19 March 2017

From My August Wilson Archive, Part 2

[This is the second installment of my 2-part series of archival August Wilson play reports, performances I saw before I started Rick On Theater.  Part 1, which included the linked plays Seven Guitars (1995), set in 1948, and King Hedley II (1999), set in 1985, was posted on 16 March.  I recommend checking it out before or after reading Part 2.]

Signature Theatre Company
New York City
13 December 2006

I saw the second play in the Signature Theatre’s August Wilson season on Friday, 8 December [2006]:  Two Trains Running, which, in a capsule, has both the pleasures and the problems of most Wilson plays, and it has them in extremis.  The production at Signature’s Peter Norton Space is generally excellent from both the directing and acting perspectives.  (Though, for some reason, several of the cast were still having line problems now and then, even though the play opened the previous Sunday, the 3rd.  Ben Brantley mentions this in his 4 December review in the New York Times; however, he saw the show in a preview and I saw it almost a week after opening.) 

Set in 1969 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Two Trains unfolds in the rundown diner of Memphis Lee (Frankie Faison), the locals’ communal hang-out. The neighborhood is slated for “urban renewal,” and the city intends to exercise eminent domain to raze what remains of the block that includes Memphis’s restaurant.  Memphis owns the rundown building that houses the diner, and the plot begins with his determination to make the city meet his price of $25,000—which he’s unlikely to realize.  But Memphis isn’t the only one wrestling with problems.  The diner’s replete with habitués, some regulars and some strangers, and employees who’re struggling to figure their lives out. Holloway (Arthur French), a bit of secular preacher and the play’s Wilsonian sage, scoffs at the white idea that blacks are lazy, pointing out that they toiled day and night as slaves for hundreds of years, and now that the white man has to pay them, suddenly there are no jobs.  West (Ed Wheeler), the undertaker whose funeral parlor is across the street from Memphis’s diner, has become the richest man in the neighborhood from selling his neighbors expensive caskets and “laying them out in style.”  Hambone (Leon Addison Brown), a mad and damaged soul, spends much of his stage time at the counter over a bowl of beans, periodically shouting, “I want my ham!  He gonna give me my ham!”  Risa (January LaVoy), the diner’s waitress has cut up her legs to make them ugly so men will leave her alone.  Sterling (Chad L. Coleman), a young man who recently got out of prison, just wants some money and a woman.  Wolf (Ron Cephas Jones), the numbers runner, is a dream peddler: his illegal business gives the players the hope of improving their material lives.

One of the chief pleasures of the performance is the ensemble work of the cast.  They really create the sense of a micro-community within that diner, even while each actor creates a character of eccentricity and precise individuality.  That, of course, is one of Wilson’s main strengths—he writes striking characters, each a sort of portrait of someone from Wilson’s life.  They are all actors’ dreams.  Even the most eccentric, oddball character, like Hambone in this play (and Hedley in Seven Guitars), is credible in Wilson’s world and fits right in with the other inhabitants.  Even though you know Wilson has contrived his population this way, it never seems contrived.  (In a coincidence, this is the second Signature company which features a member of the cast of the HBO series The Wire.  Frankie Faison, Memphis in this play, plays the police commissioner in that show and Lance Reddick—Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton in Seven Guitars—plays now-Colonel Daniels.)

The same is true of his language.  If the characters are all actors’ dream roles, Wilson’s dialogue is a great part of what makes that so.  Wilson writes vernacular poetry, and like other poets of the modern stage—Tennessee Williams, say, or Chekhov and Ibsen—his words never seem out of place even though they are extraordinary speech that sparkles the way no ordinary person could manage to utter.  There was plenty of this in evidence in Two Trains, especially since there is little action in the play so language shares the primary focus with character.  (In his Times review, Brantley called Two Trains one of Wilson’s two—with Jitney—“least eventful” plays.)

