Cover Story: Under the Same Roof

August Wilson's final Play, Radio Golf, offers fresh insights into race and class at ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati

Mar 19, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Joan Marcus

August Wilson, who died in 2005 after the premiere of his final play, Radio Golf, said of artists, actors and playwrights: "We can make a difference."

Back in April 2003, Know Theatre of Cincinnati presented August Wilson's Two Trains Running in the Gabriel's Corner basement theater in Over-the-Rhine. The show's opening night was a completely full house "more diverse than any audience I've been part of (in Cincinnati) in recent memory," I wrote in my review.

One of the play's African-American characters commented about being brutally mistreated in Mississippi, circumstances that laid the foundation for many of his subsequent actions. Someone in the audience commented aloud, "Ain't that the truth."

"That's how you feel experiencing a play by Wilson, a true master of convincing, naturalistic situations," I wrote in a true understatement.

There's so much more that Wilson brings to a stage, something we'll have evidence of this week when Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC) opens his final work, Radio Golf. Wilson's 7-year-old daughter Azula suggested the odd title, since the play involves a man who owns a radio station and another eager to play golf.

Wilson's plays have been presented only sporadically on Cincinnati stages, despite the fact that he's one of America's greatest playwrights. The Cincinnati Playhouse produced Ma Rainey's Black Bottom in 1988 and Fences in 1990. The Children's Theatre staged The Piano Lesson in 2001, featuring Cincinnati native Rocky Carroll in a leading role.

In 2003, Know offered the aforementioned Two Trains Running.

Cincinnati Black Theatre Company presented a tribute to Wilson in April 2007 but has never mounted a production of one of his works. Last fall former Cincinnati Shakespeare actress Taylore Mahogany Scott organized a week-long reading of Wilson's plays at The Greenwich in Walnut Hills.

That's it. The paucity of productions borders on a scandal.

There are many reasons why Cincinnati needs to see more plays by Wilson, well beyond the fact that he's the most respected American playwright of the past quarter-century. His poetic and heartfelt chronicling of African-American life during the 20th century should make his works required reading for the citizens of Cincinnati, where understanding of the black experience is often sorely lacking. And the issues swirling through his plays almost all set in Pittsburgh's Hill District, a virtual twin of Over-the-Rhine, where development is both embraced and opposed are topics that should be more frequently observed and absorbed locally.

Writing in The New York Times in April 2000, Wilson said, "Theatre, as a powerful conveyor of human values, has often led us through the impossible landscape of American class, regional and racial conflicts, providing fresh insights and fragile but enduring bridges of fruitful dialogue. It has provided us with a mirror that forces us to face personal truths and enables us to discover within ourselves an indomitable spirit that recognizes, sometimes across wide social barriers, those common concerns that make possible genuine cultural fashion."

Wilson, who died in 2005 at the much too young age of 60, was the master of making fresh insights from historical tales.

A self-made man
August Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel in 1945 in Pittsburgh. His father, for whom he was named, was a white German immigrant who worked as a baker. His mother, Daisy Wilson, was an African-American cleaning woman from North Carolina.

The family August was one of six children lived in a two-room apartment above a grocery story. A precocious child, he learned to read at the age of 4. His mother re-married when he was a teenager, and they moved to a white, working-class neighborhood where they were frequently victims of racist attitudes.

Wilson (who adopted his mother's last name in 1965) dropped out of a predominantly white Pittsburgh high school in 1960 when a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a term paper. From that point on, he was largely self-educated, using Pittsburgh's Carnegie Library to read works by African-American writers such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Anna Bontemps and James Baldwin.

His interest in theater came early. He co-founded the Black Horizon Theatre in the Hill District in 1968 and began writing plays while supporting himself with menial jobs such as cooking, dishwashing and gardening.

For more than a decade, Wilson wrote scripts that received modest local notice. But not until Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was accepted in 1982 at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Conn., a mecca for new play development, did his work draw national attention.

The O'Neill's artistic director, Lloyd Richards, was already a seminal figure in black theater, having directed the 1959 production of Lorraine Hansberry's watershed A Raisin in the Sun. Richards, also artistic director at Yale Repertory Theatre, directed Ma Rainey and formed a creative alliance with Wilson that lasted for more than two decades. Many of his plays premiered at Yale Rep.

