A Widow's Might

Constanza Romero played an active role in her husband's career as both costume designer and confidant. Now, the widow of August Wilson is dedicated to preserving his legacy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We've talked about the play. We'd like to talk now more about the playwright, August Wilson. Constanza Romero, his widow, played a key role as costume designer on many of his productions and sounding board in the rest of his life. She's remained active in bringing his works to the stage. We are very pleased to have her with us.

Constanza Romero, welcome to TELL ME MORE.

Ms. CONSTANZA ROMERO: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And I really need to start by saying I am so sorry for your loss.

Ms. ROMERO: Thanks. Thank you.

MARTIN: How did you and August Wilson first meet?

Ms. ROMERO: Well, we met 20 years ago, in 1987, when I was a third-year student at Yale drama school and I was a costume and set designer. My teachers picked me to design the costumes for "The Piano Lesson."

MARTIN: Wow.

Ms. ROMERO: And I did so. And that's how we met, and my life was changed forever.

MARTIN: Was it intimidating?

Ms. ROMERO: He didn't have an intimidating quality at all. He had a very down-to-Earth manner about him and I was very, very impressed by that. He also respected and loved artists.

MARTIN: Is that what drew you to him?

Ms. ROMERO: Yes, and also we could talk about anything. We could talk about some little trifle problem that I had with a friend or something. And he was always interested in the human qualities about relationships and the minutia. And it just didn't seem like anything was too small for him.

MARTIN: You know, I think, many of us have this image of the great writer sitting at his typewriter alone with a pipe...

Ms. ROMERO: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...maybe taking pensive walks in the woods. Is that how he was?

Ms. ROMERO: I thought so. But he was not at all like that. He would get up in the morning, go have a cup of coffee, jot some few notes on a big newspaper where they have big ads for fashion, where they have a lot of blank paper, and he would just jot a few notes on there about characters and little bits and pieces of dialogue that would pop into his mind. And then he'd come home, transfer it to his computer, then - of course he talked endlessly about his characters and...

MARTIN: Really? Talked to you?

Ms. ROMERO: Yes, to me.

MARTIN: To himself? To everybody?

Ms. ROMERO: To everybody, but definitely to me.

MARTIN: Did he ever get on your nerves?

Ms. ROMERO: Yes.

MARTIN: Like how?

Ms. ROMERO: No question.

MARTIN: Like here you are trying to get your own work and he wants to talk about, you know, what Aunt Esther is doing or whatever.

Ms. ROMERO: Well, that - it was not part of my frustration. I think that he would get on a roll. He was a talker. So at times I would say, you know, honey, I have other things to do up in my studio, which was on the third floor of our house, and I'd be running up the stairs and he'd be running up behind me still trying to talk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROMERO: And you know, he would absolutely have no idea that he was running behind me.

MARTIN: Did he ever do any work around the house?

Ms. ROMERO: Yes, he did. Oh, you mean like...

MARTIN: Yeah, dishes.

Ms. ROMERO: ...clean up and stuff?

MARTIN: Yeah, like dishes.

Ms. ROMERO: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: Really?

Ms. ROMERO: He prided himself in being the fastest dishwasher on Earth. So he was, you know, like, he didn't know why I would take my time and, you know, be talking to our daughter and, you know, just - it would take me maybe an hour to just clean up everything after dinner, and then he'd say, let me show you how to do it. Just load up the dishwasher, you know, with everything on the dishes etc. But he had been a dishwasher in Pittsburgh at a restaurant in his young, young, young years. So he wanted to show me how to do it.

MARTIN: Now, I noticed that you have a slight accent.

Ms. ROMERO: You are correct.

MARTIN: And I understand that you are born in Bogota.

Ms. ROMERO: Yes, I was.

MARTIN: Although you've back and forth as a young woman between the United States and Colombia. And I'd like to ask, how does his work speak to you as a person who is not born in this country and was not kind of raised in the African-American, you know, tradition - neighborhoods that are so much a part of his work?

Ms. ROMERO: Well, it speaks very closely to my heart. I never have felt part of American, white American culture, not 100 percent. I have enjoyed a lot of the benefits of being in this country, like education. But I do sympathize, and my deep sentimental and philosophical moral center is very much in tune with what August was writing about, probably because of the plight and what is going on in Colombia, and also because of his, you know, what I call his infinite humanity.

One example of this is there is a line in "Radio Golf," which Old Joe says and it's: Everybody on the bed or everybody on the floor. And that was taught to me by my grandmother and August put that in the play. And what it means is everybody should be in a good place or everybody in a bad place; nobody should be left behind.

MARTIN: I see. I see.

Ms. ROMERO: And in Spanish you say it, (Spanish spoken).

MARTIN: I've been wondering what's it's like for you to help mount this play or to see this play come to life, the first since you lost him.

Ms. ROMERO: It's been quite a journey, I have to say. And you know, for as much as I have lost, I have - I feel so, so victorious coming into New York. You know, I just feel like waving a victory flag as we're coming in because we have had so many dedicated people, so many people serving the legacy of his plays, of his artistry, and everybody has joined in, all the actors that were in the play from the start, the director, Todd Kreidler, who was his right-hand man.

There have been so many people that have picked up the responsibility and have brought this show here, and it's exactly where August would have wanted it to be. So I, you know, for as much as I do dwell sometimes on the losses of him on a personal note, on a, you know, a life achievement kind of note, I feel that this play being here right now is, you know, victorious, and I can't be happier.

MARTIN: Constanza Romero, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. ROMERO: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Constanza Romero joined us from our bureau in New York.

(Soundbite of song, "Backwater Blues")

Ms. BESSIE SMITH (Singer): (Singing) When it rained five days and the skies turned dark as night.

MARTIN: In memory of August Wilson, you're listening to one of his favorites, Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues."

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