Colleagues recall Wilson’s plays, style

August Wilson, an acclaimed playwright and frequent Yale Repertory Theater collaborator, died Sunday in Seattle at the age of 60, after a battle with liver cancer.

Wilson, with the help of Lloyd Richards — the legendary Yale Rep director and first black leader of any major regional theater group in the nation — brought to life some of American theater’s most iconic characters and put the Yale Rep in the national spotlight.

One of the most decorated American playwrights with two Pulitzer Prizes, a Tony and a host of Drama Critic Circle awards to his name, Wilson is best known for his 10-play series tackling issues of racism, classicism, failure and success within the black community during each decade of the 20th century.

“Every time a sentence about great American writers is written, it will include August’s name,” said James Bundy, artistic director of the Yale Rep and Dean of the School of Drama. “He defined the Yale Rep’s relationship to groundbreaking American theater.”

More than half of Wilson’s plays premiered at Yale, and Wilson’s relationship with other artists in the Yale community was vital to his creative process. Wilson rarely integrated a piece of music into one of his stories without the approval of Dwight Andrews, a one-time Yale music professor, and one of the last pieces he penned was a tribute to the late Ben Mordecai, a former managing director at the Yale Rep.

Last spring, Wilson’s final play, “Radio Golf,” which dissects urban power structures, premiered at the Rep. The premier was a fitting homecoming for the legendary playwright, said David Byrd DRA ’06, who worked closely with Wilson.

Even Wilson’s first work — “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which was written when he was an unknown playwright and opened to mixed reviews — generated six times as much press as any other Yale Rep play produced in 1984.

Variety Magazine said the play had “potential,” but denounced the poignant soliloquys that would provide dramatic vehicles for artists such as James Earl Jones, Angela Bassett and Whoopi Goldberg. But within the Yale theater community, many said there was no doubt that Wilson’s work was making history and the show eventually opened to breathless praise on Broadway.

“Oh, we knew,” said Caroline Jackson-Smith ’74, a former director of the African-American Cultural House. “We knew he was going to change everything.”

The high school English class staple play “Fences,” which received a Pulitzer and a Tony, debuted at Yale in 1985, and momentum built behind Wilson as a major American voice.

Wilson’s status as a voice for his generation was inextricably linked to New Haven, which he considered his artistic home, Jackson-Smith said. Throughout his career, Wilson often held rehearsals at Yale’s African-American Cultural Center, he said.

“He had this unique ability to articulate the black experience in a way that was totally satisfying to those of us who were raised in the culture and, at the same time, remain open,” Jackson-Smith said. “New Haven has had a very long struggle with town-gown relations, and I think his plays made all kinds of people feel like they belonged.”

Wilson’s next three plays, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “The Piano Lesson” and “Two Trains Running,” all debuted at the Yale Rep. As Wilson became one of the most sought-after directors in America, he continued to brainstorm ways to integrate the African-American experience into his work.

Kimberly Scott DRA ’87 recalls talking with Wilson at Sylvia’s, a New York restaurant, after the Broadway premier of Joe Turner, for which she received a Tony nomination for her supporting role.

“I just remember leaving thinking, ‘God, let me remember this for my grandchildren, how he captured what all of us were thinking and feeling,'” she said.

Although Wilson never received a formal education, he received an honorary high-school diploma from the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh and an honorary degree from Yale.

“Radio Golf” director Timothy Douglas said Wilson best communicated through storytelling and humor. He said he recalls asking Wilson a simple “yes” or “no” question about the music for “Radio Golf.”

“He told me the story of this Smokey Robinson song about a relationship ending, and then he started talking about the Three Dog Night song, ‘Joy to the World,'” Douglas said. “You never knew when he was kidding, so I didn’t laugh, and he turned to me and said, ‘Timothy, would you open your play with, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog”?'”

A hush spread over the entire audience more than five minutes before the curtain rose on the opening night of “Radio Golf,” said Bundy, the first such silence he has seen in his years in theater. It was a bated-breath tribute to the man who told the story of black America with such a sweep that it became simply the story of America.

“We all mourn the work that he won’t get to go on and do, but there is consolation in the way his legacy will continue to inform the American experience for generations to come, and the Rep was a part of that,” Bundy said.

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