In the mid-1980s, Wilson conceived an ambitious undertaking: He would write 10 plays about African-American life, one for each of the 10 decades of the 20th century. Those plays Gem of the Ocean (written in 2003/set in 1904), Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1986/1911), Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1981/1927), The Piano Lesson (1987/1930s), Seven Guitars (1994/late 1940s), Fences (1985/1957), Two Trains Running (1992/1969), Jitney (1979, rewritten 1996/1971), King Hedley II (1999/1985) and Radio Golf (2005/1997) represent the most remarkable creative output of any playwright hell, of any literary artist in the past half-century.

The Piano Lesson and Fences each won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1999 Wilson was awarded the 1999 National Humanities Medal by President Bush.

Theatre Communications Group recently published a boxed set of Wilson's 10 plays with an introduction by John Lahr, longtime theater critic for The New Yorker. He observed that Wilson's writing "transforms historical tragedy into imaginative triumph. The blues are catastrophe expressed lyrically; so are Wilson's plays, which swing with the pulse of the African-American people as they moved over the decades from property to personhood. Together, Wilson's plays form a kind of fever chart of the unmooring trauma of slavery."

No qualifiers are needed to describe Wilson. He's not merely an "African-American playwright," nor even simply a playwright. He is a literary titan.

It's all the more tragic that he died of cancer on Oct. 2, 2005, less than six months after the premiere of Radio Golf. Two weeks later, Broadway's Virginia Theater was renamed the August Wilson Theater.

A social history
Each of the 10 plays in Wilson's cycle is a snapshot of life in an era, a textured reproduction of the black experience, which he described as "inexhaustible." In fact, Wilson had a hard time containing his imagination and creativity: His scripts often ran longer than four hours in initial readings; only through constant re-writing and paring did he reduce them to performable lengths.

They represent a sprawling portrait of generations of people full of vitality, hope, fear and desperation. All but one is set in Pittsburgh's Hill District, populated by African Americans since the late 19th century, much like Over-the-Rhine here.

Wilson claimed that the idea of his "cycle" evolved slowly. Writing in The New York Times in 1992, he said, "If you had asked me 10 years ago what I wanted to accomplish, I would not have said anything about a cycle of plays. I would have wanted, as any artist, to fashion of the finest gold the proper angel. I don't know if history will find this cycle of plays to be made from a baser metal than my alchemy has permitted, but I do know if it is a measure of my heart and will, a tenacious belief in one's ability to go the distance, to put pen to paper and have it give back joy ... then I'm home free."

Eight years later, again writing in The New York Times, Wilson commented, "From the beginning, I decided not to write about historical events or the pathologies of the black community. Instead, I wanted to present the unique particulars of black American culture as the transformation of impulse and sensibility into codes of conduct and response, into cultural rituals that defined and celebrated ourselves as men and women of high purpose."

Wilson succeeded in bringing his characters to vibrant life, according to Lahr: "For Wilson's characters, life is hard but fun isn't. The plays show high spirits as a form of heroics; the inventive energy that Wilson's characters bring to the downtime of their stalled days only underscores the waste of their talent."

Wilson's cycle is bookended by Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf, representing the initial and final decades of the 20th century. In Gem, reality and mysticism collide in 1904 when a troubled young man, Citizen Barlow, pays a visit to Aunt Ester, a former slave, on the eve of her 287th birthday. (She epitomizes the sweep and memory of black experience in America, connecting back to its African roots.)

She lives in a rambling house at 1839 Wylie Ave., and under her influence Barlow experiences a mythic voyage to the City of Bones at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, the grave of his ancestors, as he explores the issues of guilt, duty and redemption.

Another character in Gem of the Ocean is the ambitious Caesar Wilks, an entrepreneurial black constable who's succeeded by intolerantly policing fellow blacks who don't heed the law.

Caesar's grandson, Harmond Wilks, is the central character of Radio Golf, the script that ETC brings to its Vine Street theater starting Wednesday. Harmond has inherited his grandfather's intolerance: He's a successful, middle-class real estate developer who doesn't understand the attitudes of people still living in the run-down neighborhood.

He wants to move forward and expand his already substantial net worth, but there's an obstacle: Aunt Ester's house at 1839 Wylie Ave. must be torn down to advance his key retail development project. Its present owner, "Old Joe" who is actually Elder Joseph Barlow, a descendant of Citizen Barlow claims he owns it and that Wilks, who intends to be a candidate for mayor, illegally purchased the property. It's just one way these characters and their families are inextricably linked.

