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An August Tribute

Kenny Leon discusses the Kennedy Center's staging of August Wilson's 20th Century, comprised of the 10 plays that make up the late playwright's Pittsburgh Hill cycle. logo
August Wilson
(© Joan Marcus)
"Every 20 years or so, there's someone great who walks the planet, and I think August Wilson was very special," says Kenny Leon. "We lived amidst a giant." Leon -- who directed the Broadway productions of the late playwright's Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf -- is the artistic director of August Wilson's 20th Century, a series of staged readings of all 10 plays of Wilson's Pittsburgh Hill cycle, which will be held March 4-April 6 at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.

Wilson was the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes, a Tony Award, two Drama Desks, seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, and numerous other honors, all of which he achieved before he died of liver cancer in 2005, at the age of 60. His crowning achievement were the 10 plays -- nine of which are set in Pittsburgh -- that chronicle the African-American experience in the 20th century, written over the course of 23 years: Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Fences, Two Trains Running, Jitney, King Hedley II, and Radio Golf.

In addition to Leon -- who is directing three of the plays -- the event will also include directors Lou Bellamy, Gordon Davidson, Israel Hicks, Todd Kreidler, Derrick Sanders, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and a cast of more than 30 actors including Anthony Chisholm, Rosalyn Coleman, Keith David, Lynda Gravátt, Louis Gossett, Jr., Stephen McKinley Henderson, John Earl Jelks, Harry Lennix, Anthony Mackie, Santiago-Hudson, and Tamara Tunie.

Leon recently spoke with TheaterMania about this monumental project, and the man to whom it pays tribute.

THEATERMANIA: This is obviously a tremendous undertaking. Can you tell me how it came about?
KENNY LEON: It was right at the time near the end of August's life. We were working on Radio Golf together, and he was having medical challenges. I got in touch with the Kennedy Center about doing all the plays. At that time, they couldn't make any real commitment. August died about a month after that, and six months later, I got a call from the Kennedy Center saying that they did indeed want to do the festival, and wanted me to serve as artistic director.

TM: How are the logistics handled?
KL: We got a group of actors to serve as a company, with most doing a minimum of two characters apiece. We hired seven directors -- mirroring the play Seven Guitars, which we thought would be interesting. We wanted something in between readings and full productions. It'll be script in hand, because we want every word to be spoken. I designed these scripts that have the image of August profiled on the outside of these leather covered volumes signed with his signature, about the size of the Bible. The actors will hold these scripts and we'll have limited blocking to tell the stories.

TM: For those able to make it to all 10 play readings, what do you feel is the overall impact of seeing the complete August Wilson oeuvre?
KL: I think it was so important for him to finish that last play in the last few months of his life. Once that cycle was finished, you can see how the plays talk to each other. With characters who are mentioned in two or three plays -- like Sterling Johnson, who is in Radio Golf and Two Trains Running -- you can see their growth. And then there are questions: If you've already seen a play like Fences, how do you see it anew in this context? How does Radio Golf, when you have all the material wealth, talk to Gem of the Ocean, which is when slavery is over but you had no home, no food, nothing. Gem of the Ocean has a young man who comes into the world as an individual, and leaves feeling a sense of community. But in Radio Golf, what's happened to that sense of community, and when did it happen? You can look at the 1970s play, Jitney, and did it happen there? Or was it the '80s play, King Hedley II, when Aunt Ester died? If you see all 10 plays, you see the generations talk to each other, and that's quite exciting.

Kenny Leon
(© Tristan Fuge)
TM: It's often been said that Wilson's speeches are akin to operatic arias. Can you talk about his playwriting style, and the particular challenges it poses in directing his work?
KL: If I close my eyes as a director, I can tell an August Wilson monologue, and I can tell if you change one word from that. I get upset when folks try to marginalize him and say he was a successful African-American writer, when the truth is he was a great writer who always wanted to stand next to the greats like Ibsen, Shaw, Chekhov, and Shakespeare. And he earned that because of his plot development, his character structure, his poetry in his monologues, and the content of his plays. So, the only challenge to me as a director is to do less -- to have the actors just think the words and get out of the way. I think that by seeing it the way we're presenting it at the Kennedy Center, people will really see the beauty of his words and the acting and the production values won't get in the way.

TM: As someone who worked closely with August Wilson, do you have a favorite story that you'd be willing to share?
KL: You could stand outside on the street with August and ask him one question, thinking it'll be a five minute discussion and it'll be a two hour and five minute discussion. I remember the last time we shared time on the sidewalk in Boston, during Gem of the Ocean. He was like, "Oh, man. This is great. I write it and you direct it. It's magic." The idea of collaboration meant so much to him. And I think some people misunderstood him. People who didn't know him would say, "August is very demanding." Well, he was demanding in the sense that he wanted you to show up as a director, to show up as an actor, and give 100 percent, because he always gave 100 percent. The man was just full of life. Hopefully, this Kennedy Center project will be an honor, a tribute, and a salute to him, because I think he has had the greatest impact on the American theater out of any single individual in the last 50 years. The man wrote 10 great plays, and we continue to miss him.

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