Late Playwright August Wilson's Work Lives On The Tony Awards, the premier honors in the world American theater, will be broadcast this weekend on CBS. Among the big nominees, the current production of late writer August Wilson's play, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." Two of the production's nominees discuss their work, the message behind the production and the legacy of playwright August Wilson.
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Late Playwright August Wilson's Work Lives On

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Late Playwright August Wilson's Work Lives On

Late Playwright August Wilson's Work Lives On

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Some professional chatterers are still mulling over the president and first lady's visit to New York this past weekend. And while some want to argue about the cost of the first couple's plans for date night, nobody questions their taste in theater.

The Obamas saw the latest Broadway revival of the August Wilson play "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." It's the third of 10 plays in Wilson's groundbreaking Pittsburgh Cycle, a decade-by-decade exploration of the 20th-century African-American experience. Joe Turner is set in a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911, a place that more or less welcomes African-Americans looking for refuge from the indignities and brutality they suffered during slavery and its aftermath. The play won rave notices when it opened this spring and could win six Tony awards, including Best Revival this Sunday.

Bartlett Sher, the director of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," joins us now. Also with us is Roger Robinson, one of the play's leads. They are both nominated for Tony awards for this production. Welcome, gentlemen, and congratulations to you both.

Mr. BARTLETT SHER (Director, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone"): Thank you, thank you.

Mr. ROGER ROBINSON (Actor, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone"): Thank you.

MARTIN: So before we go into the play, I just have to ask, how exciting was it to have the president and first lady at Saturday's performance? Was it - Roger, was it nerve-wracking?

Mr. ROBINSON: Not at all.

MARTIN: Not at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: It was nerve-wracking. It was very nerve-wracking because we started a little bit late and it was very - I don't know how they do it, I have to say. For them to go to the theater is a big deal.

Mr. SHER: Yeah, it's only the fourth sitting president, I believe, to come to a Broadway show.

MARTIN: Really?

Mr. SHER: Yeah. Eisenhower saw "My Fair Lady." The Trumans drove in from Missouri to see something. And then Clinton saw two. He saw Kevin Spacey's "Iceman Cometh" and something else.

Mr. ROBINSON: I think he saw "Chicago."

Mr. SHER: "Chicago."

MARTIN: Well, well, when all is said and done, Roger, was it fun? Was it just - were you just glad it was over?

Mr. ROBINSON: It was electric. It was an electric evening, and I said to the cast before we went up, I said look, this is what we do, and we have been doing this and we will give this man and his wife the best show that they have ever seen, and we did. I am so proud of that cast. We rose to a level that we have not done since the night before, probably.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: All right, that's wonderful. Well, let us talk about the play for those who are not familiar with it. Bart, Joe Turner is not a character on stage, but he's so important to the story. So, for those who are not aware, who is Joe Turner?

Mr. SHER: Well, Joe Turner is described as the brother of the governor of the great state of Tennessee. And at the time, actually mostly following Reconstruction, there was actually laws on the books allowing people to pick people up for sort of unstated crimes or sometimes crimes and then run up court costs. And then essentially enslave people for years at a time while they tried to work off their court costs. And our lead character, Harold Loomis, was picked up by Joe Turner in a sweep while he was simply on the side of the road and then essentially enslaved or held in prison in what could be a road gang or working in a mine or whatever for seven years and stole seven years of his life.

So when they say Joe Turner's come and gone, it means he's come through, taken people out of their lives and left a lot of suffering behind.

MARTIN: So the context that this sets up for this play is that slavery is over but it's not really over. It's still marking these characters, and also there are people who are searching for each other, (unintelligible)…

Mr. SHER: Yeah, it also takes place in that sort of great period of migrations from the South to the North as industrialization takes over, and there's a lot more jobs available in the North. And the play is set in Pittsburgh, as all August Wilson's plays are. So you get a sense of this boarding house alongside the road with people moving through on their way to get jobs, look for others. And Bynum, Roger's character, is a man who binds people together who've been lost from each other.

MARTIN: Now Roger, talk to me if you would, about Bynum Walker. And I want to play a little bit of your performance.

Mr. ROBINSON: (as Bynum Walker) My daddy healed with a song. He healed people by singing over them. I've seen him do it. He sung over this little white girl when she was sick. They made a big to-do about it. They carried the girl's bed out in the yard and had all her kin folks standing around. The little girl laying up there in the bed, doctors standing around can't do nothing to help her. And they had my daddy come up and sing his song. It didn't sound no different than any other song, it was just somebody singing. But the song was his own thing and it come out and took upon this little girl with its power, and it healed her.

