Move Over, Chris Rock. This might not lead you to expect something about the coming of age of August Wilson. However, I learned during a conversation with Todd Kreidler, a close associate of Wilson’s, that it was among the titles kicked around by Wilson during the development of what eventually became How I Learned What I Learned, currently running off Broadway at New York’s Signature Theatre.
Kreidler and I spoke while he was in town for the opening at Arena Stage of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, his play drawn from the classic 1967 movie about an interracial marriage. The play has now opened to strong reviews. In The Washington Post, Peter Marks wrote that “what’s achieved on the Fichandler Stage is a wholesale reinvention of the movie, one that repositions the story as a sharply observed human comedy.” On DCTS.com, Rebecca Evans deemed it “the perfect piece of theater.” (It runs through Jan. 5th.)
Although the Arena production had provided the occasion for our talk, it did not monopolize our conversation. Having just arrived at the housing provided by Arena, Kreidler was discovering (not surprisingly) that he had more room down here than he had while staying in New York for the Signature opening. That would make it easier for him to have visits from family. He described his family as “gypsies,” thanks to the city-hopping that his career involves, and told me that he has a fifteen-month old. I told him that my twins are sixteen-months old and that provoked some comparing of notes between new fathers.
In fact, it was family that also got us to the subject of Kreidler’s august colleague. My family includes some serious August Wilson admirers. I told him that my mother, as a Professor of English at University of Baltimore, had taught Fences and The Piano Lesson. When I mentioned to her that I was going to interview an associate of Wilson’s, she made her oft-repeated lament that Wilson did not receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. “It kills me, kills me” that Wilson died Nobel-less, Kreidler agreed.
Then Kreidler told me something I hadn’t heard before. The Nobel Prizes are generally announced on the first or second Thursday in October. Wilson died on Oct. 2, 2005. That year, the prizes were expected to be announced on Oct. 6. In fact, the other awards were announced on that date, but the Prize for Literature was delayed a week, until Oct. 13.
Nobel deliberations are notoriously secret, so speculation about what caused this delay will likely continue for a long while. The deliberations are also notoriously political. Accusations that selections are Eurocentric can be buttressed by the statistic that there have been more winners from Sweden than from the whole of either Asia or Latin America. It has come to seem, recently, as if attempts to spread the honor more broadly have made it a bit like the Secretary-Generalship of the UN, moving from continent to continent. The choice that year ended up being Harold Pinter. (My personal devotion to Pinter is well-known to my friends; indeed, it has been reported in The Washington Post that our Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is named Harold Pinter.)
Contemporaneous press reports speculated as to the reason for the delay. I remember that, at the time, the selection of Pinter seemed to have caught literary circles a little off-guard. Kreidler said that he wouldn’t want at all to denigrate the choice of Pinter and that he isn’t a big conspiracy theorist. However, the delay and the ultimate choice of a playwright writing in the English language, along with the rule prohibiting posthumous receipt of the honor, was noted by Kreidler and others close to Wilson. It would fit the available facts to presume that Wilson might have been the choice that year but for his untimely death.
At any rate, Wilson’s death without that highest literary honor is “something that still hurts” and an “other level of pain” is the possibility that it was time and fate, and not the Nobel Committee, that kept Wilson’s name off of a Nobel plaque. However, while acknowledging that it “certainly would have meant a lot” to Wilson to achieve that honor, Kreidler made the point that Wilson was “driven by something else, not awards.” Before his death, Wilson did know that a Broadway theatre would be renamed in his honor. Although the Virginia Theatre didn’t officially become the August Wilson Theatre until a few weeks after his death, Wilson saw “knock-ups” of the plans for the new marquee. (And those of us who were at the 2000 Helen Hayes Award ceremony saw him receive its tribute; not the Nobel Prize, but certainly prestigious.)
Kreidler worked closely with Wilson from 1999, when Wilson was about to premiere King Hedley II. (Its Broadway run, as some may remember, was preceded by a stop here at The Kennedy Center.) Kreidler was the official dramaturg on the final two plays (Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf) in Wilson’s celebrated ten-play cycle chronicling the African-American experience with each taking place in a different decade of the 20th Century. Kreidler travelled around the country with Wilson for productions of the canon at regional theatres. In all, he worked on 22 productions with Wilson, and he was Associate Director of the Broadway revival of Fences starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.
It was ten years ago in 2003 when Wilson took a break from the cycle and embarked on something, as Monty Python might put it, completely different. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom had just been revived on Broadway starring Whoopi Goldberg. Wilson and Kreidler began putting together “in his [Wilson’s] basement” the script that would become How I Learned What I Learned, the memoir of Wilson’s coming-of-age in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where his cycle is set.
What struck me, as I listened to Kreidler talk about the process of developing the piece, was the playfulness with which Wilson had approached it, as evidenced by some of the titles that were considered. At first, Kreidler reported, Wilson wanted to do I’m Not Spalding Gray.
