August Wilson Cycle at Kennedy Center: Montae Russell's blog

March 3 - April 6, 2008


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In the world of August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle, Montae Russell goes right back to the beginning -- the first staging of Wilson's first Cycle play, "Jitney," by the Allegheny Repertory Theater and Bob Johnson's Black Theatre Dance Ensemble in 1982. He remembers that Wilson, whose own New York breakthrough was a year or two away, told the young man from Homestead, "Hey man, I'm in New York, [so I know] you can do this professionally."

So he has. His acting career has been mainly in LA, but he has returned to do several more Wilson plays at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. So far, he's acted in seven of the 10 plays. You can read more about Montae's career and connection to Wilson in this PG profile from May 29, 2006.

For six weeks Montae was in Washington, DC, playing three roles in the Kennedy Center's staged readings of the August Wilson Cycle, which started March 4 and ran through April 6. He kept this capsule journal of his experiences for the PG.

Click here for the Post-Gazette's preview story with a picture of six of the directors. Click here for a March 20 review by Rebecca Ritzel of "Ma Rainey," "Piano Lesson" and "Seven Guitars." And click here for my review essay on the other seven shows.

-- Chris Rawson


Note the August Wilson Cycle photo gallery (links at the top left of this page).


Montae's final posting comes first, followed by the whole blog, start to finish in chronological order.

April 6

The last day. There's a sadness in the air, knowing that the journey is coming to an end. But you know what they say about all good things.

I spent the day packing, talking to my sister Anita Russell (who saw "Fences" a few weeks ago), and hooking up with my frat brother, Nate Chiles. I get to the theatre about 9:30 pm, where the actors and directors of the fest joined the cast of "Radio Golf" onstage for one last company bow. Kenny dropped an impassioned speech on the audience, and then led us all in calling out the names, in sequential order, of the 10 plays. When we got to "Radio Golf" we thrust our scripts in the air, as we did after every show, one last time in tribute to Mr. Wilson.

As we rode down in the elevator, PA Vanessa Riley told me, "what with all the love that was spread throughout this festival, it was enough to make you more hopeful and not as cynical."

The closing night festivities at the 600 Restaurant were off the chain. It was a party-hearty. We danced, signed each others' playbills, posters, scripts, exchanged contact info, shared hugs, snapped many pictures, solidified relationships, then finally bade each other adieu. I walked my Pittsburgh homie, Big Bill Nunn to his hotel. We vowed to stay in touch, and I said I'd look him up next time I was in da' 'Burgh.

As I walked to my hotel, I tried to grasp the magnitude of what we had experienced these last five weeks. We no doubt have been changed. August Wilson loved a people so deeply that he dedicated 25 years of his life to tell a century's worth of their story. It begs the questions: What are you living for? What are you dedicated in doing? What mission is worth 20 years of your hard work, blood, sweat, and tears?

If you don't know, then find out, and get to it, because tomorrow is not promised to you. So make the most of your time here, the way August did.

Well, good people, it was real. Hope you enjoyed my blog as much as I enjoyed writing it. I'll see y'all down the road. Oh, and -- Here we go Steelers, Here we go!


Now here WE go, taking the whole journey from Montae's first post, March 3, to the last, April 6.

March 3

Flew from LA to DC. Harry Lennix was on my flight, and we had dinner later that night. It was nice to catch up with someone whom I respect and admire as an actor and a person. I played Mister to his King in the Mark Taper production of "King Hedley II." We also portrayed close friends in an episode of "Commander In Chief" a couple years ago. After dinner, we ran into Russell Hornsby and Tracie Thoms of CBS's "Cold Case." Tracie, who had started rehearsals as Black Mary in "Gem of the Ocean," schooled us on her challenging first day of rehearsal.