As I remarked, I think, in my comments on Seven Guitars [see part 1 of this Wilson archive series, 16 March], Wilson puts his characters into these wonderful little slices of life with each scene.  Two Trains is perhaps more episodic than other Wilson plays, especially Seven Guitars, so there are many, many scenes (separated by brief blackouts, just to emphasize this structure), and each of them could almost stand as a little one-act, a moment from Wilson’s world captured as if in some passing headlight.  And like a gem in a headlight, each one sparkles with life and truth and honesty.   Wilson, as I’ve said several times, draws an absolutely indelible and vivid portrait of a time and place.  It’s more than just photographs, of course, because it’s imbued with his impressions and insights—not to mention that prose poetry.  I imagine actors could mine their parts for months and keep finding new details and aspects.  (If acting classes aren’t full of August Wilson scenes and monologues, I’d be shocked.)

But, of course, this is part also of the problems evident in Two Trains—one of Wilson’s major dramaturgical faults: his lack of plot.  In Seven Guitars, there is the slimmest thread of storyline—and an end we know the play is aiming at.  The play starts with Schoolboy’s funeral, so we know he dies, and then flashes back to the weeks before his death.  We learn quickly that he’s been offered a chance to cut a record in Chicago, but he needs front money to get there.  The play’s not about that, but the story is, and we have that little chain of events to follow: what Schoolboy does that ends up in his death.  There isn’t even that much of a plot in Two Trains—we have no expected ending to pull us along, and no goal someone is trying to reach (except Hambone’s ham, really just a leitmotif, and Memphis’s deal with the city).  There is a theme, however: life and death—the two trains of the title.  Life is represented by, among other elements, the hustle and bustle of the activity in the diner and death is symbolized by the funeral parlor across the street, owned by the neighborhood’s richest citizen and a regular patron of the diner.  But that’s not enough to stitch a play together; as a result, even though the scenes are each golden on their own, it remains a collage of small glimpses of the life of the 1969 Hill District, unlinked causally to a whole.  The scenes don’t connect and there’s no throughline.  (I wonder if this has something to do with the line problems among the cast.)  The only structural connectives in Two Trains are, of course, the consistent presence of the same characters, the recurring references to various subjects—the ham that Hambone feels he’s owed by a local (white) storeowner; the upcoming rally in honor of Malcolm X; the discussions of the unseen (until a later play) character of Aunt Ester; everyone’s pursuit of money—and, obviously, the unvarying locale, Memphis’s diner. 

But the characters are also somewhat disconnected, though they all exist in the same small place when we see them.  (The characters in Seven Guitars are all tied to one another in various ways.)  Most of the men deal with Wolf, the numbers man, but he’s really a peripheral character except when Sterling hits the number and there’s a briefly extended drama of the winner seeking out the runner for his payoff while Wolf avoids him (because the numbers bosses cut the winnings in half when too many people hit it).  Sterling and the waitress, Risa, have a sort of connection—he pursues her, but she mostly resists, and the dance seems cold and perfunctory even though they do connect in the end.  Otherwise, the characters all have their own, private concerns—aside from Hambone’s ham, there is Memphis’s fight with the city to get his price for the diner building which has been condemned to make way for civic improvements, for instance—which they pursue pretty much independently and with little consequence for anyone else.  (In a somewhat odd turn, everyone gets what he or she wants at the end.  Even Hambone gets his ham—when Sterling steals it from the store after Hambone’s death.  Even that death, although unexpected and sudden, isn’t harsh—Hambone dies in his sleep at home in bed.)

