The D.C. area seems to be experiencing an August Wilson renaissance, with multiple productions at several area theaters in one year. Longtime friends and colleagues Michele Shay (director of No Rules Theater Company’s production of Seven Guitars – closed on September 28) and Timothy Douglas (director of Arena Stage’s King Hedley II onstage from February 6 to March 8, 2015) agreed to let us eavesdrop on their conversations about working on the inestimable August Wilson. Stay tuned to the Arena Stage and No Rules Theatre blogs over the next few months as Timothy and Michele discuss August Wilson’s work, his significance, and his lasting impact on artists and audiences.
In their first conversation, Michele and Timothy discuss why we keep coming back to August Wilson, what excites them about his plays, and why he’s so popular in DC right now.
What is it about August Wilson ?
TD: The quality of August Wilson’s writings are often compared to the universality of Shakespeare’s with regard to the depths of insight into the human condition that they access, and whose relevance cuts across class, race and generational lines.
MS: We are witnessing the establishment of August Wilson’s work as Classics. Every time one sees one of the Cycle plays, you have the opportunity to get more out of it. That is what a Classical text offers – it vibrates and lasts over time.
TD: And like the Bard, Mr. Wilson was reflecting and addressing specific cultural and political paradigms of his time – and did so by anchoring their expansive and all-consuming triumphs and conflicts within extraordinary, yet flawed characters…indeed, the hallmarks of all enduring writers.
MS: As I understand it, when he died in 2005, August was the most produced playwright in America – that year! But he is not yet a household name. I have students whose parents raised them on August’s plays. I also met people in the DC, Maryland and Arlington area while working on Seven Guitars who both questioned that there was too much August Wilson being done, and others who were die hard fans.
TD: But what distinguishes the writings of these two titans of dramatic literature lay in the fluidity of their plot-specifics to illuminate - with mathematical exactness – the prevailing societal conditions, along with their corresponding and inspired ‘call to action.’
Why is DC enjoying so many August Wilson productions right now?
MS: Since the plays were first done I think the receptivity to the subject matter and content, the craft, the poetry, the universal common ground of humanity – not to mention the sheer entertainment he offers audiences – is greater than ever. I never tire of working on August. I particularly enjoy immersions in what I call “August Wilsonville.” I have played Aunt Ester in Gem of the Ocean five times and had friends of several different races and cultures come back multiple times to that one play because they got so much out of hearing it, seeing it again and again. The writing is really that good.
TD: What is being revealed within this mini-renaissance of Wilson’s works are what I call the content of ‘hidden chambers’ buried deep in the structure of the plays, which have been ‘unlocked’ as a direct result of the age of the Obama presidency. Chambers that reveal and give voice to profound and confounding nuances of America’s ongoing race-wrestling match in response to America’s election of its first black president…something that August Wilson may not have imagined during his lifetime, and yet his plays speak directly to its in-the-moment impact with a compelling urgency. As we invite and absorb these ‘new play’ qualities in revisiting Wilson’s Century Cycle, it seems a divinely guided – and in a way an obvious – act that DC has become the Ground Zero for us to rediscover ourselves as we rediscover August Wilson.
MS: To do him well – to experience all there is to experience – takes several trips to the well. It’s a little like finding a favorite place to vacation and going back over and over again. You are guaranteed a great time. Audiences who take the opportunity to see Seven Guitars and King Hedley back-to-back will have an amazing experience – an unforgettable experience.