Kennedy Center readings get to the heart of August Wilson's 'Pittsburgh Cycle'

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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It was theater heaven, August Wilson division -- seven directors and 41 actors playing 77 characters in 10 plays, each presented in four staged readings over five weeks at Kennedy Center in March and April.

The 10 plays of the late, great Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle (or Century Cycle if you prefer) are each set in a different decade of the 20th century, and they were performed in that chronological order, three times each, March 4 through March 29. Then from March 30 through April 6, the 10-play Cycle was performed one more time in a majestic parade of Wilson's epic panorama of love, honor, duty and betrayal.

I managed to be in Washington on March 30 for the Cycle's first two plays, "Gem of the Ocean" and "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," but missed "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "The Piano Lesson" and "Seven Guitars." (Those three plays were reviewed for the Post-Gazette March 20 by Rebecca Ritzel.) Then I returned April 4-6 for the final five, "Fences," "Two Trains Running," "Jitney," "King Hedley II" and "Radio Golf."

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What a theatrical roller coaster! It's not the best way to see any one play, of course, with each jostling for space and attention with the others, and a staged reading allows only a partial realization of the dramatic potential. But the Kennedy Center's long dramatic panorama of laughter and tears allowed the Cycle to be viewed through both ends of the dramatic telescope.

On the one hand, with the physical action necessarily reduced as the actors held scripts in hand, you could hear speeches afresh; on the other, the relentless succession of plays allowed you to feel the whole Cycle as an epic, organic unity, rising and falling with the tidal energy of a century of passion and laughter, aspiration and tears.

Then each night the day's drama was debated and absorbed at the company's unofficial clubhouse, the 600 Restaurant next door in the Watergate complex. This was an extraordinary acting company, with many key members of what we might call the August Wilson national rep company present, including Stephen McKinley Henderson, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Anthony Chisholm, Michelle Shaw and James A. Williams. Who else but Paul Butler should play Becker in "Jitney"? And who but Ebony Joe-Ann play Ma Rainey?

Veterans of many regional Wilson productions included John Beasley, Russell Hornsby and Hassan El-Amin; they mixed with a new generation typified by Jason Dirdin, Cherisse Boothe and Anthony Mackie. And there were Pittsburghers Montae Russell, Bill Nunn, Tamara Tunie and Carnegie Mellon University student Eric Berryman.

So you could say "August Wilson's 20th Century" (the Kennedy Center title) was most of all for the actors, and not just those with long Wilson histories. That was certainly the feeling in those late-night, post-show gatherings, as the talk swirled excitedly.

Everyone felt part of something special. It was a farewell to Wilson and a summarizing of his achievement, completed by last spring's posthumous Broadway production of the 10th play, "Radio Golf." But it also marked the start of the next phase, as Wilson's Cycle expands in its role as a recognized American classic, the plays living and breathing in individual productions, screen versions and festivals.

Whatever the future, the Cycle plays will remain an essential crucible for African-American actors. You can get a sense of their intense investment in Montae Russell's journal of the actors' Kennedy Center experience, appearing all month in the Post-Gazette. (Follow that link also for seven pictures, in addition to those linked to this story at upper left.)

But August Wilson's 20th century also was for the audience. Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater is intimate, with 500 sharply banked seats, so there were just 2,000 seats for the four performances of each play. Part of the audience was this acting company itself, cheering its colleagues with the enthusiasm of a Little League team. A larger part was Wilson aficionados, come from near and far. But a sizable third part was Wilson novices, some no doubt misunderstanding ("why are they carrying their scripts?") but many enthused at their first taste of Wilson's rich, robust stew of language and passion.

What they all saw was a mixed genre, more than readings but less than full performances. The handsome set by David Gallo was limited to the Hill District panorama, shown above, originally the show curtain for "Radio Golf" and here used as a backdrop; a framing proscenium arch alluding to the Crawford Grill; and set pieces (window, door and step units and furniture) as needed. Costumes were generally restricted to one per character, and props were limited to a couple per show. The limitations spurred creativity, as actors turned their binders into props or made the audience see props through acting alone.

Each play began with a scene- or theme-setting introduction, generally from Wilson's preface to the play, sometimes delivered as a voice-over, sometimes by actors standing off to one side.

I know these plays well from seeing, reading and teaching them, but such were the performances that I heard many speeches afresh, a proof of their classic complexity.

One of my discoveries was Russell Hornsby, who stepped in at the last minute as Citizen Barlow in "Gem," giving him the most roles overall, five. James A. Williams and Eugene Lee each had four, while 11 actors had three. Hornsby is an ideal Wilsonian actor, with a big presence, a richly-timbered voice and the ability to switch from dark glower to electric smile in a heartbeat.

In "Gem," Michelle Shay's Aunt Ester was less majestic than Phylicia Rashad's on Broadway, but feistier and more aggressive. "I got memories that go waaay back," she growled, announcing one of the Cycle's central themes.

Hornsby was a very compelling Herald Loomis in "Joe Turner," making me regret having missed his full performance last year at New York's off-Broadway Signature Theatre. I loved the world of regret and longing on Cherise Boothe's face as Mattie Campbell, when Loomis bid her goodbye.

In "Fences," John Beasley was a cantankerous Troy, without James Earl Jones' majesty but fully plausible, evidence of the many interpretations these roles can take. Bill Nunn's Bono was impressively expansive and warm, though it was odd to see Bono tower over Troy, and Montae Russell was a solid, touching presence as the hapless oldest son, Lyons.

"Two Trains" featured a forceful performance by Glynn Turman as Memphis, at his emphatic best in his big Act 1 curtain speech of determination, matched by Jason Dirden's fast, bumptious Sterling and Hornsby's slick, colorful Wolf.

Hornsby was at his best in the title role of "King Hedley II," matching poetic resonance to a dark psychological weight. Dirden's Mister felt like a tempter leading him astray, while Lynda Gravatt's Ruby started out all cranky angles, gradually revealing softness and memory.

The show closest to an actual performance was "Radio Golf," probably because three of the five actors did it on Broadway less than a year ago. Nothing in the Cycle is more remarkable than the contrast between the tragic gloom of "King Hedley" and the lighter comedy/crisis of "Radio Golf" -- like emerging into the light, then realizing you have to head back into the dark.

They called the cast of 41 "Wilsonian soldiers." Each script was encased in a binder with the playwright's profile in gold. At the end of each curtain call, those binders were lifted high to tumultuous applause. August Wilson was definitely the star.

For much more coverage of August Wilson, go to the Post-Gazette's special August Wilson Index.

Post-Gazette theater editor Christopher Rawson can be reached at or 412-263-1666.


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