*On a recent momentous occasion celebrating the first time ever recordings of the entire August Wilson American Century Cycle, a staged reading of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” took place at The Greene Space of radio stations WNYC and WQXR.
Cultural partner Two Rivers Theater in Red Bank, NJ, home to many productions of August Wilson plays, will also offer live video webcasts at www.trtc.org. WNYC 93.9 FM will broadcast select recordings on Sundays beginning in January 2014. WNYC will also make the recordings plays available for radio broadcast on other public radio stations.
Executive Producer Dr. Indira Etwaroo, who conceptualized the project and worked with Constanza Romero, executor of the August Wilson Estate and Wilson’s widow to secure the rights to record all 10 plays, kicked the evening off with a brief statement before a round of interviews. “It has taken years to get to this moment,” she said. “Wilson’s American Century Cycle captures 100 years of African American life through the searing, poetic, personal stories of everyday people. The significance of it all coming to fruition during the year of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington is not lost on any of us. In recording these works, we are chronicling the history of a whole people, as written by a man who understood the power of telling a story.”
Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Artistic Director, initiated the query session with a fitting tribute. “It’s just time for us as African American artists to embrace what belongs to us and disseminate it into the nation and the world because you can’t name something that belongs to us more than August Wilson. He wrote this body of work to celebrate the culture of a people. It’s an extraordinary responsibility to lead this historic undertaking of documenting and preserving for generations to come not just the words, but the sound of August’s majestic ode to African American life in the 20th Century.
“For those of us who had the privilege to work on a Wilson project while he was alive, it was life changing. Stephen (McKinley Henderson [Associate Artistic Director]) and I are deeply touched that so many who knew and collaborated with Wilson have stepped forward to join us on this extraordinary tribute to our hero. He was a man, a writer, an artist who forever changed the landscape of American theater.”
Sitting next to Santiago-Hudson were Taraji P. Henson (Molly Cunninghan), S. Epatha Merkerson (Betha Holly) and “Joe Turner’s” director, Phylicia Rashad. I asked Henson, who is starring in one TV’s most entertaining and smartest series, “Person of Interest,” what drew her to the project? “When Ruben calls, you say ‘yes,’” she laughed. “But when you mention the name August Wilson,” she continued, “to me that’s my Shakespeare. When I was introduced to August Wilson, I felt I was home. I felt (she gasps) his words. It didn’t matter if it was written before I was even thought of, the words still felt very close to me. Studying Shakespeare, Euripides, or whatever didn’t make me feel as comfortable or alive.
“August Wilson spoke directly to my soul, directly to my struggle. So I was just very honored that I was even called. We’re in an industry where it’s about who is more popular right now. How many followers do you have on twitter and it’s crazy because audiences aren’t ignorant. The audience knows the work from the B.S. Oftentimes we get overlooked in the industry because of color, hair, shape or size. So August Wilson is my refuge. It’s interesting because you have to be careful about what you ask for because I said to God, ‘I want to do the type of work that people will talk about long after I’m gone. I don’t care about the money.’ I wanted to be a part of Wilson’s legacy because he is someone to look up to. This is the part of my journey I asked God for so I had to be a part of this project.”
S. Epatha Merkerson (“Law & Order) says, “August Wilson is our treasure. Our words, our lives, our actions are deposited and rests in his plays. There is this depository, this place where you can go to find out about our history. Every character has a place.”
Phylicia Rashad (“The Cosby Show”) praised August Wilson for his literary distinction. “I grew up with a poet and playwright, my mother, Vivian Ayers,” Rashad imparted. “So I have great respect for the discipline of writing. I have great respect for the power of the written and spoken word, and I’m trained in theater arts…The thing that I find unique about August is that he was determined that his plays would be produced on Broadway stage and in doing so what he did was he elevated the salt of the earth people to the Broadway stage.
“His characters are salt of the earth people and he elevated them to the highest stage in theater. These are people that you pass on the street and with most of his characters you just keep walking. He shows you the beauty, the power, the strength and the complexities of their lives and he makes us care about them. He knew what he was doing. He was creating something for future generations of playwright to follow, a road map.”