March 4

Boy, the Kennedy Center is an awesome site. I performed here in 2001 in "King Hedley," and it's great to be back. Met my castmates for "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" -- some I knew already or knew of. My Pittsburgh homeboy, Todd Kreidler, gave us his directorial vision, for the second play in the 10 play cycle, and we hit the ground running, as we had 10 hours -- split between two days -- to develop the world of the play, build our characters, and make August's poetic language our own -- all with scripts in hands. Talk about needing your A-game as an actor.

Later, my "Joe Turner" castmates and I went to see "Gem." Not only was it great, it gave us idea of how these staged readings were being received by the audience. August Wilson's words are great to listen to, whether the actors have scripts in hand or not. In fact, after a few minutes, you forget about the scripts, and start to lose yourself in the music of the language, and the world of story.

March 5

Second day of rehearsal was even better, as we got through the second act and were able to have a well-needed run though. Everybody's working hard and fast, to get this show in shape. What we have are full-out performances, in which we just aren't off book.

As Todd observed Kenny Leon and the second "Gem" rehearsal, "Ma Rainey's" director, Lou Bellamy sat in on our second rehearsal to observe.

March 6

The cast of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" start to arrive in town, and the "Joe Turner" cast fills them in, the way the "Gem" cast did for us.

After a few of hours of technical rehearsal, time starts to slip away, and Todd speeds things up by just doing a cue to cue. The cast is released, with enough time to eat, relax, and then put on our game faces for tonight's sold out show.

The show felt great. I played Jeremy, a role I did years back at the Pittsburgh Public, but it's different now. I'm older, and also I now have "Gem of the Ocean," which directly informs "Joe Turner." It's a fun role.

I think the key to this full-out performance with a script in hand thing is to use a cold reading technique, in which you underscore certain lines and read them directly from the page. As you read those lines, you have to do a quick scan of the next few lines that you're familiar with, and say them directly to the other actors in the scene. That enables you to read and still have human contact, emotional interaction with the other characters. It's all about reading, but knowing when to come off the page, and being with each other.

The "Gem" cast and the "Joe Turner" cast went out after the show, along with August's daughter, Sakina, who drove down from Baltimore.

March 7

Another standing ovation, and an even deeper performance from the cast.

March 8

The third show. Another three-bow standing ovation. August's sister, Linda Jean, and her husband were at the show, and showed us love backstage. Todd's proud mother also made the trek. I, too, am proud and happy for Todd, because this festival is really turning out well.

After the show, I hung out with Cherisse Boothe, who played Mattie Campbell, Russell Hornsby and Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

March 9

Ahh, a day off. Had a costume fitting for "Fences," and then Russell Hornsby and I went to see "Ma Rainey." This is starting to take on the feel of a film festival, in which certain films play at certain times, and the audience has to choose which one they really want to see the most.

Theater goers here discuss which of the cycle plays they've seen and want to see. Frankly, it's pretty cool and I'm blessed and honored to be a part of it. Derrick Saunders, who's directing "Seven Guitars," has arrived. It was nice to chat with him.

March 10 (day off)

March 11

I put in work on "Fences." I want to be extra ready for the first day of rehearsal tomorrow. Glad to be working with my Homestead homegirl Tamara Tunie and fellow Pittsburgher Big Bill Nunn. Nice to meet with Lou Gossett, Jr. Happy to be working with the festival's artistic director, Kenny Leon, as well as Anthony Mackie, who I enjoyed in "Ma Rainey."

I ran into Constanza, August's wife, the other day at the matinee of "Ma Rainey." She seemed pleased with how things were going here, and that makes me glad. Making the Wilson family happy with this project is very important in my humble opinion. They're wonderful people. I hope August's sister Freda, his talented niece Kimberly, aka Dr. Goddess, and nephew Paul, the no-nonsense attorney, are going to be able to make it to DC.

March 12

The first day of the "Fences" rehearsal went well. Nice to see Kenny Leon's organic, directing style up close and personal. He's truly an actor's director. Also interesting to watch the skill set of my castmates, Lou, Tamara, Bill, Anthony and also Hassan El-Amin, who's playing Uncle Gabe.



