Famed playwright returns to his roots

Despite the fact that he has seen four of his plays enjoy successful runs on Broadway, legendary black playwright August Wilson still considers the Yale Repertory Theatre — and the Elm City — his home.

Wilson began his monumental career in New Haven in 1984, when his second play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” premiered at the Yale Rep. The production, which moved to Broadway in October of that year, was the first of his “20th Century Cycle” series, which includes nine other plays. Each play deals with the black experience in a specific decade of 20th century American history; “Black Bottom” takes place in the 1920s.

Subsequently, the Yale Rep premiered four of Wilson’s “decade” plays, including the Pulitzer prize winning “Fences” in 1986 and “The Piano Lesson” in 1990. Currently, the Rep is premiering “Radio Golf,” the last of Wilson’s 20th century plays, which chronicles the life of an urban black family in the 1990s.

Next week, Wilson will visit the Afro-American Cultural Center, offering students and members of the community a chance to talk about his past work, his new play at the Rep and his experiences in New Haven.

The event, entitled “A Conversation with August Wilson,” will be structured like a master’s tea, coordinator David Byrd DRA ’06 said. Carolyn Jackson-Smith ’74, a former director of the cultural center and current professor at Oberlin College who has also worked with Wilson, will moderate the discussion.

“Carolyn is very familiar with his work, and she’ll be interviewing [Wilson],” Byrd said. “They’re going to talk about his new production and what it’s like for him to be back at Yale. I think it’ll be great for students to have this icon in the same room with them and be able to ask him questions.”

Though “Radio Golf” is Wilson’s last installment in the “20th Century Cycle” series and the finale show of the Rep’s 2004-2005 season, Wilson has not necessarily followed chronological order while writing his plays.

Natalie Paul ’07, the performing arts coordinator at the Af-Am House, said she, Afro-American Cultural Center Director and Assistant Yale College Dean Pamela George and Byrd organized Wilson’s visit to the Center.

“I e-mailed [Dean of the Yale Drama School] James Bundy to see how the Drama School and Af-Am Center could collaborate to bring the black experience in theater to the forefront,” Paul said

Paul said Wilson has been in New Haven for the past few weeks supervising rehearsals of his play and tweaking the script, so orchestrating his visit to the Af-Am House was “simply a matter of organization.”

“A Conversation with August Wilson” is part of a performing arts program at the Af-Am House called Re:present! Though Paul said the program was more active last semester, its events — including career panels at the Yale Drama School, play readings and monthly presentations — have served as opportunities for black students interested in theater to meet each other and to facilitate relations between the college and drama school.

But Bundy said the program should hold a broad appeal.

“Wilson is a preeminent living American playwright completing a cycle that is unprecedented in the history of American theater,” he said. “There’s bound to be a pretty broad audience for that — people who either like theater or are interested in what he has to say.”

Though “Radio Golf” premieres during reading week and its run extends past the end of finals, Bundy said ticket sales have been strong. He hopes students will take advantage of the end of spring semester classes to watch the play or attend the talk.

“I think there are a lot of undergrads who would love a constructive way to spend some of their free time,” Bundy said. “I just hope people will be challenged and inspired by this event. Hopefully it will do something to change people’s conceptions about what theater traditionally is. We hope it will get more people involved bridging these gaps.”

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