Playwright August Wilson In 'Another League'

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson was best known for a series of 10 plays - one for every decade - depicting African-American life in the 20th century. Guest host Celeste Headlee talks to director Kenny Leon and actress Phylicia Rashad, about breathing new life into the series.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Pulitzer prize-winning playwright August Wilson may be best known for a 10 play series of dramas that explore black life in America, one for each decade of the 20th century. The series includes plays like "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "The Piano Lesson" and of course, perhaps Wilson's best-known work "Fences."

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "FENCES")

JAMES EARL JONES: (As Troy Maxson) I go out of here every morning and bust my butt putting up with them crackers all day long because I like you. You is the biggest fool I ever saw. It is my job. It is my responsibility, you understand that? A man got to take care of his family.

HEADLEE: That's actor James Earl Jones in his Tony award-winning performance in "Fences" in 1987. Wilson himself died in 2005, but his plays are still performed in theaters all around the world. And now a group of actors and directors will stage live readings of all 10 plays to be recorded for a special series. It's called "August Wilson's American Century Cycle." The series is being staged at The Green Space at WNYC and actress Phylicia Rashad and director Kenny Leon join us now to tell us more about the project.

PHYLICIA RASHAD: Thank you.

KENNY LEON: Hey.

HEADLEE: What are the challenges, Phylicia, in preparing for a staged reading as opposed to just a full-out production that you've done so many of? Do you lose some of the energy when you're not on a set in costume?

RASHAD: No. I don't think energy is lost. I think energy is focused and directed in a more specific way. It's probably ideal - now that I'm looking at what we're preparing for - it's ideal to do it this way before doing a stage production because we move into sound, and this is the beginnings of what we do on stage - is sound. How it sounds and how the sound feels, what we're able to capture and communicate through sound.

LEON: When Indira Etwaroo and Ruben Santiago-Hudson put this all together with the help of...

HEADLEE: Indira Etwaroo is with WNYC, New York Public Radio.

LEON: Absolutely. When they all got together with this, they didn't decide to do that. I think it was - the focus was to be on the musicality of all 10 plays and that's a beautiful thing. Sound is just a beautiful thing because you can really hear the rhythms of August's poetry. And I think by having so many actors that have - you know, that have done his plays in the past and directors that are familiar with his rhythm, I think the audiences will - you know, they will feel an authentic voice to August's work.

HEADLEE: In fact, as you mentioned, many of these people have starred in these shows while August was alive. When he came, when he was involved in some of these productions, what may you have learned from some of these actors and their work directly with August Wilson?

LEON: Well, I think what I always learned from actors is that if you just let them open their mouths, if they understand who the characters are - one of the things that August did in working - you know, I've worked with him on "Gem of the Ocean" and a little bit on "Radio Golf" and August always learned from the actors. He would listen and he would write and then he would go and rewrite and come back into the room. So many of these actors were involved in a process that - where they had a monologue one day, and the next day, another actor had that same monologue.

You know, August, you know, worked around the country with his dramatic writer, they worked around with six or seven different regional theaters before they got to Broadway, which allowed him to hone his craft and to get the plays exactly the way he wanted them.

HEADLEE: Many people, of course, know you, Phylicia, as an actress - Claire Huxtable, of course, on the Cosby Show or even Lena Younger in "Raisin in the Sun." And as I understand - and correct me if I'm wrong - but I was told that your role in "Gem of the Ocean" was your dream role. Why is that?

RASHAD: Oh, my goodness. There's nobody like Aunt Ester in all of theater. There's just nobody like her. She's beautiful. She's wise. She's purposeful. She is determined. She is human. She is accessible. She's true.

HEADLEE: We have a clip from the Broadway production of "Gem of the Ocean." And we should mention that Aunt Ester is more than 200 years old. In this particular scene, she's talking about the city of bones and these are the bones of enslaved African people who didn't survive the journey to America. Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "GEM OF THE OCEAN")

RASHAD: (As Aunt Ester) They say it's a mystery. It ain't no mystery. It's them bones. In time it will all come to light. The people made a kingdom out of nothing. They were the people that didn't make it across the water. They sat down right there. They said let's make a kingdom. Let's make a city of bones.

