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Completing a chronicle of black America

August Wilson readies the final chapter of a 20-year saga
/ Source: The Associated Press

On a warm April afternoon, a more than 20-year journey is ending pretty much where it started.

In a second-floor rehearsal hall at 149 York St., a space that doubles as classrooms for the Yale School of Drama, the first full run-through of August Wilson's "Radio Golf" is about to get under way. It is the final chapter in Wilson's astonishing 10-play cycle chronicling the black experience in 20th-century America — one play for each decade.

As birthplaces go, it is an unprepossessing, messy room, filled with sunlight, folding chairs, coffee cups, bottles of water and scattered notebooks. Two large tables, set at 90-degree angles, serve as the bare-bones set, which represents the office of two real estate developers. The five actors study their scripts or sit quietly in thought. They have work to do — Wilson just finished the play's first rewrite the day before.

Director Timothy Douglas lounges against one wall, and a script of the play lies on a music stand in front of him. To his left huddle Wilson and his dramaturge, Todd Kreidler, a theatrical editor of sorts who oversees the structure of the play, checking for inconsistencies in plot and character. To Douglas' right is stage manager Narda Alcorn, who will call the show's scene changes.

At a little after 3 p.m., Alcorn announces, "Act 1, Scene 1," and a new August Wilson play, this one set in the 1990s, begins.

'Now I've made it back here'
"It just feels like the right thing to do — to come full circle," Wilson says a few hours before the run-through. Dapperly dressed in a dark sports coat, green shirt, checkered tie and his customary jaunty cap, the playwright sits drinking coffee and smoking Marlboro Lights in the outdoor patio of a nearby used bookstore.

"I had this baseball analogy," he says, recalling a poem he wrote two decades ago on his 40th birthday (Wilson turns 60 April 27). The subject of the poem was about finding your way home. "I've gone to first base, second base, third base, and now I've made it back here."

"Here" is the Yale Repertory Theatre, where the world premiere of "Radio Golf" is now on view through May 14. The Rep has been the first professional home for five other Wilson plays in the cycle, including his initial Broadway production, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," in 1984. The others have been "Fences," "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," "The Piano Lesson" and "Two Trains Running." The cycle also includes "Jitney," "Seven Guitars," "King Hedley II" and "Gem of the Ocean."

"It's a unique achievement in the history of American playwriting — such sustained quality over such a long period of time," James Bundy, artistic director of Yale Rep, says of Wilson's monumental 10-play effort. "It's the breath of August's ambition. It's the commitment to a structure that he stuck with by saying, `I'm going to write one for every decade' — and he actually did it." Not only did he do it but received the best-play Tony Award for "Fences," plus best-play Tony nominations for six of his other plays, and the Pulitzer Prize for both "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson."

Wilson is more modest about the grand design.

"The goal was to get them down on paper," he says with a laugh. "It was fortunate when I looked up and found I had the two bookends to go. I didn't plan it that way. I was able to connect the two plays."

A century in PittsburghWilson is referring to "Gem of the Ocean," chronologically the first play in the cycle, although the ninth to be written. It takes place in 1904 and is set in Pittsburgh's Hill District at 1839 Wylie Ave., a specific address that figures prominently, nearly 100 years later, in the last, "Radio Golf."

"I knew I had to write about the black middle class. For the most part, they are missing from the rest of my plays," Wilson says of the main characters in "Radio Golf."

The plot concerns the grandson of one of the characters in "Gem of Ocean," which had an abbreviated run on Broadway earlier this season. He is a successful real estate man named Harmond Wilks, an entrepreneur who is going to redevelop the Hill with the help of federal money — and buy a radio station along the way. Among the properties scheduled for demolition is the house on Wylie Avenue. But a strange man shows up, claiming to own the building, and starts painting it.

"The house represents history and tradition," Wilson says. "The black middle class now has education and resources. How do you return those resources to the community as opposed to benefiting only your individual, personal gain? That's what `Radio Golf' is about.

"The play actually begins where it should end: `We're black and we're successful in America. We have money. End of story.' Not quite."

"Harmond is the first character who already has the affluence everybody else is striving for. ... Yet because Harmond has privilege, he seems to be blind to the lack of struggle in his life," says Michele Shay, a Wilson player who was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in his "Seven Guitars" and who plays Harmond's wife, Mame.

