ARI SHAPIRO, host:
Before the playwright August Wilson died a few years ago, he wrote a ten play cycle thats widely regarded as one of the greatest works of the American theater. Now for the first time ever, audiences can see all ten performed in the same venue.
(Soundbite of play Century Cycle)
Mr. JOHN BEASLEY (As Bynum Walker): Mr. Turners boys have ruined you a good time last night, Jeremy, what you planning for night?
Mr. MONTAE RUSSELL (As Jeremy Furlow): Oh, they got me scared to go out, Mr. Bynum, they might grab me again.
SHAPIRO: Each play explores the African American experience through a different decade. The Kennedy Center in Washington is presenting them in reparatory this month. Theyve called the project August Wilsons 20th Century. Many refer to it as the Pittsburgh Cycle since nine of the ten are set in the Pittsburgh neighborhood where Wilson grew up.
Mr. KENNY LEON (Artistic Director, Kennedy Center): I think this is probably one of the most exciting times of my life to be able to be a part of this event here at the Kennedy Center.
SHAPIRO: Thats Kenny Leon, the series artistic director. Like many of the people involved in this project, Leon worked closely with August Wilson during his life. Leon organized this cycle which includes the Pulitzer Prize winning works Fences and The Piano Lesson, along with other well-known plays such as Ma Raineys Black Bottom and Joe Turners Come and Gone. At the Kennedy Center, 41 actors play 77 of Wilsons characters from former slaves to college educated yuppies.
Mr. LEON: Sometimes in this country we marginalize him as an African American playwright, but if you look at the portrait of his work, if you look at the beauty of his character development and the dramatic structure, you see that he was a genius, even among giants, so he stands shoulder to shoulder with Chekhov, Shakespeare, and Epstein.
SHAPIRO: Wilson did not write the plays chronologically. He finished the last one, set in the 90s, just before he died of liver cancer at age 60 in 2005. Each play is designed to stand alone, but watch them consecutively and Leon says they talk to each other.
Mr. LEON: The first play, Gem of the Ocean, 1904, you have slaverys ended, but most African Americans in this country didnt have a home, didnt have jobs, didnt have a place to eat, so Citizen Barlow steps into that world, into that play, he knocks on Aunt Esters door, a lost tormented soul.
Mr. JOHN EARL JELKS (As Citizen Barlow): I want to see Aunt Ester.
Unidentified Man #1: This a peaceful house.
Mr. JELKS: I come to see Aunt Ester.
Mr. LEON: But by the end of that play he has a bond to his past. You flash forward to Radio Golf, which is the last play, you have African Americans who are politically successful, economically successful, but wheres the sense of community?
Mr. BEASLEY (As Bynum Walker): Wheres Jeremy? I dont see him around here this morning. He usually be around here ripping the rapid on Saturday morning.
SHAPIRO: Joe Turners Come and Gone is the second play in the cycle after Gem of the Ocean. Its set in 1911 when former slaves were flooding into Pittsburgh.
Unidentified Man #2: Mr. Potters boys gotta around. They aint going to nothing but hold them for a little while. You going to be back here hungry and (unintelligible) directly.
Mr. BEASLEY (As Bynum Walker): I do go for all that carrying on and such. This is a respectable house. I dont have no drunklets or fools around here.
Unidentified Man #2: Well, that boy got a lot of country in him. He aint been up here but two weeks. Its going to take him a while before you can work that country out of him.
SHAPIRO: Todd Kreidler directs the Kennedy Center production of Joe Turner. He was a close friend and colleague of Wilsons. Those themes of African heritage and slavery are very literal and tangible and real in the early plays. What happens to those as you move forward chronologically?
Mr. TODD KREIDLER (Director, Joe Turners Come and Gone, Kennedy Center): What Ive heard August say is that the people begin to lose their song. They begin to lose their way by adopting, you know, a lot of influences from dominant Western European culture until we get to Radio Golf at the end, which really, those two worlds meet face to face and sort of square off. And August always said, he said if you drop the ball, you have to go back and pick it up. If you arrive in the end zone, its not a touchdown unless you carry the ball across with you.
