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August Wilson gets theater in his name

Venue on 52nd St. is renamed to honor the lauded playright
/ Source: The Associated Press

With cheers, applause, a few stories and song, Broadway’s August Wilson Theatre was dedicated Sunday, two weeks after the playwright died of liver cancer.

Constanza Romero, Wilson’s widow, and his younger daughter, Azula, held a giant pair of scissors that snipped a red ribbon and lit up the marquee of the West 52nd Street theater that previously had been known as the Virginia.

“We have put up something that will never close,” said Rocco Landesman, president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns the playhouse and produced five of Wilson’s plays on Broadway.

Before the lighting, during a brief program inside the theater, Wilson’s older daughter, Sakina Ansari, read Wilson’s thoughts on hearing a Broadway theater would be named for him.

“I have a robust imagination and I have imagined for myself many things,” wrote Wilson, author of such plays as “Fences,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The Piano Lesson.”

“I have imagined a wife and two beautiful daughters, and I have imagined a sustained career for myself in the theater. But not in my wildest imagination could I have ever imagined this.

“This is the capstone of my entire career and the capstone end to my spirit, to my being and the end to the measure and meaning of my life.”

The 60-year-old Wilson died Oct. 2, only months after completing his monumental 10-play cycle chronicling the black experience in 20th-century America — one play for each decade.

Actor Charles S. Dutton, who starred on Broadway in both “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The Piano Lesson,” also spoke at the theater about meeting Wilson for the first time in 1982 when “Ma Rainey” was being worked on at the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference in Connecticut.

Broadway musical theater star Lillias White then brought down the house with a sassy rendition of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Several actors played a scene from “Seven Guitars,” Wilson’s play set in the 1940s. It was an appropriate choice. The play concerns a group of friends who gather after the funeral of a Pittburgh blues guitar player who dies too young.

“Radio Golf,” the final play in the cycle, had its world premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Conn., in April, only months before Wilson announced he had terminal cancer.

The newly named August Wilson Theatre was built in 1925 and has gone through several names since then. It opened 80 years ago as the Guild Theatre with a production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra,” starring Helen Hayes. In 1943, it became a radio studio.

The Guild was used for broadcasts until 1950, when it was purchased by the American National Theatre and Academy and renamed the ANTA. It became the Virginia in 1981, renamed in honor of Virginia M. Binger, wife of James H. Binger, who, at the time, owned the theater.

Among the better-known productions at the theater have been “A Man for All Seasons” (1961), starring Paul Scofield; the Tony-winning musical “City of Angels” (1989); “Jelly’s Last Jam,” starring Gregory Hines (1992); and “Carrie” (1988), a musical based on the Stephen King novel and one of Broadway’s most notorious flops.