WASHINGTON, D.C. -- At curtain call each evening at the Kennedy Center, the actors starring in staged readings of August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle have been raising their scripts in the air. Each black book is embellished with the gold silhouette of Wilson, the Pittsburgh-born playwright who died in 2005.
The toast is telling: These readings of all 10 dramas in the 20th-century cycle are more a tribute to Wilson's words than actual productions. But what a powerful tribute it is.
The Kennedy Center has been opening the plays in chronological order since March 4. Each show runs for three nights and then closes until at the end of the month, when Wilson fans will be able to settle in for a seven-day, 10-play marathon. The advertising tagline -- staged readings with sets, costumes and scenery -- doesn't do the festival justice. Many actors are putting out more effort than they're being paid to exert, drawing on deep wells of experience performing Wilson's work on Broadway and at regional theaters.
The resulting performances are stunning. But in some casts, one or more actors showed up for the scant two days of rehearsal ready to read and nothing more. So the acting is uneven. Yet consistently, whenever the cast members look up from their books, there's an intent in their eyes that can only come from connecting with Wilson's weighty texts.
As anyone who has ever seen a Wilson play knows, the playwright's monologues are lengthy and loaded. Decades of African-American history are recounted, in the dialect of the day, by orators weaving in their own complicated family histories. One could argue that the plays set in the 1920s, '30s and '40s reflect Wilson's golden decades. Here his characters are the children and grandchildren of slaves, and the spectre of the South has followed them north to Chicago and Pittsburgh. They wrestle with devils while listening to the blues.
Music is an unlisted character in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "The Piano Lesson" and "Seven Guitars." At the Kennedy Center, readings of all three feature moments where song takes over, and audiences forget the actors have scripts in hand. Many of the stand-out performers take on vocal roles. As the cantankerous diva Ma Rainey, Ebony Jo-Ann has a voice producers would record in any era. Veteran Wilson actor and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson leads a knee-slapping song-and-dance sequence as Boy Willie in "The Piano Lesson." And as the siren-singing neighbor Louise in "Seven Guitars," LaTanya Richardson Jackson gives one of the best comic performances seen thus far in the cycle.
One of Wilson's other great supporting roles, Uncle Doaker in "Piano Lesson," seems wasted on Pittsburgh native Bill Nunn, who in the first performance read from his script in a monotone voice, unable to lift his eyes to interact with the outstanding actors who share his stage. He'll have a chance to redeem himself later in the cycle, as will Harry Lennix, whose forced, flat dialect detracts from his leading roles in "Ma Rainey" and "Seven Guitars."
The most intriguing duo portrayal thus far has been delivered by Afemo Omilami. The veteran film actor converts audiences as the preacher Avery in "The Piano Lesson," then leaves them perplexed after reading the part of simple-minded Hedley with a heavy Jamaican accent in "Seven Guitars."
Lack of props is proving a challenge. As Hedley the butcher, Omilami has no chickens to chop. It's understandable that the Kennedy Center wouldn't want to fuss with live birds and fake blood for a staged reading. Each director -- and there are seven -- takes a different approach to props and costumes. (If you are going and have a script, bring it for the sake of the important stage directions, which are not read aloud.) Whiskey bottles and kitchen kettles turn up randomly. Some characters change costumes; some don't.
David Gallo's simple sets, with backdrop scrim and faux proscenium that reference familiar landmarks from Pittsburgh's Hill District, are effective. But really, how much would it have cost to put a mute in Levee's trumpet, or buy Ma Rainey the Coke she demands before her recording session? Easily remedied inconsistencies like these bump audiences out of the reverie cast by Wilson's words.
The Kennedy Center has put the total price tag for the festival at $3.5 million. One has to hope that among the 500 theatergoers leaving the Kennedy Center each night, more than a few may be theater power brokers contemplating the feasibility of mounting full productions of all 10 plays, if there is a cultural institution in this country that could do it.
Whether or not that ever happens, Wilson's fans should applaud this landmark marathon and the actors who have invested so much in the Kennedy Center tribute. And marathon or not, Wilson's individual plays will continue to be staples of the American theater.
Post-Gazette theater critic Chris Rawson will travel to Washington later this month to see the seven plays not discussed here.
Rebecca J. Ritzel is a freelance theater critic. She may be contacted through Christopher Rawson at email@example.com .