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Monday, October 15, 2007

August Wilson retrospective

I caught this small item in a NYT arts section from a couple Sundays ago, which I was finally skimming on the train this morning:

The 10 plays in AUGUST WILSON's portrait of 20th-century African-American life were written out of order. First came ''Jitney,'' set in 1977, after which Wilson bounced through the '20s, the '50s, the '10s, the '30s, the '60s, the '40s, the '80s and the '00s before ending, with ''Radio Golf,'' in the '90s.

As theatergoers who caught even a few of the plays when they were first produced quickly learned, phrases and characters echo or even recur throughout; at times it might have enhanced the understanding of Wilson's design (if not of the stories themselves, which needed no enhancement) to find, in the Playbill, genealogical tables of the sort sometimes provided in editions of sprawling fantasy novels or Greek drama.

Wilson's plays, with their magic realism and full-throated tragedy, are a bit of both. In the general introduction the 10-volume edition of ''The August Wilson Century Cycle,'' published by Theater Communications Group, John Lahr compares Wilson's aim and achievement favorably to those of Eugene O'Neill, who completed only a fraction of his intended Greek-style cycle. Wilson finished his own, just before dying in 2005, and though he suggested that his plays were primarily intended as black stories for black audiences, their presentation in this new, handsome $200 slip-cased collection -- in cold print and in their proper order -- unavoidably wrests them from that context. For all their specificity, the characters become archetypal when disembodied on the page, and thus become everyone's, to the point that Aunt Ester, King Hedley and Ma Rainey seem as fixed and eternal as Clytemnestra and her clan.

I don't know much about theater, but somehow I've been following August Wilson. Actually, I do know how--I read a profile of him in the Star Tribune. It must have been in the late 80s, when he was still living and working in St Paul.

I didn't see any of his plays til ~'96, when I saw '7 Guitars'--on Broadway, actually. Since then, I've seen 5 more--'Ma Rainey' in Dearborn, 'Joe Turner' and 'Gem of the Ocean' in SF, 'Two Trains Running' and 'Radio Golf' over the past year here in NYC. (While I'm at it, let me try to drive a bit of traffic to The HNIC Report, which had this review of the staging of Radio Golf that we went to see over the summer. More about the HNIC Report in a later post.)

'Ma Rainey' is the only I've read--I found a copy in the Ann Arbor public library, and Anj and I read through it before going to see the play. I think reading was valuable--prob no coincidence that 'Ma Rainey' is the play I've liked the best.

I also bought a copy of "Fences" from a bookseller in the East Village last winter, but haven't read it. But now it's possible to get the whole boxed set. It'd be a nice thing to have before March, when there will the chance to see all 10 within the span of a couple months! The continuation of the quote above:

Like them, too, Wilson's people will be brought back to full, dreadful life as long as humans put on plays. Catch them in March, when the Kennedy Center will offer staged readings of the whole cycle, in repertory and in order.

Don't know if I'll be able to find the time and the money to take in more than a couple of the 10 at the Kennedy Center. Here is a WP Post article about it, and here is the Kennedy Center's theater calendar--scroll down for the "August Wilson's 20th Century" listings.

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