- The Washington Times - Friday, February 29, 2008

Throughout the month of March, the Kennedy Center will host an unprecedented event when it becomes the first theater in the world to offer deluxe staged readings of the late August Wilson’s complete 10-play cycle that chronicles the lives of black Americans in the 20th century one decade at a time.

One hundred years. 10 plays. 77 characters played by 25 actors.

But who will be in the audience? Will a century of black experience unfold before a sea of upturned white faces? It is no secret that theater audiences in this country are largely made up of white people — 85 percent for musicals and 84 percent for plays, according to a recent report by the National Endowment for the Arts. Nationally, black audiences are about 7 percent for both musicals and plays.

Does it matter? Is there any reason blacks should be expected to attend shows written about their shared history by those who happen to share their skin color? Or does such an assumption implicitly relativize Mr. Wilson’s importance, relegating to a dramatic ghetto a playwright who sought to transcend ethnicity in his work?

“By people only thinking of August Wilson as an African-American playwright, in many ways they marginalize him,” says Kenny Leon, artistic director for the monthlong Kennedy Center celebration. “He liked doing Broadway because that’s where the audiences go and that’s where he belonged. He wanted to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Shakespeare, Ibsen, Arthur Miller.”

“It is a double-edged sword — bearing the mantle of being an African-American playwright,” says Israel Hicks, who will direct “Two Trains Running” at the Kennedy Center. “On one hand, it means a playwright is part of the African-American storytelling tradition. On the other hand, it allows people to be dismissive. August Wilson was an incredible storyteller, but his plays are universal in theme. Love. Betrayal. Honor. Duty. Respect. You can’t get more fundamental than that.”

Todd Kreidler, who worked with Mr. Wilson on his final three plays (“King Hedley II,” “Gem of the Ocean” and “Radio Golf”) before the playwright’s death from liver cancer in 2005, agrees that labels can be limiting. “Nobody says that Arthur Miller is only a Jewish playwright or Tennessee Williams is just a Southern playwright,” he observes. “People are slow to see [Mr. Wilson’s] achievement. You can’t touch him — Eugene O’Neill tried with a cycle and never completed it. It is a singular achievement. When you see all 10 plays together — the echoes and the resonances and the cross-references are astonishing. The plays and the characters talk to each other. The only other playwright you can cross-reference like this is Shakespeare.”

Challenging the widespread interpretation of Mr. Wilson as a “safe” black playwright easily digestible to the white and middle-class majority of theatergoers, Mr. Kreidler argues: “He is very subversive in a subtle way.”

“He is political to our soul, and does not use agitprop,” he continues, adding that “August said to me once, ‘If I were born in Alabama and had a plantation, I would have owned slaves. That’s the way it was.’ ”

Illustrating the playwright’s allergy to being pigeonholed, Mr. Kreidler recalls that Mr. Wilson used to joke with him shortly before his death to “please don’t let them only do my plays in February,” which is Black History Month. “My plays need to be done other months of the year.”

Stephen Richard, executive director at Arena Stage, is wary of falling into the same trap. “We saw striving to make our audiences reflect the cultural diversity of Washington as an artistic challenge rather than just an attempt to serve an under-represented community,” he says. “And the way you do that is to broaden your scope beyond doing one African American musical and one play from a serious black playwright every season. You need August Wilson, because he is an American icon, but you also need more, different voices.”

At the same time, Mr. Richard points with pride to the rapid growth in black attendance at Arena, quintupling from 4 percent of the total in the 1992-93 season to 20 percent in the 2005-06 season. Mr. Richard expects black attendance to reach one-third of the theater’s total very soon.

WHAT: “August Wilson’s 20th Century,” staged readings of the complete 10-play cycle

WHERE: Terrace Theatre, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tuesday through April 6.


PHONE: 202/467-4600

WEB SITE: www.kennedy-center.org

August Wilson was an incredible storyteller, but his plays are universal in theme.

— Director Israel Hicks

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