Unidentified Man #3: My Daddy taught me the meaning of this thing that I seen and showed me the way to find my song. I asked him about the shining man, he said hes the one who goes before and shows the way. He said there was a lots of shining men and if I ever saw one again before I died that I would know that my song had been accepted and it worked its full power in the world and I could lay down and die a happy man. A man whod done left his mark on life, on the way
SHAPIRO: You were very close with August Wilson during his life. Tell me about your relationship with him. I mean youre sometimes described as his assistant, but assistant doesnt really describe it.
Mr. KREIDLER: Yeah, I started - I mean thats how we met. I was put in a room with him and I worked at Pittsburgh Public Theater doing the world premiere of King Hedley, you know, Id always been a writer and we just started a relationship which was largely personal and then one day in rehearsal he brought a note card and he said, man, he said, this is one of Kings speeches, it goes in the play, but I dont know where it goes. Can you find a place for it?
SHAPIRO: What did that feel like to you when suddenly this titan of the American theater is asking you to help structure one of his plays?
Mr. KREIDLER: I mean I was in it. You know, I was in the play and that moment was built upon conversations and shared sensibilities and the great mystery of any human relationship in our life. We certainly cut a strange cite. I mean I was, you know, I was 24 or 25 at the time. I looked 18, so I was like this 18 year old white kid with August and it was puzzling, its still puzzling to folks.
SHAPIRO: Describe for me a typical day working with August Wilson on one of these plays, if you could.
Mr. KREIDLER: A typical day? My cell phone rings at eight oclock in the morning, hey man, what you doing man? You up? Yeah. You want to get some breakfast. Sure. Ill meet you at the spot. Now see the spot was whatever city we were in is where we would hang out and start our day for breakfast, so it was Cartons in Chicago, The Mecca in Seattle, here in D.C. it was Cupa Cupa. I mean every city had a spot and thats where wed start our day and everyday wed start off with at least three elements. We always had music. We always had the newspaper and we always had stories. The newspaper would always launch something. You know, Gem of the Ocean, early on when he was writing and he said, okay, he says its set in 1904, but its being written in 2004 so if you look at the play, I mean and its hard, its about, you know, moral law versus human law.
Mr. RUBEN SANTIAGO-HUDSON (As Caesar): Dont you talk to me like your mother. I dont know why your mother never liked me. Your mother tried to turn you against me and you let her.
Unidentified Woman: You kidnapped (unintelligible) aint nothing to do with my mother. Youre always trying to hide behind that.
SHAPIRO: The male actor in that clip is Ruben Santiago-Hudson. He played the character Caesar in Gem of the Ocean, both on Broadway and in the Kennedy Center production. Hes also directing one of the shows the cycle.
People talk about language as being Shakespearean or painteresque and there is as distinctive, an August Wilson type of language. How do you describe what makes August Wilsons language distinct in his plays?
Mr. SANTIAGO-HUDSON: Its distinct because its authentic, what I call northern colored people, black folk from the south who came north, but brought all their southern ways with them, their style, the way they stand, they way they talk, their morals, the way they do things, their integrity, and so August captured that authentically and so when he finds actors who know these people well, like he does intimately, he sticks with them because they know his music.
SHAPIRO: Is this something that an actor can learn or is it just something thats in your body from having heard it and grow up and been surrounded by it?
Mr. SANTIAGO-HUDSON: Everybody thats black doesnt carry an August Wilson card in their pocket, trust me. Its easy to discern who can do it and who cannot do it. As a person whos directed several August Wilson productions, I know when you come in the room whether you know the rhythm.
Ms. MICHELE SHAY (As Aunt Ester): I see part of my devil, them pigeons that before.
Mr. SANTIAGO-HUDSON (As Caesar): Nah, nah, look at this. That pigeons flopped out of Bynums hand and hes about to have a fit. He down there on his hands and knees behind a bush looking all over for that pigeon and it on the other side of the yard. See it over there?
