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Posts Tagged ‘August Wilson’

I’m not sure we’ve seen this 7th play in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle in the UK before; if so, it certainly passed me by. Each play represents the African American experience in one decade of the 20th Century, this one the sixties. They are all set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, from where Wilson himself hails, this play in Lee’s Restaurant, owned by a character called Memphis.

It’s 1969, a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The civil rights movement is very active, there are regular clashes as the police target the black community and Pittsburgh’s urban renewal is displacing black families. All this is happening outside Memphis’ establishment, which is itself threatened by compulsory purchase for development. Apart from Memphis and his assistant Risa, we meet two black businessmen, the very successful local undertaker and property owner West, and Holloway, whose business interests are less clear. Homeless man Hambone, hardy able to communicate, drifts in and out, as does Wolf, who runs an illegal betting business using the diner’s phone. Wheeler-dealer Sterling, recently out of prison, makes a play for Risa, befriends Hambone, does deals with Memphis and bets with Wolf. In many ways, he’s the heart if the play.

There’s less plot and character development than Wilson’s other plays. It’s more of a social history, though of a fascinating period close enough to resonate. It’s like seven lives converging inside the restaurant, with events outside a backdrop, and there’s a tragic but very satisfying and defiant conclusion. I struggled to engage with the first half’s overlong eighty minute scene setting, but the second half was much better, though I don’t think it’s amongst the best of the cycle, despite the ripeness of the period. I also struggled catching all of the dialogue, as the emphasis was on authenticity more than clarity. Frankie Bradshaw’s design is terrific, a realistic diner with an impressionistic city backdrop and a symbolic wrecking ball, and director Nancy Medina has repaid the trust of the judges of the RTST Sir Peter Hall Director Award with a fine production. It would be invidious to single out any individual in this very fine cast; the seven performances are uniformly excellent.

I’m getting fond of these afternoon trips to Northampton,where so much quality drama now originates. Co-produced by ETT, this one also gets to be seen in six other towns and cities. Get to one of them!

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August Wilson was one of the greats of 20th century American drama, though he’s not as well known or as produced internationally as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill. His great achievement was a cycle of ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, all in Pittsburgh’s Hill District where he was brought up, with characters in some plays being referenced in others, documenting 100 years of the African American experience. We’ve seen all bar one here, though revivals after their UK premiere’s have been rare. Seventeen years after it was first seen at the Tricycle, this ninth play (in period, rather than writing), set in the Reagan’s America in the 80’s, gets a superb revival at the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

King Hedley II is home from prison, where he served seven years. He lives at home with his mum Ruby, with whom he has a fractious relationship, and his wife Tonya. He has a seventeen-year-old daughter whom he hardly ever sees. He’s struggling to navigate life as an ex-con, selling knocked-off fridges with his best friend Mister to raise money to set up a video store. They try to speed up the fund-raising with a bigger crime. He’s keen to have a child with Tonya, but she doesn’t like the world it would be born into. Ruby’s old flame, smooth hustler Elmore, walks back into their lives and ghosts from the past emerge, propelling the play to its tragic conclusion. Peter McKintosh has built two full-size houses, evocative of the poor Hill District neighbourhood, whilst providing an intimate playing area in the back yards of the houses.

I was impressed by newcomer Aaron Pierre in Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe last year, but his performance as King Hedley is on another level altogether; deeply emotional and passionate with an extraordinary charismatic presence. Martina Laird is terrific as Ruby, a nuanced characterisation that conveys the complexity of her relationships with her son and Elmore. This is Lenny Henry’s fifth role since his late career extension into stage acting, and he continues to impress. Elmore brings a lightness to what is one of the darker plays of the cycle, and Henry is well suited to this. Dexter Flanders as Mister and Cherrelle Skeete as Tonya both make excellent contributions, and the cast is completed by a fine performance from Leo Wringer as the eccentric neighbour Stool Pigeon, who hoards newspapers to record history and makes prophetic contributions like a Greek chorus.

It’s a bit too long at 3.5 hours, but Wilson’s dialogue and a set of riveting performances just about keep you in their grip in Nadia Fall’s superb production. It’s such a timeless piece, covering issues just as relevant and urgent today, and Stratford East is a great home for a work like this – an auspicious contribution to kick off the next phase in the life of ‘the people’s theatre’. As I left, I looked up at Joan Littlewood’s statue and she seemed to have a smile of approval on her face!

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This August Wilson play, based on a real-life character – the so-called mother of blues – was his first big success in 1984, getting its first London production five years later in the Cottesloe Theatre. It became the first of his 10-play cycle covering the black American experience (each in a different decade of the 20th century) to be staged, though two are set before it. This very welcome revival is in the much bigger Lyttelton next door.