"One thing August does is he will show both sides of a question and absolutely have neither person be right. You can see both sides of the fence."

'His words never let me down'The actors in "Radio Golf" are all veterans of Wilson's other plays — on Broadway and around the country. They are part of an informal troupe of actors the playwright can tap to appear in his works. Many have found steady employment with Wilson. For example, Anthony Chisholm, who portrays the grizzled would-be owner of 1839 Wylie Ave. in "Radio Golf," has been in three other Wilson plays in New York and two more in regional theater. But it's not just for the money.

"August's work is like reading a rich novel," Chisholm says. "It conjures up vivid images in the mind, and it makes the actor's job easier because you have something to draw upon to build your character."

"August listens for the truth, and he puts it down as he hears it. And if you can tie into that truth, then you have something,' says Richard Brooks, who plays Harmond, the Hamlet-like central character in "Radio Golf."

Others celebrate the musicality of Wilson's language.

"It's like learning a song," says John Earl Jelks, another alum of Broadway's "Gem." He portrays a young firebrand in "Radio Golf."

"We have learned to lock into the rhythm of the piece. But he puts it all on the page, so you have to be true to the text," Jelks says.

Actors often compare Wilson's language to Shakespeare's, particularly in the plays set in the early part of the century. Difficult, but worth the effort.

"Can you go on the ride? Can you stay on the bull? That's what's going on. And so far, like Shakespeare, his words never let me down," says Douglas, a young director chosen by Wilson to oversee the play.

Scribbling on newspaperWilson remembers the date he started writing "Radio Golf" — Dec. 16, 2004 — which was after "Gem of the Ocean" had opened on Broadway. The idea for the play had been percolating for a long time.

"I was in my basement in Seattle (which is where Wilson lives with his wife, costume designer Constanza Romero, and their 7-year-old daughter, Azula) and I didn't want to write this play — I was tired," he says.

Yet the play already was on the schedule at Yale Rep, promised to Bundy for an opening in late April 2005.

"I would go down to my basement and sit there for hours listening to music. Queen has a song called `The Show Must Go On,' and I would listen to it," he recalls. "After my wife and kid would go to bed, I would go down to the basement, generally from midnight to about three in the morning, and write."

Ideas would often come to him during his morning visits to his local coffee shop in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, and he would jot down his thoughts on a newspaper, most often The New York Times "because they publish those big ads with a lot of blank spaces." A draft eventually took shape, finally coming together a week before rehearsals began in New Haven in March.

Wilson scoffs at the idea of doing research for his plays. "That's like putting on a straitjacket. The plays would be based on my research and then the question is, `How good a researcher are you?'"

The playwright favors imagination and memories of Pittsburgh, the setting for most but not all the plays in the cycle.

Wilson usually returns to Pittsburgh once a year to visit his mother's grave, but he says he couldn't live there. "Too many ghosts," he explains. "But I love it. That's what gave birth to me."

In "Radio Golf," much of that imagination concerns that house on Wylie Avenue. Although it was the setting for "Gem of the Ocean," it's not seen in "Radio Golf." But the playwright wants to have each of the characters describe it, giving his or her own perspective on it.

For example, Mame, Harmond's embittered wife, says the house "looks like somebody was drunk when they built it." Harmond, on the other hand, sees the beauty in its hand-carved wood and stained glass.

"In that house, they are describing their attitudes toward black American history," Wilson says. "It should be a history of triumph (over slavery), not a shameful thing."

Moving on"Radio Golf" travels to Los Angeles after its New Haven engagement, playing the Mark Taper Forum, July 31-Sept. 18, as part of outgoing artistic director Gordon Davidson's last season. Then there is the possibility of a production at Baltimore's Center Stage, although nothing has been set, the playwright says. And eventually, the play will come to New York.

"After that, I quit," Wilson says with a laugh. "What it is going to do is liberate me. Free me up to do work that didn't fit in with the cycle of plays. I have this idea for a comedy I have been thinking about," he says with a tantalizing air of mystery.

Wilson leaves the outdoor cafe where he's talked for a couple of hours about his work to consult with his dramaturge, and then he goes to the second-floor rehearsal hall at 149 York St. Shortly after 6 p.m., a little more than three hours after the read-through began on that warm April day, Richard Brooks, in character as Harmond, walks off stage. Alcorn, the stage manager, announces, "Curtain."

A new August Wilson play has been born.