Ms. SHAY (As Aunt Ester): Um-hum. Come on and get your breakfast and leave that man alone.
Mr. SANTIAGO-HUDSON (As Caesar): Look at him. Hes still looking. He aint seen it yet. All that mumbo-jumbo nonsense, I dont know why I put up with it.
SHAPIRO: Tell me about the character you play in Gem of the Ocean, Caesar. Hes probably the closest August Wilson comes to creating a villain. And this kind of character recurs in other plays throughout the cycle. What is it about Caesar and these other characters that August condemns?
Mr. SANTIAGO-HUDSON: You know, its funny because when I hear the word villain, it kind of puts a little hair up on me. Hes not the villain. He has a way of doing things that I guess everybody else doesnt agree with. Caesar first is a law enforcement man and then hes a business man. He speaks on both levels. Unfortunately, his manners, the way he deals with things are final. Hes all about money, hes all about the way the man does things. Hes who is in charge, let me follow those rules and I know I can get ahead if I play your game.
Mr. SANTIAGO-HUDSON (As Caesar): Ive got to play the hand that was dealt to me. You look around and see black, you look at the calendar, slavery is over. Im a free man. I can wake up whatever time I want to in the morning and I can move all over and pick any woman I want. I can walk down the street to the store, buy anything my money will buy. There aint nothing I cant have. Im starting out with nothing. Ive got to get a little something.
Mr. SANTIAGO-HUDSON: I could play him completely different. I could make you love him.
Mr. SANTIAGO-HUDSON: I could make you love him.
SHAPIRO: Do you think August Wilson loved him?
Mr. SANTIAGO-HUDSON: I think August Wilson loves every character he wrote.
Mr. SANTIAGO-HUDSON: Because each and every one of those characters are redeemable. Theyre all flawed and theyre all redeemable. They all can be delivered to another place.
SHAPIRO: When you look at the cycle of ten plays, how do you see these themes of striving and success evolving and changing over the cycle?
Mr. SANTIAGO-HUDSON: You know, August had so many messages and so many metaphors, what I find in all of his plays in everyone is searching to be whole. Theyre searching to matter. You know, whatever their lot is in life, theyre searching for some opportunity to say I am somebody. I mean I belong, I count. Whether its Hedley saying Buddy Boldens going to bring me my money and seven guitars or whether its Reverend Avery saying Im going to open up a church in Piano Lesson, or whether its Floyd saying Im going to Chicago and make me another hit record, you know, everybodys saying I want to matter, because if you really look at it, the majority of the people in this country of color in the big scheme of things, dont feel that they count. They dont feel that they matter.
SHAPIRO: So I asked Todd Kreidler whos white and worked closely with Wilson, whether he thinks audiences of different races respond differently to these plays. He said once people get into the theater, they generally go with it.
Mr. KREIDLER: But given Americas history and the fact that August puts that history down stage center, I think it makes people very uncomfortable and it make them - they either feel bad or arent they over that yet? Why are they still talking about that and you know, Im hoping this country turns around and I think we get far enough away from it the work will get more and more absorbed hopefully into the theater and into our literature and well recognize what the accomplishment is because its stunning. I mean this is - I mean you talk about, you know, the theater is Western European, we brought it here, but this cycle of plays is definitively American. This is an American cycle and nobody has touched this accomplishment.
SHAPIRO: Do you think he ever felt bound by the project?
Mr. KREIDLER: Oh yes, absolutely. I mean it was dogging him towards the end and he had a lot more going on. He had novels, all kinds of other plays, this wild comedy he was writing about coffin makers, many, many, many short stories. Theyre out there, so as his friend I still felt that he was cut off in the midst of life and that you know theres no telling where he would have gone.
(Soundbite of music)
SHAPIRO: Thats Todd Kreidler. We also heard from Kenny Leon and Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Theyre all part of August Wilsons 20th Century running through April 6 at the Kennedy Center in Washington.