Their clash over the house dramatically changes Wilks' perspective on his ambitious plans for the neighborhood. In fact, his business and personal relationships come unraveled, too, as history, memory and legacy challenge his notions of progress and country club ideals.

No easy answers are offered, but it's evident that the clash of commercial success and heritage needs to be carefully weighed.

Discussing Radio Golf with fellow playwright Suzan-Lori Parks in an interview published in American Theatre in late 2005, Wilson said he felt it was time to deal with the black middle class, a subject not included in his earlier plays.

"My idea was that the black middle class seems to be divorcing themselves from that community," Wilson said, "making their fortune on their own without recognizing or acknowledging their connection to the larger community."

Radio Golf became his further exploration, as he continued, "I thought: We have gained a lot of sophistication and expertise and resources, and we should be helping that community, which is completely devastated by drugs and crime and the social practices of the past hundred years of the country."

That message resonates here in Cincinnati, especially in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood around Ensemble Theatre, which for many years of its existence was near the heart of poverty, drugs and crime an environment that's dramatically changing today.

Wilson added, "I thought: How do I show that you can go back and that you can't nobody wants to be poor, nobody wants to live in substandard housing. No one is asking them to do that. But I think that here again we have the resources."

Neighborhoods like the Hill District and Over-the-Rhine have deteriorated since the mid-20th century, and Wilson's plays explored this devolution.

"If you look at the black community in the 1940s and '50s," he said in Back Stage West in 2003, "you'll find a vibrant and vital community in which you have everything you need: doctors, lawyers, the dentist up the street, stores, shops, drugstores ... but there's nothing there now since the push for integration. ... I am an integrationist. But I think people confuse integration with assimilation. I'm not an assimilator.

"I think to integrate is to join in the society, make your contribution and participate in its resources, scarce or otherwise, with your culture intact, so we can have stores, dress shops, a baseball league. To assimilate is to adopt the values of the dominant society. ... What that says to me is that your own cultural values are not sufficient."

Golf in the hood
Radio Golf will undoubtedly receive many productions in the future, but D. Lynn Meyers' track record at ETC for presenting regional premieres of important and relevant theatrical works remains impressive. Again and again, ETC has been the first regional theater away from the East or West coasts to produce major plays, including Tony Award winners from Warren Leight (Side Man in 1999) to Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife in 2004).

This is ETC's first staging of a play by August Wilson, but the theater's two-decade history in Over-the-Rhine and its location at the intersection of neighborhood developments make it the perfect venue for Radio Golf.

"I felt it was critical to produce Radio Golf," Meyers says, "particularly as part of our Next Stage' season, which is dedicated to the idea of new beginnings and the effects our choices have on our community and other people's lives. Moreover, this epic play resonates so appropriately with Over-the-Rhine's shifting cultural and economic landscape."

She's glad to be presenting a play by Wilson, observing his "indelible and essential mark on the American theater. His influence will continue to be felt for generations to come. He promised what no other playwright has ever delivered, a 10-play cycle about the African-American experience over the last century."

Meyers has recruited a veteran cast with a lot of Wilson experience, largely from theaters in Chicago. Co-founder of the Onyx Theatre Ensemble of Chicago, Ron OJ Parson is ETC's guest director for Radio Golf, the seventh of Wilson's plays with which he's been associated as an actor or director. Actor Ernest Perry Jr., playing banker Roosevelt Hicks, has now appeared in seven of Wilson's plays as well.

The professional cast also includes Terrence Riggins as Harmond Wilks, Christina Anthony as Mame Wilks, Victor J. Cole as Sterling Johnson and Alfred Wilson as Elder Joseph Barlow.

These artists and the production team behind them at ETC must certainly resonate with Wilson's words from "The Ground on Which I Stand," a speech he made in 1996: "We can make a difference. Artists, playwrights, actors we can be the spearhead of a movement to reignite and reunite our people's positive energy for a political and social change that is reflective of our spiritual truths rather than economic fallacies. Our talents, our truth, our belief in ourselves is in all our hands. What we make of it will emerge as a baptismal spray that names and defines. What we do now becomes history by which our grandchildren will judge us."

New Yorker critic Lahr observed, "Wilson's plays brought blacks and whites together under the same roof to share in the profound mysteries of race and class and the bittersweet awareness of how separate yet indivisible we really are."

Thanks to ETC's production of Radio Golf, we have another opportunity to see the vital relevance of the words of August Wilson. May this be the first of many.

RADIO GOLF opens at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati Wednesday and continues through April 6.