March 13

Another solid, intense rehearsal. However, people are starting to feel sick. Myself included. Gotta watch that. Performing while ill is hell.

March 14

The celebrated, legendary Lou Gossett, Jr, is under the weather. It was an honor and a pleasure working with him. But veteran film and stage actor John Beasley has to step into the role of Troy Maxson in his place.

Later that evening, I take in the first act of "Seven Guitars." It's wild how during the first week of the festival, I spent a lot of time with Harry Lennix and my "Joe Turner" castmates, Russell Hornsby, LaTanya Richardson-Jackson and Cherise Boothe, but now that we've all moved onto different shows in the cycle, we're not seeing each other as much.

In the Kennedy Center lobby, before "Seven Guitars" begins, I met high-powered attorney, Billy Martin. I learned that he's from Sewickley, so you know that the topic of the Steelers came up. He accepted my invitation to come check me out in "Fences."

March 15

Although tech for "Fences" was completed yesterday -- because of scheduling with the other shows -- we have the benefit of an extra day of rehearsal. John Beasley was great as Bynum in "Joe Turner" and has played Troy before. However, we still need to work him into our show, so we can form a stage relationship with him. After all, familial relationships are at the heart of this play, so connecting with Beasley as Troy is essential.

March 16

We rehearse once more, to deepen our connections with each other and establish a nice sense of listening and responding and working off one another. Let's see if this carries over to the performance later tonight.

Boy, did it ever. The show was hot! It felt like real life onstage. It was as if what was happening in the lives of the Maxson family was actually happening to us as actors. When it feels like that, man, there's nothing like it. We're doing what renowned acting teacher Sanford Meisner defined as "living and behaving truthfully under the imaginary circumstances."

March 17

Ahh, another day off. The company is invited to the home of Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser. A nice time is had by all.

March 18

Tamara Tunie (Rose) suggests that we meet before the show to run lines and go over a few scenes, so we can recapture that precious thing we had a few nights ago, that may have been lost with the day off. That session goes well, so now it's time for us to hit the stage.

Another great show, another standing O. Although I've done "Fences" before, it's different now because I'm playing the older son Lyons instead of the younger Cory. Lyons' relationship with his father Troy is challenging, but it's also full of understanding, love, and appreciation, for his father, which is totally different than the strained relationship that Cory has with him.

Something else that's cool and unique about this whole experience is how the actors from the other shows just barge into the dressing room and give props and praises to the current cast. Usually people wait until the cast comes out of the dressing rooms, but because we're so in this together, our fellow actors just roll right in to give us love for a job well done.

We are becoming a very well oiled, fine tuned, close-knit repertory company. As Kenny Leon puts it, this is 77 roles, 41 actors, 40 performances, 10 plays, 7 directors, 5 weeks, 1 excellent playwright.

March 18 (again)

This is that grueling week that we've been warned about, where some people are in rehearsal just long enough to do their scenes, and then hustle off to other rooms for a different rehearsal. I feel for a cat like Hassan El-Amin. He's rehearsing Booster in "Jitney," then has to leave for rehearsal as Hambone in "Two Trains," then has an hour break before the show playing Uncle Gabe in "Fences."

After rehearsal, my boy, John Beasley, and I are across from Kennedy Center at supermarket, and who do we see but the Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice. John and I were tempted to invite her to check out one of the August Wilson shows, but the sight of those Secret Service cats made us just go on about our business.

My U of Pgh, Phi Beta Sigma frat brothers, Al Washington, Todd and Wayne Sharpe come to see the show, and we hung out with the "Fences" cast afterwards.

March 19

"Fences" felt so great. I had my best show. I felt so right at home with the character, Lyons. That's the thing with this particular process, just when you're feeling real good about your character, you have to put it to bed, until that last final week, because you have to move onto your next character. Oh well. To quote ex-Steeler great Joey Porter, "it is what it is."