Though Wilson’s dramatic worlds are often compared to Chekhov’s, I believe it’s Uta Hagen who replied to the common complaint that nothing happens in a Chekhov play by saying, “Nothing but the end of one world and the beginning of another.”  1969, when the play’s set, would seem like an apt time for such a shift in the lives of African Americans—the end of the era of sanctioned segregation and lawful discrimination and the beginning of the time of black empowerment and hope for a colorblind society, demarcated by the violent deaths of first Malcolm X (1965) and then Martin Luther King (1968) the year before the play takes place.  But Two Trains isn’t about that at all; it’s both smaller than that—local and personal concerns, not national ones—and larger—life and death as the characters experience them day to day, pretty much as we all do.  In the end, there’s no sense of upheaval in Two Trains, just a (very poetic) glimpse into Wilson’s world at one moment in its history.  It’s hardly Chekhovian.

The second dramaturgical problem that is exemplified by Two Trains is that Wilson isn’t a very good editor.  The play runs three hours (plus intermission).  Because the performance started a few minutes late, that meant we didn’t get out of the theater until almost 11:30—a long evening at the theater (and not a very good hour on a cold night to be hanging around far West 42nd Street waiting for a crosstown bus!).  I don’t know if any real damage might have been done to the play if Wilson had cut a few of the scenes, but since they aren’t causally linked to each other, the consequences would seem to have been minimal.  I remember some advice one of my teachers passed along from an editor she had had: “Kill your babies.”  In other words, be ready to cut the parts you really like—a problem I myself have.  (But, then, I don’t write plays—for which there’s probably a very good reason.) 

I remember saying that I saw the 1992 Broadway production of Two Trains but that I remembered seeing Laurence Fishburne (as the ex-con Sterling, played here by Chad L. Coleman—who also appeared in The Wire, though not as a regular) but that I have little recollection of the play.  Now I can understand why—it doesn’t hang together to amount to much as a drama.  It’s a series of moments—wonderful moments, but still just moments.  Wilson’s plays that I’ve seen all have these same problems, some more than others, and I remember saying when I left Fences in 1987, my first encounter with Wilson’s theater, that if it hadn’t been for the performance of James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson that the play wouldn’t be running because so little happened in it.  (Sure enough, when Billy Dee Williams replaced Jones, the play closed in five months.)  Happily, the pleasures of Wilson’s writing outweigh the deficiencies, and I was more than glad to have seen this revival. 

Arena Stage
Washington, D.C.
20 February 2007

I went down to Washington, D.C., last week to see the Arena Stage’s production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, the play in Wilson’s Century Cycle covering the first decade of the 20th century.  I had missed it when it ran on Broadway between December 2004 and February 2005 because the production lost an investor shortly before opening and the producers postponed the opening date, canceling some early performances.  I had had tickets during the period of cancellation and couldn’t accommodate the replacement dates the show offered and had to settle for a refund instead.  When I saw while I was in D.C to spend the 2006-07 year-end holidays with my mother that Arena was mounting Gem, I decided to go back down and catch it.

My mother, who subscribes to Arena, and I went to the show on Thursday, 15 February [2007].  A spate of snow and sub-freezing temperatures in Washington had made nighttime driving, especially through Rock Creek Park, potentially treacherous, so Mother took a less direct route and a little extra time to get to the Southwest neighborhood of the Arena Stage.  We also needed to exchange the tickets, originally for the previous evening when bad weather had been forecast, which necessitated a stop at the box office.  Gem of the Ocean, the next-to-last play Wilson wrote in his ten-year cycle (his last two scripts—Radio Golf was Wilson’s last play in the series, written the year he died, 2005—cover the first and last decades of the 20th century), was staged in the Fichandler, Arena’s original theater-in-the-round.  Peter Marks gave the production a good review in the Washington Post ten days earlier (though mentioning its nearly-three-hour length) and despite the bad weather reports, the audience was fairly large at midweek.  (The Moonie Washington Times also came out positive for the production.) 

