A View from the Hill
Hill Harper on Blue, August Wilson, and how much theater (if any) is in his future.
Spending the summer at the Gramercy Theater in Charles Randolph-Wright's Blue, Hill Harper expects he won't beat a retreat back to episodic television from which he came (ER, N.Y.P.D. Blue, City of Angels) but, rather, will hold out for feature film work.
"I can't afford to keep doing too much more theater," he sighs. "I gotta pay some bills. But it's been great doing theater this year. If we can push the New York stage community to think on a bigger scale besides August Wilson providing wonderful Afro-American theater, we'll start making a difference. I think Blue is an example of wonderful theater that can appeal to a real multi-cultural audience; it's just not about, every three years, letting August Wilson do a play. I love August Wilson's stuff, but Blue represents something that can be successful. And there are so many other wonderful playwrights just like Charles who are doing wonderful Afro-American plays. They deserve to be heard."
Earlier this year, Harper had what pretty much amounted to the lead in a marvelous ensemble piece by Jessica Hagedorn: Dogeaters, directed by Rent's Michael Greif. "I'm so proud of Dogeaters," he beams. "To do that kind of creative work at The Public, with accents and the physical demands of that character, and then to come to another play that hits home in a completely different way, is really a terrific challenge for me." In between these well-received Off-Broadway assignments, Harper managed to squeeze in a movie with Billy Bob Thornton, Patricia Arquette, and William Devane. He plays a shady political consultant in Louisiana.
THE DUKE VIA BILLY DEE
When Billy Dee Williams was in town recently promoting his film role as Hill Harper's hard-nosed, estranged father in The Visit, he revealed that "someone" was wooing him back to Broadway "to do a one-man show on Frederick Douglass' life, but it's too much work. I'll come back one of these days," promises the man who was an A-1 replacement for Tony-winning James Earl Jones in Fences. "What I'd like to do--really like to do--is a film on Duke Ellington's life. Funnily, I'd like to do it on stage before I do it as a film. If you just take a segment of his life and sorta build around that, it can be very interesting.
"I met Duke a few times, and I knew his niece," Williams continues. "She and I grew up together. And I know his sister, too. I feel that, if anyone should do it, it should be me, because I understand that kind of sensibility. I just love all those old, wonderful, very charming guys from that era."
FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD
It was no picnic doing two shows on the Fourth of July, but the Follies folks had one anyway--a picnic, that is, in the alley beside the Belasco. Joan Roberts (Oklahoma!'s original Laurey) has left the show, so there was no sweet potato pie, but Judith Ivey's warm pumpkin pie won raves....Carolyn McCormick, one of the foursome in the recently folded Dinner with Friends, is now one of the sextet comprising the similarly titled but far different play The Dinner Party. She replaced Jan Maxwell when Jon Lovitz and Larry Miller went in for Henry Winkler and John Ritter. Half the cast remains the same: Veanne Cox, Tony nominee Penny Fuller, and Len Cariou. In real life, McCormick is married to Byron Jennings, who just put in a busy year on Broadway himself (in The Man Who Came to Dinner and The Invention of Love).
A MINEFIELD OF LANFORD
Playwright Lanford Wilson is not resting on his Lortel (i.e., the 2002 Edith Oliver Award for Sustained Excellence). Once he returns from the William Inge Festival, he and James Houghton will go into a huddle in Sag Harbor to ascertain which Wilson works will make up next year's season for Houghton's Signature Theater Company. It's possible this will be a solid run of New York premieres. "That would be nice--I wouldn't mind that a bit," admits the author whose writer's block has lifted with a vengeance.
Book of Days, which won a national award when it played in Hartford and has been published by Grove Press, should be high on the list of priorities. "It was reviewed locally in Connecticut and got raves, but The New York Times didn't bother to come," Wilson notes. There is also Virgil Is Still the Frog Boy, "a piece of graffiti that was done out in the Hamptons. It's a five-character comedy--young, young people dressed very scantily."
Earlier this year, his Rain Dance world-premiered w-a-a-a-y off Broadway in Chelsea, Michigan, at The Purple Rose Theater--operated by Jeff Daniels, an actor who starred on Broadway in two Wilson plays, Redwood Curtain and Fifth of July. In the latter, the second of three Talley plays, Daniels played the lover of paraplegic Kenneth Talley Jr. and carried Christopher Reeve (then bulked up for Superman) up a steep flight of stairs--"but only for the first three Broadway performances," Wilson postscripts. "That's when we decided Kenny should have a bedroom on the lower floor. When Richard Thomas took over the role, the character was moved back upstairs."
Rain Dance, says Wilson, "takes place in 1945 on the night of the Trinity test of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. We have four semi-drunk scientists and an Indian M.P., who's from a nearby reservation just hanging out in a bar all night, waiting to be taken to the testing grounds. It only has four characters--unlike Book of Days, which has 12." Will Wilson be writing a new play expressly for a Signature sign-in? "In theory, yes," he ducks. "I wanted to do another Talley play--for Barney Hughes--but it wouldn't come."
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