March 20

The audience is really digging this whole experience. They're accepting that they may see actors from the other shows sitting right near them. It's kinda interesting overhearing the audience members discuss the cycle plays. Let it be known that DC/Kennedy Center audiences know their August Wilson.

This audience experience reminds me of 2001 and the last performance here of "King Hedley II" and how during the curtain call, audience members were shouting out, "Good luck on Broadway!" Trust me, I have nothing but love for the DC/Kennedy Center audiences.

In the "Jitney" dressing room, my boy Anthony Chisholm, is talking about his excitement at his upcoming engagement as Memphis in the Pgh. Playwrights Theatre production of "Two Trains Running." Props to Mark Southers for putting together a solid cast around Chisholm. Former City Councilman, Sala Udin, is the original Becker from "Jitney," and I had a blast playing Sterling to his wonderful Holloway in the Public Theater production of "Two Trains." Sala was in Los Angeles last years, and came to my crib to watch the Steelers play the Broncos. I have much love for him. I also liked working with Don Marshall in the Public's production of "Ma Rainey" back in the day. I also dig Wali Jamal's work, so that should be a very nice run for Chiz, Mark, and the Pgh. Playwrights Theatre.

March 21

Based on what I read of the Secretary of State's passionate article in the Washington paper about America's "Birth Defect," I think she would have liked seeing a few of August's plays. That's just my opinion.

March 22

Today is a "Jitney" doubleheader -- a matinee and an evening performance. This is a big cast. One thing that sticks out to me in this show is the camaraderie in our shared dressing room. It has a locker room feel to it, with guys clowning each other and giving each a hard time over things, bantering back and forth. That certainly helps in show like "Jitney," because those same elements are essential to the play.

We don't perform "Jitney" a 3rd time until March 26. But what we did today earned us two standing O's. We can't lose that magic with these 4 days off.

March 23

Went to see "King Hedley II." Having done the play, it was interesting to hear it from the audience. A terrific job was done by Russell Hornsby, Jason Dirden, Steve Henderson, Lynda Gravatt, James Williams, and Heather Simms.

March 24

Off day. However, I made good use of it, by doing a large chunk of writing on my screenplay, "I Was a Teenage Art Thief." My goal is to have this latest draft completed by the time I get back to LA. I haven't been able to write in my hotel. It's nice, but I'm not inspired in here as a writer, so I pulled an August Wilson move and went to a coffee house to write.

March 25

Another good day of screenwriting. Speaking of writing, I've fallen behind on my blog entries. I must and will catch up, for I've certainly enjoyed doing this.

I introduced my 16 year old niece, Olivia -- an aspiring thesp -- to the festival's excellent costume designer, Reggie Ray, who's also a theater prof at Howard University, where my niece is interested in attending. He promised her a future tour of the campus and that he would introduce her to some current Howard students for feedback. Howard U. has had a big impact on this festival, as several of Reg's students, such as Nijeul Porter, Kyle Jones, and Michael Shaw, have played big parts in the wardrobe department and have filled in for actors who were busy in other rehearsals. The casts of all the shows are also slated to meet with the students of the theater program next week.

Speaking of students, CMU theater frosh Eric Berryman is playing Sylvester in "Ma Rainey." What this young cat has been able to learn from all these pros here will no doubt bolster his development as an actor. The same can be said for my child castmates, Autumn Malhoutra (Raynell in "Fences") Terrence Thomas and Dominique Ross (Reuben and Zonia in "Joe Turner"). Kenny Leon keeps reminding us of the importance of passing on the Wilson legacy to the children. Hear, hear.

March 26

Jitney #3. The theater gremlins were active, as the timing/rhythm was off a tad. Granted, the audience was aware, but a few of us felt the effects of those four days off in between shows. But during this process, if things go awry, you always have your trusty script there to bail you out, and you can trust the words of this great writer to pull you through areas where you feel you may be stumbling.