Marks calls Gem “a lesser achievement” in Wilson’s series, and he’s right.  Compared to Fences, Two Trains Running, and Seven Guitars, it’s less poetic and more preachy (Marks called it “tipped . . . toward the didactic,” another thing he got right).  It seems as if Wilson had planned this script to launch the panorama by introducing ideas and his general intent as if it were a kind of prologue.  Set in 1904 (precisely 100 years before Wilson wrote it), Gem focuses on the residual legacy of slavery on African Americans, both those born under it (several characters are old enough to have been born in bondage; two had been involved in the Underground Railway) and those born later (the focal character, Citizen Barlow, played here by Jimonn Cole, was so named by his mother to acknowledge his status as a free-born American).  Everyone in the play and those only mentioned are still facing the lasting effects of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, even as they have moved north to Pittsburgh.  (The play is set in the Hill District of Wilson’s native city, where most of the decalogue takes place.) 

There’s a lot of discussion about slavery and its history and its impact, both actual and metaphorical.  As Marks describes it, it’s a history lesson.  And right in the middle of the second act is a symbolic reenactment of the Middle Passage, induced by Aunt Ester (the 235-year-old sage, played by Lynnie Godfrey, who reappears as an unseen figure in Two Trains and in whose house Gem is set) so that Citizen can get right with himself.  Citizen had stolen a bucket of nails from the iron mill and another man had been blamed for the theft and died rather than take the blame for a crime he didn’t commit.  After the hallucinogenic experience, Citizen sets out with Solly Two Kings (Joseph Marcell) to return to Alabama where Solly’s sister is under such oppression that she cannot even leave the state to come north to escape the privation under which she and other blacks are forced to live.  The two men are going to function as a sort of latter-day Underground Railway (Solly is one of the two characters who had served the Railway during slavery), but when Solly is killed leaving Pittsburgh, Citizen sets out again on his own—a kind of penance for his part in the death of the accused thief and a symbolic connection to the slave past he is too young to have experienced himself.

Ironically, though Gem suffers from many of the same dramaturgical faults of Wilson’s other plays—extreme length, meandering structure, extraneous scenes and ones that go on too long—there is more of a plot here than in most other Wilson scripts.  It’s rudimentary, to be sure, but it’s there.  But this asset is, unhappily, balanced by the nature of Wilson’s language in this script: it is less poetic and lofty than his past writing and there isn’t the thrill of hearing his words roll out of the mouths of the street poets who are his characters.  The characters, though, are every bit as evocative as those that populate his other plays: Citizen, the young newcomer (he still wears “clodhoppers”) caught in the disheartening cycle of economic disenfranchisement that keeps blacks in an underclass from which they can’t escape; Solly, the local philosopher (there’s almost always one in Wilsonland—an American griot); Aunt Ester, the ancient seer and healer; Black Mary (Pascale Armand), the young woman who holds a promise of the future; Caesar Wilkes (LeLand Gantt), Mary’s brother and the local lawman appointed by the white authorities to keep the black ward under control (a kind of reverse scalawag). 

It’s all just too set-up, I think, though; Wilson seems to have contrived this play more to lead into the other nine than to stand on its own as a portrait of an actual time and place.  The circumstances he creates here are much less special and unique than in the other plays I’ve seen.  (After King Hedley II, which I’m booked to see at the end of March—if all goes according to plan—I will have seen all but two of the series: Jitney and Radio Golf.  [As readers will know by now, I saw Jitney in 2017; see my report on 24 February.  King Hedley is part of the first section of this series, posted on 16 March.])  That truly extraordinary sense that you are peeking back at a moment in time, like that episode from Star Trek where the crew watches bits of history unfolding—except that Wilson’s bits are tied to specific people of that time, not just “historical figures”—is missing in Gem, in addition to its more pedestrian language.  It’s as if Wilson was less inspired to write this play, to tell this special story, than that he felt obligated to create an introductory play to get the series started—as if he were not so much moved to write it as duty-bound.

