Sunday, October 7, 2007

August Wilson

In today's OC Register Artsblog, Paul Hodgins wrote about receiving the newly published complete works of August Wilson. I'm looking forward to getting it, myself, and I posted the following comment:

I had the pleasure of knowing August. We first met in 1984 when I was running a theatre company/performing ars center at the University of Hartford.

Earlier that year, Lloyd Richards, artistic director of Yale Repertory Theatre and dean of the Yale School of Drama, asked if I thought Hartford and New Haven were too close for me to consider bringing up one of their productions for my audience. I thought not, depending upon the play.

A play we had planned became unavailable, and so, on short notice, I called Lloyd, who sent me a script called "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." He told me he wasn't sure it was something I'd consider suitable, but it could move up to my theatre immediately following its Yale Rep run.

I read it, and was overwhelmed by its powerful story and poetic style, and told Lloyd we'd be honored to have it there.

During its week-long run at my theatre, August came up and had dinner with me. He was a gentle, soft-spoken man, clearly unaccustomed to any light being shined upon him. No need...he was the one shining the light.

We were invited to the Broadway opening night, which was a great occasion. In fact, it might not have made it to Broadway had the play not come to Hartford. Important backers were unable to get to New Haven to see it before it closed, and so we accommodated them at my theatre.

I saw August only sporadically after he was "discovered." That summer, at the O'Neill Center's Playwrights Conference, where I also ran into Charles S. Dutton, who starred in "Ma Rainey" and became a famous actor as a result. We saw August during the readings of "The Piano Lesson" at the O'Neill, and I also had lunch with him in St. Paul, Minnesota, (then his home) during a visit to the Guthrie.

The last time I saw him was at a TCG Conference at Princeton. I was surprised he even recognized me because of how far he had come. In the room were so many others who had so much more to do with his career success than I.

It was at that Conference that Wilson gave his landmark speech about his opinions on the lack of black theatre in America and laid down some sharp criticisms of the American theatre establishment. Mild-mannered he might have seemed, but underneath it all was a fiery spirit.

Regretfully, we never produced one of his plays at Laguna Playhouse--but how could we have hoped to produce one as well as the Center Theatre Group in collaboration with Seattle, The Goodman and other major U.S. theatres who banded together to debut his work?

In the early 1990s, I was offered the position of Executive Director of the O'Neill Center, which I agonized over whether or not to accept. It would have been an opportunity to spend more time with August, and the O'Neill was such an important institution within the American theatre establishment.
Ultimately, I felt I had much more still to do at Laguna, and decided to remain here.
Until next time...

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