March 27

I saw and enjoyed "Two Trains." I've done the play twice, having played Sterling at the Pittsburgh Public and Wolf at the Old Globe in San Diego. It used be my favorite of the cycle, but this festival has allowed me to rediscover my love for "Joe Turner" and "Fences." I'm sure at some point my favorite will change again. That goes to the greatness of what Mr. Wilson left us. Props to the "Two Trains" cast of Glynn Turman, Stephen Henderson, Eugene Lee, Russell Hornsby, Jason Dirden, Michole Briana White, Hassan El-Amin, and director Israel Hicks for a job well done.

March 28

A huge element of this fest has been the ability to work and process info rapidly while under big time-pressure. I mean, none of us actors knew what to expect when we got here. We've all done play readings before that have consisted of sitting at a table for the writer to hear his words; or seated readings for a select audience to hear and give feedback to a writer; or readings where we have music stands for our scripts to rest on while we stand and read; or readings that were later used as radio broadcasts.

But never have we signed on for readings where the script essentially becomes part of your hand as you make entrances and exits, and you are up on your feet in fully blocked, emotionally challenging and draining scenes with some of the finest Wilsonian actors in the country; where you wear period wardrobe items on David Gallo sets, with Alan Hughes' lights and Dwight Andrews' music selections, while being reviewed by a number of respected theater critics (shout out to Chris Rawson), in addition to a well-paying audience of hundreds -- with high expectations -- who come from far and wide to see the works of the modern day Shakespeare! Oh, and did I mention we had only ten hours of rehearsal per show to pull it all off?

March 29

I enjoyed "Radio Golf." The acting was on point, as well as Ruben Santiago-Hudson's direction. I look forward to one day adding this to the 7 of 10 Wilson plays that I've already done. Big ups to Harry Lennix, James Williams, Michole Briana White, Eugene Lee (a strong playwright himself), and Anthony Chisholm.

I must comment on how well organized the festival has been. A project of this magnitude could easily have been raggedy and unorganized. But the well-thought out preparation of company manager, Brian Liddicoat, assistant company manager Dafina McMillan, production stage manager Narda Alcorn, stage managers Marion Friedman, Brandon Prendergast, and Shari Silberglitt, along with production assistants Kristy Materos and Vanessa Riley would not allow anything to occur that they couldn't handle. Kudos to them for doing a fine job.

March 30

The final weeklong marathon of the 10 shows running in succession began today. "Gem" led off with a lovely show thanks to the fine work of Michelle Shay, Tracie Thoms, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Russell Hornsby, Raynor Scheine, James Williams, and Anthony Chisholm.

My "Joe Turner" castmates and I met earlier in the day to refresh our memories of a show we hadn't performed in 22 days! The line-through we had was essential to reconnect with the story, the characters we created, and also just to hear each other again.

The final performance of "Joe Turner" had electricity to it. There was an awareness coming from the audience that this was the final week. Some were anxious for this last chance to see the shows that they missed, while others traveled to DC with the intention of seeing the 10 shows back to back.

There was also sentimentality amongst the cast since this was our last time performing this show with each other. There was also a nervous energy and adrenaline, because after all, 22 days off is 22 days off!

Trusting that we'd be there for each other onstage was essential. All this led to a wonderful show, in which I had once again had a blast playing Jeremy. Mad props to my top notch castmates, Cherise Boothe, Michole Briana White, John Beasley, Russell Hornsby, LaTanya Richardson-Jackson, Eugene Lee, Terrence Thomas, Raynor Scheine, Dominique Ross, and Rosalyn Coleman.

March 31

An off day, however we spent three hours at Howard, where the men of the cast met with the male students of the theater department, and the women cast members did the same with the female students. Some of the topics included a discussion on the male and female characters of the Wilson plays, the importance of Wilson's contribution to America, and recurring themes of the cycle. Later, all the students were brought together and the entire cast continued with a Q&A of various theater related topics.

Later, the entire company attended a nice event hosted by Constanza Romero at a wonderful restaurant on the water. The vibe was great, as we celebrated the beginning of the last six days of the marathon.