HEADLEE: Phylicia Rashad, you'll be acting in this for this series in New York and Kenny Leon, you're directing. This is part of the Century Cycle and what role does Aunt Ester play in the whole series of 10 plays, Kenny?

LEON: Gem is one of my favorite of the 10. You know, it's right at the top. And we had an amazing time working on the Broadway production because Phylicia steps so deeply into truth. And you have to step into truth when you're playing Aunt Ester because Aunt Ester represents, you know, the mother of all of us. So, symbolically, she represents, you know, the length of time that Africans have been in America. But you can't play that. You have to play the woman that she is, and that's what Phylicia does so well. So, you know, in the cycle of plays, you notice around King Hedley time, which is, like, I don't know, the seventh or eighth play - and you notice the absence of Aunt Ester. You know, so when you lose the spirituality from our neighborhoods, when you lose the morality and you lose the guiding post in our community, then we've lost a big deal. So Aunt Ester represents all of that.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with director Kenny Leon and actress Phylicia Rashad. We're talking about an upcoming performance series of late playwright "August Wilson's American Century Cycle." Phylicia, this - the work of August Wilson is something you've returned to a number of times over your career. What is it about this particular playwright, or maybe the subject matter that he addressed, that draws you?

RASHAD: August Wilson's a poet, and that's brings a - that puts drama in another league, that puts theater in another league, that gives you another level of expression. When a poet writes, it's not just the word and what the word means. It's the rhythm that those words create when they're put together. And a poet doesn't have to sit down and analyze that. This is something that flows through a poet because of their relationship to language, to rhythm and to sound. It isn't something that can be taught. You can teach certain elements of it, but for a playwright to rise to this level of expression - this level of mastery, this is something that unfolds within the artist over a period of time. Wouldn't you say, Kenny?

LEON: Absolutely. It's like sometimes folks ask me, they say, well, you know, in a couple of those monologues don't you think August is repeating himself? I said, no. That's the rhythm. That's the way we talk, you know. We might say, I'm going in the house. You going be here when I come back? I'm going in the house. You know? That's just the rhythm of it. And that's a beautiful thing.

HEADLEE: Well, on that note, this is probably a good time to actually listen to August's words. This is from the 2010 production of "Fences." Kenny Leon, you directed this and it starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the leading roles who we'll hear here.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE PLAY, "FENCES")

VIOLA DAVIS: (as Rose) Times have changed from when you were young, Troy. People change. The world's changing around you. You can't even see it.

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (as Troy Maxton) Woman, I do the best I can do. I come in here every Friday. I carry a sack of potatoes and a bucket of lard. You all line up at the door with your hands stretched out. I give you the lint from my pockets. I give you my sweat and my blood. I ain't got no tears. I done spent them.

HEADLEE: Kenny Leon, Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, both nominated for Tony's for their performances. You were nominated, as well. At the time in 2010 when this production was staged, there was concern that it couldn't compete with some of the flashier Broadway productions. And quite frankly, the productions on Broadway have gotten flashier since. I mean, look at "Spiderman," right? Does - how does something like August Wilson, which is generally as un-flashy as you can get, how do you compete with the technology and the explosions that they'll see in a Broadway production?

LEON: I never think of it as competition. August, as a writer, always wanted to be considered in that group of great writers: O'Neil, Miller, Shakespeare. So for me as a director, it's all about that. So I think that August's works belongs on the highest stage that our country can offer. So when I'm putting together a production of "Fences," I'm just thinking, who can make this authentic? What actor would I like to see tackle the roles? So that's what it's about, and you cannot fool the people. You can't fool the audience. That's why that production, you know, did over a million-five, every week because the people came to hear August's words.

HEADLEE: Phylicia Rashad, looking back at the time periods in which August Wilson was writing - and as I said, this is a cycle of 10 plays, each of them addresses one specific decade - but there were issues that August Wilson was addressing, and I wonder if some of them, he would've imagined, would be solved by now. I mean, he passed away before Barack Obama was elected president. He passed away before Trayvon Martin, many of the other racial issues which are addressed in this country. Do think that the plays still have relevance?

RASHAD: The plays are more relevant than ever.