Humor, of course, is a vital element of the Wilson oeuvre. Kreidler said that Wilson spent time studying The Original Kings of Comedy, the concert film featuring African-American stand-up comedians, and “breaking down the jokes.” It was during this period that the title Move Over, Chris Rock gained currency. Kreidler didn’t provide any background to another prospective title, Sambo Takes On the World, though it is an evocative image as well as quite funny.
The piece’s current title is truncated from this very long title, which I can only hope I have transcribed accurately: How I Learned What I Learned, and How What I Learned Has Led Me To the Places I’ve Wanted To Go, Sometimes Unwillingly; It Is the Crucible in Which Many a Work of Art Has Been Fired. Wilson performed it (with truncated title!) in Seattle and “four or five other places” with the intention to “take it around,” plans which were thwarted by the cancer that silenced this distinctive voice. Discussions designed to “figure out what the future is” with Wilson performing the play segued into discussions about what, if anything, to do with this testament after its author/performer was gone.
Kreidler painted an evocative picture of being with his friend on Wilson’s porch. Wilson “left me the show to do with an actor.” The thought of turning a uniquely delivered oral history into a mere play script, coupled with the profound emotions as he contemplated the loss of a mentor, proved too much for Kreidler: “I refused. I was fucked up. I couldn’t.” Wilson persisted: “Get Ruben.”
Ruben Santiago-Hudson is the actor most closely associated with August Wilson. He won a Tony for acting in the Broadway production of Seven Guitars. He won an Obie for directing The Piano Lesson at New York’s Signature Theatre last year. And he is now performing How I Learned… in NYC.
Kreidler’s resistance notwithstanding, Wilson called up Santiago-Hudson after the conversation on the porch and without Kreidler’s knowledge and made the same suggestion, thereby “creating this marriage that had to be fulfilled, that had to be consummated.” Kreidler warmed up to the idea, the ten-year anniversary of the creation of the piece approached, Constanza Romero (Wilson’s widow) called to encourage the prospect, and so, “as painful as doing it, the thought of letting it go was even worse.”
“It’s incredibly special, what he’s doing,” Kreidler says of Santiago-Hudson’s work in the currently running production, which Kreidler directed. Kreidler makes the distinction that what is called for in order to animate this work is not really an actor, but a story-teller. It’s not the “Daniel Day Lewis-style” of walking like, talking like the historical figure being presented. Santiago-Hudson doesn’t impersonate Wilson, but rather tells Wilson’s story in Santiago-Hudson’s own voice. And to burnish Santiago-Hudson’s bona-fides as a story-teller, Kreidler cites Lackawanna Blues, Santiago-Hudson’s solo theatrical memoir of his own coming of age which occurred, like Wilson’s, in Pennsylvania. That piece was turned into a film by HBO after a successful theatrical run.
Although Kreidler stressed that the piece needs not an actor but a “special storytelling sensibility,” there exist many other actors who feel a deep connection to Wilson, his plays, and his characters. It’s easy to imagine that lots of them would jump at the chance to dive into this particular well of Wilson richness. And with the ten-cycle plays being so frequently revived around the country, theatres will be happy to have another title to satisfy the demonstrated appetite for all things August. (It also fits the sad current appetite for plays with small casts and simple sets.)
Although “it’s Ruben’s voice” onstage at Signature, Kreidler tells me, Wilson is “too strong a presence. He showed up in the rehearsal room.” The opening last month was like a “family reunion” with many of the other people important in Wilson’s life and work joining Kreidler, Santiago-Hudson, and Romero, including actors well known for work in the Wilson canon, such as Russell Hornsby, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Leslie Uggams (who was, as you may remember, in King Hedley II here and on Broadway).
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Closes January 5, 2013
Arena Stage at the
Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $75 – $90
Tuesdays thru Sundays
I was struck with how careful Kreidler is not to over-stake his claim as executor of the Wilson literary legacy. He is deferential to others who were also close to Wilson as well as to the man himself. “It’s his words,” he tells me, though the official credit on What I Learned… is “co-conceived by Todd Kreidler.” And he spoke about what he himself learned, as a playwright, by watching Wilson, “watching how he used the room” during rehearsals.
We ended our conversation with memories of the late actor Charles Brown. I never met Brown, but heard a lot about him. He was, as I was, mentored by Annetta Gomez-Jefferson, he in Cleveland before his NYC career, I while she was head of the theatre department at The College of Wooster in Ohio. Brown was in (and was Tony-nominated for) King Hedley II, Kreidler’s first show with Wilson. “I think of him [Brown] every Thanksgiving,” Kreidler told me, remembering that when King Hedley was at the Goodman in Chicago, Uggams had everyone over for the holiday to her penthouse hotel room. Uncharacteristically, the loquacious Wilson took a back seat that night to Uggams and Brown, who held forth in apparently rare fashion.
I’ll close with this apt epitaph from Kreidler about Wilson and his singular gifts: “There was music in the way he told stories.” Oh, and one other thing. The name of Kreidler’s fifteen-month old son is Evan August.