An August fellow
The idea, strangely enough, had its genesis in August Wilson's imminent death.
"It was reading that he was ill last summer and completing his final play," says Mark Cuddy. Cuddy is the artistic director at the GevaTheatreCenter and he's talking about the theater's decision to stage all 10 of Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle of plays starting later this season.
The cycle, about the African-American experience, includes a play set in each decade of the 20th century. Wilson finished that final play that Cuddy references, Radio Golf, in 2005. It premiered, like most of his other plays, at the Yale Repertory Theatre in May, but he continued to revise it after that. A month later he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. He died in October.
"He was rewriting it the month before he died," says Cuddy, with a hint of awe. It was an iconic ending for a man who had become as much of an icon as playwright can be in this country. And it inspired Cuddy, who'd hosted Wilson at Geva several times in the past.
Often, Cuddy admits, decisions about what to stage can be time-consuming and frustrating affairs, where everyone has a different opinions and suggestions. But when he brought this idea up the reaction was a bit different.
"There was just a huge grin," he says. "There was never any more discussing than 'Oh, of course.'"
If the decision to stage all 10 plays was an easy one to make, carrying it out will be a different matter.
"It's a five-year commitment, so that's pretty big," says Cuddy. "We're the only theater in the country that's doing this," he adds. So far that hasn't attracted much attention from the national arts press, but Cuddy expects that to change next spring when the first play gets underway.
Geva plans to put on two of Wilson's plays each year for the next five years. One play each year will be done in a full stage production while the second will be done in a dramatic reading, both at Geva and at venues in the community --- hopefully "somewhere in the African American cultural community," Cuddy says.
Gem of the Ocean, the play Wilson set in the 1900s, is the first to be staged, opening next April. Geva hasn't yet settled on dates for this season's dramatic reading, Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Specifics for the rest of the cycle remain unfinished --- "We didn't want to make that commitment yet," Cuddy says --- but next year will likely see a staged version of The Piano Lesson and readings of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
"It's an ambitious undertaking," says Jeff Tucker. "I'll be interested to see how it plays out." Tucker is a professor of African-American literature at the University of Rochester. He's teaching a course in African-American Drama this semester, and he's taught plenty of Wilson in the past.
"He's contributed immensely to both the traditions of drama and African-American drama," says Tucker --- but he is quick to add that Wilson's appeal is far from being purely academic. The average person on the street might not be able to readily name a modern playwright, but if they could "perhaps one of the first names that might come to mind is August Wilson," Tucker says. The playwright has achieved worldwide notoriety because of his ability to faithfully render realistic dialogue. Wilson's mastery is apparent "in his representation of African-American conversational language --- the language you hear in black social spaces," says Tucker. "It rings true."
That's not to say that Wilson's scope or appeal is limited to African Americans. In fact, according to Tucker, the opposite is true.
"He's also done a lot in asserting the importance of African American literature outside of African Americans," he says. "The point he's making is African-American literature and African-American drama is not just parochial in scope. It's universal."
Both Tucker and Cuddy share an explanation for how Wilson achieves that: his characters.
"He writes from the ground up," says Cuddy. "His characters are rooted to American soil in a way that not many other characters are."
Tucker goes a step further: "Sometimes his characters achieve a kind of mythic status," he says, pointing to Trey, the embittered father figure in Fences.
Whatever else audiences bring away from watching Wilson's cycle, says Tucker, "They won't forget the characters they encounter in the plays."