And we will go and have breakfast somewhere, and then breakfast will turn into lunch and lunch would turn into dinner. And then that eight or nine hours of supposedly hanging out, somehow we would restructure the play, have some idea for new characters, work on some tangential film project and criticize things in the New York Times. So that was sort of our...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KREIDLER: ...that was sort of the style in which both of us were kind of non-structured from what I call the school of hanging out.
MARTIN: Harry, what about you in interpreting this role?
Mr. LENNIX: It's different because with "King Hedley," August was there every day. That's when Todd and I first met, actually. He was - I think he had just sort of recently come on with that particular play. And when it got to Los Angeles, Todd was very much involved, and August was very much involved. He came to just about every rehearsal, unless he was writing.
Interestingly, I found it a little daunting having the writer right there. I mean August's work is on the level to me of Shakespeare and some of the great writers of all time. But you know, to think about those kinds of giants in a room with you while you're working on the script is daunting.
MARTIN: Who's going to summarize the plot for me? Kenny, do you want to do that?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LEON: No.
Mr. LEON: I want America to come and to see the play.
Mr. LEON: All I can say is that...
MARTIN: It's going to be you or me.
Mr. LEON: It's the 10th play in the cycle...
Mr. LEON: ...and this is the first play where he deals with middle-class characters.
Mr. LEON: And it is an appropriate and fitting conclusion to his body of work. It's a play that focuses on morally what's right and what's wrong.
MARTIN: Now, Todd, as Kenny's told us, the cycle went through the 20th century and it went back and forth through time - at least that's how they came to us in the audience. Did he always mean to end with the present? Because I must say, the thing about this play that's remarkable is it could be a news story. I mean this is the kind of situation that could be happening in any major city right now. So did he always mean to end up right here?
Mr. KREIDLER: He discovered that in the process of writing this cycle of plays. I mean he had written a play called "Jitney" in the '70s, which he later returned to in the '90s, and it was done off-Broadway, and it's the '70s play in the cycle. And then he wrote a play called "Fullerton Street," which was set in the '30s, I believe, and then "Ma Rainey" and then "Fences" and "Joe Turner." So he begin to see this pattern of plays set in different decades.
So it gave him the idea to set out a larger project for himself and to lay out a larger cloth and say, okay, I'm going to do 10 plays, one in each - set in each decade of 20th century and addressing different issues in African-American life in that decade. So as he neared the end, and when I began to work with him, starting in 1999 on "King Hedley," he had the last two plays in sight, so he always - he saved the 1904 play and then the '90s play, that it was going to - somehow he knew they were going to connect and somehow encase or encapsulate the cycle of plays.
MARTIN: Kenny, I wanted to ask you, because I think that because that August Wilson's plays traveled kind of back and forth through time, I can imagine where a historical play might post a challenge, because, you know, there might be realities that some folk might not be aware of as they're watching the play - although of course they can - you would encourage them to go and sort of think about it more. But if you're directing a play set in the present, you know, you might have a developer sitting in the audience, or a, you know, mortgage broker sitting in the audience who, you know, might not appreciate how he or she is being depicted. And I just wonder, are there any special challenges to directing something that is so right now?
Mr. LEON: That's the beauty of theater. I think by the nature of art, you know, it's political. And August wasn't so much focused on what is historically correct, you know. He was trying to develop stories, and - but my charge as director is to create an exciting, engaging evening of theater.
MARTIN: August Wilson was very tough on what I would call strivers - you know, the guy trying to make it in what some people would call the mainstream. And that guy is often the person with the biggest moral conflict. It seems to me that the price of mainstream success is an important theme, and I wondered if he ever talked to you about his concerns, about the price of mainstream success. Todd?
Mr. KREIDLER: Well, I mean I would say he was looking at the middle class, and he was looking at a middle class that had gained success in African-American culture by appropriating and adopting the values of the dominant culture, which is largely Western European white culture. And what he was saying is that the - it wasn't so much the striving that he was criticizing but the way, that you don't have to turn your back on your history or somehow essentially adopt white values to become successful, that African-American culture is whole and can sustain you when you leave your mother's house.
MARTIN: But the irony, of course, is that he was very successful, and each of you is very successful. And I just wonder, Harry, maybe you could start with this. Do you ever feel judged by his work?
Mr. LENNIX: No. I think that - I think that it is a matter of ethics, and I think if your ethics are intact, then you can be in a position, like August Wilson was, where he used his success and his influence to actually raise questions, help people out, give people opportunities to perform and to show what their particular gift was. August was not afraid of somebody else's success.
This is a debate that is as old as the black community, really. W.E.B. DuBois - DuBois, as some people would prefer - always talked about the talented tenth. So we need successful black people. There is no reason to have any shame about being successful or being educated, because it is that vanguard that is going to continue to be the inspiration for people coming up behind it.
MARTIN: For example, right now we're in the middle of a presidential campaign, and there's a candidate who is African-American who could win. And yet there is a debate going on in some quarters about whether he can be true to both worlds.
Mr. LENNIX: You know, what's beautiful about August is that he passed away in October of 2005, and he wrote about things that are universal. He wrote about the Don Imus situation before it happened, two years before it happened. He wrote about Barack before, you know - so it's like, it's a universal thing. He's writing about humanity.
MARTIN: No, tell me. Talk to me about that. How do you feel that Don Imus situation is reflected...
Mr. LENNIX: Because you got the whole scene - you have the conversations in Act II when the two men are debating the use of the N-word and how we use that, and we explore things that happen within the culture and things that happen in the broader culture, and it has you think about that. We know that in the black community we have things that, oh, we shouldn't say that.
I remember one time a while back I was doing one of August's plays and I said, we shouldn't use that on stage. And I think August's response was like, that's what we use in real life, and why wouldn't we put it on stage? And - which is like interesting on Broadway because we're really going out to make sure that African-Americans know about this play as well as other Americans.
So we've had a fine balance of African-Americans and non-African-Americans sit in the theater side by side, looking at something profoundly American on stage, so it's really exciting every night to see that, and I know that on no other Broadway stage is that happening. There is no audience quite like the audience we had watching the play in New York.
MARTIN: Todd Kreidler, what do you think August Wilson's legacy should be? And I should say - I should have said at the outlet, I'm so very sorry for your loss and for all of our loss - but Todd, what do you think?
Mr. KREIDLER: August always said that art must be born out of necessity, and I think that as time passes we'll see this cycle of plays as more necessary to us in understanding our own humanity, and they will give us tools for exploration of not only African-American culture but American culture. So I think if you want to talk about 20th century America and capitalism, that you can say that August shows us who we are and it gives us a roadmap to discover our own humanity.
MARTIN: Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. LEON: Thank you.
Mr. LENNIX: Thank you.
Mr. KREIDLER: Thank you.
Mr. LENNIX: Great talking to you.
MARTIN: Kenny Leon is the director of "Radio Golf;" Harry Lennix plays the lead role; and Todd Kreidler was August Wilson's assistant and is the dramaturge for "Radio Golf." They joined us from our studio in New York. You can find out more about "Radio Golf" on our Web site at npr.org/tellmemore.