Ruben and I revisited a topic we discussed a few years back, that we have mutual relatives. (For the rest of the festival, we ended up referring to each other as "cuz").

April 1

My buddy Stephen Henderson and I were at the Kennedy shuttle stop, when a couple recognized us from the Wilson shows. They were very appreciative of the work they witnessed, and expressed the sentiment of many -- that the scripts we had in our hands onstage, seem to disappear after a few minutes because of the magic that was being created. You're never too old to believe in magic!

April 2

"Piano Lesson" was A-1 . Props to the first rate cast of Ruben, Stephen, Bill Nunn, Jason Dirden, Heather Simms, Alexandra Perrin, Afemo Omilami, and Cherise Boothe.

April 3

Praises to the cast of "Seven Guitars" for putting it down -- LaTanya, Russell, Harry, Afemo, Ellis "Skeeter" Williams, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Afemo Omilami and Crystal Fox.

April 4

My brother Jeff Russell (from Pittsburgh) and friend George Weaver (from DC) came to see a couple of shows. Tonight was he final performance of "Fences," and I wanted to go out right in it. The line-through we had earlier in the day helped the cast reconnect with the piece. 16 days off. Not as much as with "Joe Turner," but still 16 days???Our listening and responding, and moment to moment skills came into play big-time tonight.

The show felt fantastic. I had my best show of the festival. Everything felt right. I'm going to miss what we created onstage as the Maxson clan. Thank you very much my wonderful castmates: Tamara Tunie, Bill Nunn, John Beasley, Anthony Mackie, and Autumn Malhotra. Thank you, Kenny. And thank you, August.

Afterward, we had libations with Chris Rawson and Mark Southers and many others at the 600 Restaurant, across from the Kennedy Center.

April 5

The last show of "Jitney" was hot. That locker room spirit that was created in the dressing room, once again carried over to the Jitney station, as the show was crackling with energy, teamwork, and plain old fashion fun. Gordon Davidson, who we affectionately called G-Dog, did a helluva job directing a play for which he had much love and appreciation. It was a pleasure working with him.

April 6

The last day. There's a sadness in the air, knowing that the journey is coming to an end. But you know what they say about all good things . . . . I spent the day packing, talking to my sister Anita Russell (who saw "Fences" a few weeks ago), and hooking up with my frat brother, Nate Chiles. I get to the theatre about 9:30 pm, where the actors and directors of the fest joined the cast of "Radio Golf" onstage for one last company bow. Kenny dropped an impassioned speech on the audience, and then led us all in calling out the names, in sequential order, of the 10 plays. When we got to "Radio Golf" we thrust our scripts in the air, as we did after every show, one last time in tribute to Mr. Wilson.

As we rode down in the elevator, PA Vanessa Riley told me, "what with all the love that was spread throughout this festival, it was enough to make you more hopeful and not as cynical."

The closing night festivities at the 600 Restaurant were off the chain. It was a party-hearty. We danced, signed each others' playbills, posters, scripts, exchanged contact info, shared hugs, snapped many pictures, solidified relationships, then finally bade each other adieu. I walked my Pittsburgh homie, Big Bill Nunn to his hotel. We vowed to stay in touch, and I said I'd look him up next time I was in da' 'Burgh.

As I walked to my hotel, I tried to grasp the magnitude of what we had experienced these last five weeks. We no doubt have been changed. August Wilson loved a people so deeply that he dedicated 25 years of his life to tell a century's worth of their story. It begs the questions: What are you living for? What are you dedicated in doing? What mission is worth 20 years of your hard work, blood, sweat, and tears?

If you don't know, then find out, and get to it, because tomorrow is not promised to you. So make the most of your time here, the way August did.

Well, good people, it was real. Hope you enjoyed my blog as much as I enjoyed writing it. I'll see y'all down the road. Oh, and -- Here we go Steelers, Here we go!


Montae Russell can be reached via Post-Gazette theater editor Christopher Rawson at 412-263-1666 or crawson@post-gazette.com.


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