MARTIN: So tell me about Bynum Walker. How do you understand him?

Mr. ROBINSON: He's a person you go to, to - if you have romance problems, money problems, you want to find somebody, he's a diviner and a griot and a shaman.

MARTIN: Roger, you were nominated for a Tony for your performance in another August Wilson play, "Seven Guitars," back in 1996. What is it about his work that speaks to you?

Mr. ROBINSON: The paychecks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Hello.

Mr. ROBINSON: I loved August's language. For me he was really a poet first before he was a playwright and that really shows in his work and the rhythms of African American dialects that he has captured so beautifully in all of his plays. You have to speak every word that he wrote when he wrote it. I just heard something for the first time in the play. There's a character called Seth who runs a boardinghouse, and the actor that's playing him, Ernie Hudson, has been saying, I don't know if that man is going to harm her. And I heard when Ernie wasn't there his understudy went on. The understudy said the actual line as it's written and it makes a difference. He said I don't know if that man is going to do a harm to her.


Mr. ROBINSON: And that is so particular that I've got to go now and tell the stage manager to get Ernie to say a harm, because it's a difference and it also gives us a sense of the - how they spoke in that period.

MARTIN: Is it hard to go back to that place of pain, that sense of being trapped, to being so close to imprisonment, really, to slavery times? Is that hard?

Mr. ROBINSON: We have instances in our lives now that are parallel to that, you know what I mean?

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ROBINSON: The society we live in, it's not that much changed. As a matter of fact, the irony of President Obama and the first lady being in that theater was that the Belasco is the second oldest theater and still in use in New York. It's the only one that still has a separate entrance for colored people in the balcony so - with its own box office. So the irony of having this man come when even a hundred years ago he would not have been allowed to sit where he sat.

MARTIN: That's so interesting because you know I have been in that balcony. I had no idea why. I always wondered why there was a separate box office. I just haven't thought about it.

Mr. ROBINSON: Well that's why. So it's close to us isn't it?

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the Tony nominated revival of the August Wilson play, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." And our guests are one of its leads, Roger Robinson and director, Bartlett Sher. Bart, do I have this right, that you're the first white director to revive an August Wilson production on Broadway? I have that right? That is correct?

Mr. SHER: I believe that is correct.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And you're laughing because this is not a matter of...

Mr. SHER: Not a new question. No.

MARTIN: This is not a new question and...

Mr. SHER: No it's not a new question.

MARTIN: Do I have it right though, because there is some dispute about whether this is true.

Mr. SHER: Yes.

MARTIN: That August Wilson, in his lifetime, did express a preference for African American directors to direct his work and so...

Mr. SHER: Absolutely. There's no question that he did. I think from...

MARTIN: So how did knowing this affect your participation in the production? How did that sit with you?

Mr. SHER: Well I think you know he, it's well, it's a very complex thing. I mean I...

Mr. ROBINSON: He brought a gun to rehearsal.

Mr. SHER: Oh shush up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHER: I would say you know that the truth is, is that what a lot of people don't realize is that the group of people around August who made these plays, meaning Lloyd Richards and an incredible group of actors - and there's often a really extraordinary core around a writer - who make a piece. And I think those guys were some of the best. Now it's a full generation later. It's over 20 years since the play was originally written. In the world of reviving or in the world of interpretation, and I'm an interpreter. I don't pretend to be a creator. I think it felt like it was time or it was possible with enough time for me to get a chance to look at it. I like to look at August Wilson the same way I would look at Chekov or the same way I would look at Shakespeare, whatever kind of play I would do in the sense that there's been enough distance, I'm looking at it after many others have looked at it.

MARTIN: Well there's you and then there's all the other people who are looking at you. And as you pointed out, it is a complex question in the sense that black people have struggled with the whole question of their competence and so forth. How did you work through all that or did you just ignore it?

Mr. SHER: Well I - no, no, no. I didn't ignore it whatsoever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHER: And that's a good question. I mean I would also think, and Roger can talk about this as well, I don't pretend to impose an interpretation on it like I know something about it. I work with a group of people and we together make a version of it. But it was never a question for me of competence or anything like that. And I do think that the position that August originally took, which is that African American directors should direct his plays, was the correct one and a brave one for him to take at that time. And now, many years later, I think that sort of is beginning to shift. And so I felt very fortunate, lucky, and humbled by the opportunity to be able to do it.

MARTIN: Roger, you were making the point that perhaps we have not evolved as much as we might think that we have. So what is your take on this question of Bart's directing this production? I wonder if you've been asked to weigh in on this by other colleagues. Where are you in the thick of it?

