ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Two years ago today, the American theater lost its most celebrated African-American playwright. August Wilson died at age 60. He did managed to finish his cycle of 10 plays, each based in one decade of the 20th century, each a story of the African-American experience. "Fences," "The Piano Lesson," "Gem of the Ocean," to name a few.
Today, we're going to talk with two veteran actors about August Wilson's impact on their lives. Tonya Pinkins and James Williams recently finished up a Broadway run of Wilson's final play, "Radio Golf." James Williams portrayed a developer, planning to bulldoze a home in Pittsburgh's Hill District - the setting for many of Wilson's "Century Cycle" plays.
(Soundbite of stage play, "Radio Golf")
Mr. JAMES WILLIAMS (Actor): (As Roosevelt Hicks) Hey, look, old man. You don't own the house anymore. That's what the man is trying to tell you. That can't be that hard to understand.
NORRIS: Tonya Pinkins played a feisty campaign manager.
Ms. TONYA PINKINS (Actress): (As Mame Wilks) Do you understand how important this is? If the commissioner doesn't come, we throw away our police report. Then, we lose the fireman and the labor union start to worry. Who wants a mayor who can't protect the city?
NORRIS: Between the two of them, Pinkins and Williams have been in nearly all of Wilson's "Century Cycle" plays. Tonya Pinkins says Wilson had a special ear for the rhythms of black life.
Ms. PINKINS: The challenge of being a black actor in New York was that most of the material written for us was not written by blacks. And so you'd often get people telling you you weren't black enough. And when I came to August's work, it was this breath of fresh air because these were authentic sounds of black people. I knew all the people in these shows rather than people who've grown up on TV versions of what black was supposed to be, trying to tell a black actor how to be black.
NORRIS: I wonder if that was, in itself, a challenge, when you recognize the characters, to stay true to the role as he wrote it as opposed to trying to put yourself in it and your own experience.
Ms. PINKINS: I think it made it much, much easier because inside of yourself, you know, I knew these people. These were relatives of mine. These are my aunts and my uncles. And it was far more challenging for me to try to be a gospel singer when I was raised Catholic.
Mr. WILLIAMS: I would have to agree with that most wholeheartedly. I spent five years doing classical theater at the Guthrie in Minneapolis. And it was always a challenge to try to find a way to bring who I was, my core of my experience, to roles that were not written for me. And matching up with August, it made life be so much easier as an actor. It was the rhythms that I heard all my life, sitting around the kitchen table on a holiday, listening to the adults talk.
NORRIS: I want to ask you about that in looking at the dialogue on the page and what you start to hear when you first look at those scripts.
Mr. WILLIAMS: It's, for me, it's finding the rhythm. Actually, before I - when I know I'm cast, the first thing I do is I'd go and find the music of that decade because that gives me my first clue of what the rhythm of the speech is. And when I'm reading it at home, I read it with music playing in the background.
Ms. PINKINS: I read all the 10 before we did "Radio Golf." And it was just fascinating to me to see how each decade, he really shows you how slavery was still present in a new form.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah.
Ms. PINKINS: The dialogue is just truth. In a way, it's the most difficult material I've ever had to memorize because it is a piece of music. And if you skip a word, you have changed the song.
(Soundbite of stage play, "Radio Golf")
Ms. PINKINS: (As Mame Wilks) Commissioner Bell needs to be at the groundbreaking. and you're going to have to play. Smile, shake hands, let the commissioner get his picture with you holding the silver shovel.
Ms. PINKINS: That music is so specific to those characters and that era, and all of the voices of African-Americans have a similarity. It's just easy to fall into your specific personal rhythm, as opposed to the very specific rhythm that August wrote.
Mr. WILLIAMS: He knew every word he ever wrote. And he came to me once and looked at me, and he said, you know on page 37, where you had that pause? He said, that's a comma, not a period. And I went back and looked at the script, and he was right.
NORRIS: Okay. When you both worked on "Radio Golf," was that a bit of a bittersweet experience? I mean, August Wilson died before he saw that play reach Broadway.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah. It was hard. It was very hard from the early days. Once we left Yale and he got his diagnosis, what it instilled in us was a sense of a mission. But we also knew that he was - he could've taken medication to have prolonged his life, but the medication would have left him, made it very difficult for him to write coherently. So he made the choice to finish the play.
And when someone makes that kind of choice, those days when you come into rehearsal and you feel tired, or days when you're having problems, you kind of - you had to kick him to the curb because you say, okay. This man is spending the last amount of life force to complete this thing. I can't do anything but meet it with all I've got to give every day.
Ms. PINKINS: And my selfish sadness about it is that before August, this canon of work and opportunities for actors did not exist. And it took a Lloyd Richards…
NORRIS: You're talking about the director, Lloyd.
Ms. PINKINS: Yes, the director Lloyd Richards, to even bring it to the world on Broadway level. And to have lost both of them in the last few years, the combination of August and Lloyd created something - an opportunity for a 10-play cycle to actually happen that had never happened before in history. And, you know, I wonder who's going to lead that way.
NORRIS: Tonya Pinkins, James Williams, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us and taking us down memory lane.
Ms. PINKINS: Thank you, Michele.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Thank you.
NORRIS: James Williams and Tonya Pinkins.
Next up for Pinkins, a movie out this November called "Enchanted." James Williams will be performing in his seventh August Wilson play, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." That's at Center Stage in Baltimore.
This month, the "Century Cycle" is available for the first time in a boxed set of 10 beautiful books. And at our Web site, you can hear a classic example of August Wilson's language. A character named Citizen reminisces about a woman in a blue dress. It's from the play "Gem of the Ocean." That's at npr.org.