The whole play takes place in a Chicago recording studio in the 1920’s. Ma Rainey’s a bit of a diva who turns up an hour late for the recording session insisting that her stuttering nephew sings the intro to the title song using a different arrangement, that songs are changed, that her car (damaged en route) is repaired and returned to the studio and that coca cola is fetched from the deli before she starts. The band attempt to rehearse while they are waiting, but horn player Levee’s heart isn’t in it; he’s more concerned with his ambition and his new shoes.

The rest of the play moves between the band room and the studio, with Ma’s manager and the record producer regularly leaving the elevated control room, usually to argue with or placate Ma. Her daughter, the delightfully named Dussie Mae, flirts with Levee – well, more than flirts! The band banter and fight, and occasionally relate a real experience of horrific racist abuse and violence which is particularly chilling contained within the lighter tone. You’d expect the play to revolve around its title character, but in fact it’s heart is in the band room scenes, with their stories and relationships, which take a dramatic turn at the end.

It’s more of a ‘slice of life’ than a linear plotted play, but it achieves its purpose of taking us to a 20’s black American world. It’s a touch slow and low-energy in the slightly longer first half, but its still in preview so it may tighten. The Lyttelton is a much less intimate space than the Cottesloe, but Dominic Cooke’s production and Ultz design work well, with the long narrow band room rising stage front and the control room like an elevated container, both linked by a metal spiral staircase. 

At first I thought the band’s actors – an unrecognisable Clint Dyer on trombone, Giles Terera on bass, horn player O-T Fagbenle and Lucian Msamati on piano – were playing live, but I came to the conclusion the music was recorded, which is a great compliment to both their miming and Paul Arditti’s sound design. It’s a great cast, led by the incomparable Sharon D Clarke, who commands the stage and everyone on it when she is. Fagbenle is a very edgy and passionate Levee and Msamati is superb as Toledo, a role unlike any I’ve seen him play before.

I have to confess my memories of the 1989 production are feint, but its great to see it again and the audience reception was very positive indeed.

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August Wilson’s 1987 play ended up as part of a cycle of ten, each representing a decade of the 20th century black American experience (though not written in sequence). This one represents the 50’s and was the 3rd to be written (the last was written in 2005, the year of his death).

The play revolves around 50-something Troy, a dominant husband, brother and father who spent time in prison and is a bit fixated on death. Brother Gabriel has returned from the war deeply disturbed and Troy uses his compensation money to buy a home. He failed to make a career in baseball, the odds loaded heavily against black players at the time, but makes a decent living as a garbage man with his best friend Jim Bono. He falls out with his son Cory when he prevents him from perusing his own baseball ambitions. He’s unfaithful to his wife Rose and when his lover dies giving birth to his child, Rose takes the baby as her own. The first half is overlong and overwritten, but it picks up considerably after the interval. It’s an interesting enough family drama, but I’m not sure it really goes anywhere.

The chief reason for seeing it is as fine a set of performances as you could wish for. You can tell these actors have been on the road for three months as they are now inhabiting their characters seemingly effortlessly. Colin McFarlane is excellent as friend Bono and has great chemistry with Lenny Henry’s Troy. Tanya Moodie is wonderful as the put-upon wife who also plays off Henry brilliantly. Ian Charleston Award winner Ashley Zhangazha is simply terrific as Cory; a real one-to-watch. It’s just four years since Lenny Henry’s acting debut (baptism of fire) as Othello. Then he had great presence and a great speaking voice, but you could see him acting; now he’s the real deal – a hugely impressive, towering performance; you can’t take your eyes off him as he becomes Troy.

The action takes place in the front yard and on the porch of a two-story house (designed by Libby Watson) which dominates the stage of this small theatre, bringing further intensity to the drama. A welcome addition to the West End, which looks like it’s broadening its audience healthily.

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The combination of in-the-round staging and heavy accents means you take a while to atune to this play. Even when you do, it’s hard to maintain concentration because it’s very slow, partricularly in the first act, in developing characters and story; I often found my mind wandering.

Based on the audience’s enthusiastic reaction, I’m prepared to accept that my lack of engagement with it might be more about me than the play or the production. I didn’t find it particularly illuminating about the black American experience in 1911. What it says about the recovery from slavery, identity and spirituality seemed to me to have insufficient substance or depth and was frankly confusing. I’ve got a lot more out of the other August Wilson plays I’ve seen.

What isn’t in question though is a fine set of performances, particularly from Danny Sapani, Delroy Lindo, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and Nathanial Martello-White. I felt the female roles were too underwritten to alow the actresses to shine in the same way as the men did.

Notwithstanding the audibility issues, David Lan’s staging was very effective, though I’m not really sure why we all had to have our feet firmly implanted in the sand / soil that pervades the seating areas as well as the performance area of Patrick Burnier’s design.

For me it was another case of good production – disappointing play, but it’s fair to say my companion and I were in a distinct minority on the night.

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