The acting and Paulette Randall’s directing are fine in the Arena production.  The use of the Fichandler, while not inspired, is not a detriment in any way.  (I have seen one other Wilson play at the Arena, Ma Rainey [2002; no report], but it was staged at the Kreeger, the proscenium space.)  The space represents the main room of Aunt Ester’s house, designed by Scott Bradley, encompassing the kitchen, dining area, and sitting room, and the lack of complete realistic detail—it’s a fragmentary set, though what set pieces are present are realistic—doesn’t seem to have any effect on the play in comparison to, say, the totally naturalistic restaurant box of Two Trains or the realistically-rendered backyard setting of Seven Guitars, both at New York City’s Signature Theatre Company. 

Wilson’s plays, like those of Tennessee Williams or Chekhov, authors to whom I’ve heard Wilson compared, are not truly realistic anyway—they’re a heightened, lyrical form of that genre, I think: they look (and sound) like Realism until you examine them a little.  They don’t require realistic trappings to work.  (The only drawback to using the arena space is that the voms, whose floors are built up to be down-ramps into the room—instead of the up-ramps they are normally—make entrances and exits longer than the quick comings and goings of a proscenium box set.  The actors and director have to do a little surreptitious covering to justify the longer crosses in and out of the room.  I’m guessing no one but me and my ilk probably noticed this, however.)  In all other respects (well, that one, too—since the design of the theater isn’t her fault), director Randall, who has mounted several Wilson plays in London (including Gem) does a fine job. 

The cast, led by Jimonn Cole as Citizen Barlow and Lynnie Godfrey as Aunt Ester, is very good, if not as exquisite as the Signature casts I’ve been seeing this season.  (In a coincidence, one cast member, Clayton LeBouef, who plays Eli, Aunt Ester’s caretaker, has also appeared in HBO’s The Wire, in which several actors from both the New York Wilson productions I’ve seen recently have been featured cast members.  LeBouef’s main TV role was Colonel Barnfather, the careerist police commander in the Homicide series.)  If I had to name a standout in the cast, it would have to be Joseph Marcell as Solly Two Kings, the sort of conscience of the Hill District.  Without being flashy or idiosyncratic, Marcell seems to draw attention to Solly, who is always ready to take action in behalf of the community—from guiding slaves to freedom on the Underground Railway, to helping southern blacks escape north when the state authorities prevent it, to setting fire to the mill where the mostly black workers are striking in protest to the new kind of economic slavery they are subjected to now.  A close second, however, is the performance of Pascale Armand as Black Mary, Aunt Ester’s cook and housekeeper.  Armand (and Wilson) have created what must be the progenitor of the modern black woman, the pre-feminist, pre-civil rights independent woman who even stands up to Aunt Ester to do things her own way.  (Aunt Ester’s response: “What took you so long!”)

The single acting fault I saw is Godfrey’s habit of speaking awfully fast as Aunt Ester.  She didn’t overact the age (how do you act 235, anyway?) or, in my opinion, overdo the Southern accent (though Mom complained about that), but she spoke so fast that I had to concentrate on her dialogue just in order to hear the words.  No one else had this difficulty so it wasn’t the fault of the acoustics or the direction I don’t think.  That Aunt Ester is such a central role in Gem means that this is more of a problem than it might otherwise be.

Obviously, for all its problems and deficiencies, Gem of the Ocean still has its Wilsonian pleasures.  It isn’t the gem its title suggests (that Gem is the name of the slave ship that symbolically carries Citizen to his redemption), but it’s still August Wilson.  As I’ve said of other major playwrights, most notably Stephen Sondheim, even bad August Wilson—and this wasn’t remotely that—is still better than 90 per cent of everything else that’s out there at its best.  And even if his dramaturgy is flawed, this is still a writer with something on his mind, something provocative, interesting, and worthy.  God knows, not every playwright can claim that these days.

[For those interested, at the end of my 24 February report on Jitney, I appended a list of the 10 plays in Wilson’s Century Cycle with pertinent dates--setting, première, and Broadway début.  There’s also a brief discussion in the report on the decalogue as a theatrical and literary accomplishment.]

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