Mr. ROBINSON: Oh my God, I've been asked (unintelligible).


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: First of all I worked with August when he was alive on three different productions. I did know that he felt that way. You must understand that if August saw this production he would be overjoyed. And I know that's going to cause a lot of consternation amongst all the Wilsonite actors and directors, but I - this production is incredible. And it's Bart's vision to see this and take it there. And the other thing is, I want to point out is, August is dead. His wife made the decision. So if August had wanted to keep black directors directing his plays he should've written it down.


Mr. ROBINSON: And he had a chance to because he knew this issue was coming up.

MARTIN: Interesting. Bart, can I just ask you before we move on the end of our conversation...

Mr. SHER: Sure.

MARTIN: ... is you know the first African American to do something or the first Jewish person to do something, the first Latino person to do something, often feels an extra responsibility and I, as perhaps exemplified by your special guest the other night, did you?

Mr. SHER: Oh my gosh, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHER: I also like to say that you know one of the things that I hope there's a sort of paradoxical relationship here which is that there are not enough opportunities for African America directors to direct Shakespeare and Chekov and Ibsen and I hope that...

Mr. ROBINSON: Williams and O'Neill.

Mr. SHER: ... and Williams and O'Neill - and I'm hopeful that this actually begins to turn this up in such a way that those boundaries completely dissolve. For me the responsibility meant extra preparation, a deeper attention to the work. And I really only tried - you know I've known August's work for 20 years. So the real issue was trying to sort of deal with this - as an interpreter 20 years after it was written - was to see if there was a way to look at how his work can be expressed in a slightly different way now that we have some remove on it. And this is a common thing that all writers go through. There's the original creation and then usually a generation later they begin to rethink or look at them differently. And I think we're in the beginning of that process with August's work - the kind of ways in which his poetry can be suggested to interpreters down the generations, because he's somebody who's going to be performed two, three, four, five hundred years from now.

MARTIN: So what would you like to take on next?

Mr. SHER: Oh my gosh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHER: Take on next? I would like to be - I don't have any idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHER: That's a hard question. I mean mostly the thing is you really pick, you look for good stories and I'm a very - very interested in American work. And I think he's one of our greatest American artists, and particularly wanted to you know to have a chance at one of the plays. And the context of Broadway is one of the more magnified lenses through which to see something. And it felt like it was a good time actually maybe because we had a new president, to be able to dissolve and look at those boundaries differently.

MARTIN: Roger, last year we spoke to S. Epatha Merkerson and she expressed concern that Wilson's death, even though he completed the cycle of 10 plays that he had hoped to, but she expressed a concern that this, that his loss might mean a loss of opportunities for African American actors like yourself. You've been on stage for decades, as you mentioned, you worked closely with August Wilson and interpreted a number of his plays. What about you? Are you concerned? And what's next for you?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well only God knows what's next.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: I don't want to. He always laughs - God laughs when I tell him my plans.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: But no, I'm not concerned. I think theater has changed certainly. I made my debut in New York in 1963 and I have seen a change greatly because I came along at an ideal time. It was the beginning of the revolution in terms of tearing down the boundaries of the black consciousness. And so there was an abundance of black plays that were being done by - all over New York. And I certainly benefitted from that. And then the rise of black theater, so all of that fed my career because it's a lot of work. It is not the case now and I feel a little sorry for people coming out of these schools and coming into the theater because the American theater, the face of all American theater has changed.

Mr. SHER: But I wouldn't mind respectfully disagreeing with Roger because I do think there are a lot of different kinds of opportunities then there used to be. Casting has changed a lot. There are some wonderful writers like Lynn Nottage out there who's writing great plays and good roles, and these things evolve like all things do. We still have August's plays out there to perform and work on. And at the same time, there are some new writers coming up, maybe not as many as there should be. And I wouldn't - there was a very, very special time when Roger came up. But they're a lot of other parts out there and hopefully, you know it's possible that you know the next great Hamlet will be an African American actor and the next great - and Chekov and those things are now being cast in a much more open way. So new changes and evolve. There's no question.

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, for me, what I said holds still true because now there are less opportunities now to learn your craft and get experience. And that also influences the kinds of actors that you get: to get an actress for an August Wilson play demands a great knowledge of the craft.

MARTIN: Well congratulations to you both for the work on this production.

Mr. SHER: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Roger Robinson is a Tony nominee for his performance in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." And Bart Sher is also nominated for a Tony for directing that play. They both joined us from NPR's New York bureau.

Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us and congratulations again.

Mr. SHER: Thank you.

Mr. ROBINSON: Thank you.

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