LEON: August was ahead of all of that.

RASHAD: That's exactly right. The interesting thing about the century cycle, for me, is that he did not write them in chronological order. But if you look at the first play that is chronologically first in terms of the time period, you see the dilemma expressed in that first play. The dilemma is not knowing who you really are. Citizen does not know who he is. Citizen does not know that within himself, that connects him to everything that was, that is and that is to come. And because he doesn't know that about himself, he can't stand in truth. It's said again and again, everything got to stand in the light.

HEADLEE: And we're talking about Citizen who's one of the leading roles in "Gem of the Ocean" in which you played Aunt Ester.

RASHAD: That's right. Kenny, please go ahead.

LEON: So what I would say to add to that is, like, August died in 2005, but the last play we worked together on was "Radio Golf" and he was talking about a politician who had to decide who he was in the political arena and who he was in his community. How do you represent the people? How does your choices in politics conflict with your cultural beliefs and your spiritual beliefs. So he was writing about Barack Obama before Barack Obama.

HEADLEE: And Phylicia, what benefit do you get from doing all 10 of them? Generally, you do one production at a time, right? So what kind of perspective does it give you when you do the entire cycle?

RASHAD: You see a few things. You see, in "Gem of the Ocean," a people that, although displaced and disenfranchised, still maintain a connection to basic cultural rhythms.

HEADLEE: And of course, the "Gem of the Ocean," that decade would've been 1900.

RASHAD: The play takes place in 1904, to be specific. And the people - you are looking at one generation of people who have come through bondage. You're looking at another generation that is born shortly after emancipation and the great question remains, what is freedom? What does it mean to really be free? Are you free because a war was fought and so many hundreds of thousands of people were killed? Are you free because plantations were burned?

Are you free because somebody in Congress decided to have a conscience and write a bill that says, OK, now you are free? Or are you free because you have come face-to-face with the deepest part of your own self - the part that does not change, the part that no one gave you and that no one can take away? What makes a person free? When are we really free? And that is the question that is posed in the first play. And if you look at that question throughout the entire cycle, you'll see it come again and again, in different manifestations, in different ways, from different sources. But that is always the great question.

HEADLEE: It's a question that goes unanswered by the time you get to the 10th play.

RASHAD: It's a question that is unanswered by Congress today. It is a question that is unanswered in halls of legislature throughout this country. It is a question that is unanswered in the halls of the United Nations. It is a question that is unanswered today because we're not looking inside. We're looking outside. We're looking outside for somebody to tell us. We're looking outside for somebody to sign that piece of paper that says OK. And that's not going to happen. And that's why the cycle is relevant.

HEADLEE: Kenny, before I let you go, I wanted to ask you about August Wilson's place in our history. You know, when I read biographies of him, you often read African-American playwright. Rarely playwright as opposed to, say, a white playwright. They don't often specify race. Do you think August Wilson has attained the place of respect that you hope for him, the place of simply being a great American playwright or great playwright, period?

LEON: Well, I think putting labels in front of our titles, that's just an American problem, issue, challenge. But August Wilson has clearly, clearly, without a doubt, earned his place at the artistic table. He - for 23 years, he wrote, what, 10 plays. What other American has written 10 brilliant plays? Nine of them traveled on the way to Broadway, but many of them found homes, like in Seattle, in Los Angeles, and Boston, and Baltimore, all around the country. He has 77 characters in his plays.

That's what's so exciting about this project we're doing at The Green Space because you have folks like Stephen McKinley Henderson and Michele Shay and Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Phylicia Rashad - and if you went down the list, there are so many artists in our country - Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne - that owe their artistic beginnings to the writings of August Wilson. So August is not just a great African-American writer, August is the greatest writer that this country has seen, clearly, in my lifetime.

HEADLEE: Kenny Leon is a Tony-nominated director. He joined us from member station WCLK in Atlanta. Phylicia Rashad is a Tony award-winning actress and director. She joined us from member station WNYC in New York. Thanks to both of you.

LEON: Thank you.

RASHAD: Thank you.

HEADLEE: August Wilson's "American Century Cycle" premieres next week at The Green Space at WNYC and runs through September. That's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News, and we will talk more tomorrow.

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