The Playwright Who Changed the Face of American Theater

This post was originally published on NY Times - Theater

Written by: Patti Hartigan

Since 1965, the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, tucked away in the bucolic seaside town of Waterford, Conn., has lured theater professionals every summer for the National Playwrights Conference. Named for the Nobel Prize-winning playwright who spent his childhood summers nearby, the O’Neill was initially informal and heady, but Lloyd Richards, who directed the 1959 Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” brought a sense of gravitas when he became artistic director in 1969.

August Wilson first arrived at the O’Neill in 1982 with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” At 37, he was older than the others, but he presented himself as a neophyte who worked as a short-order cook. He had applied five times — and was rejected five times — but finally got his chance with “Ma Rainey.”

During Richards’s era, the O’Neill became a haven for writers to test their work outside the commercial pressure of Broadway. Yet it was also a clubby place, with a regular company of actors and directors. Wilson didn’t immediately fit in, but by the end of the summer, he had developed an esprit de corps with his fellow playwrights.

The O’Neill was a place, Wilson once said, where “you can fail and your life won’t disappear.” Writers mattered. They stuck up for one another in the way that playwrights today have supported the writers’ strike in Hollywood. It was at the O’Neill, after all, that Wilson got his ticket to the world of professional theater. “Ma Rainey” opened on Broadway in 1984, and Wilson, who died in 2005 at 60, went on to write his series of 10 plays about the African American experience in the 20th century.

In 1983, Wilson returned to the O’Neill with “Fences.” The story of that summer is recounted here in this excerpt from “August Wilson: A Life,” an upcoming biography by Patti Hartigan, a former theater critic for The Boston Globe.

AUGUST WILSON WAS SETTLING IN to the life of an itinerant playwright. He had been invited back to the O’Neill for the 1983 National Playwrights Conference for a workshop of “Fences,” and this time, he knew what to expect at the preconference weekend. He had one goal before he got on the van to Waterford. He needed to stock up on scotch. When he arrived at the pickup location, he spotted someone he had never seen before. He seemed unfamiliar with the routine, with the same apprehension that Wilson had experienced the year before. He was James Yoshimura, a writer from Chicago who had attended the Yale School of Drama. After a brief introduction, Wilson told Yoshimura that they needed to get some liquid sustenance in order to make it through the long weekend. Yoshimura was up for the chase. They found a store, pooled their money, and bought a large bottle of scotch. By the time the van deposited them at the mansion, they were smashed. And they became fast friends.

“Fences,” Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, arrived on Broadway in 1987 after premiering in 1985 at Yale Repertory Theater. Both productions starred, from left, Mary Alice, Ray Aranha and James Earl Jones.Ron Scherl

Like Wilson, Yoshimura was raised Catholic and came from a large family. His parents converted when they were forced to live in an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. “That does not work for birth control,” Yoshimura said. “I am the middle of 11 children.” His family was one of only three Asian families in a predominantly German American Catholic parish on the North Side of Chicago. “You are the other,” he said of his childhood. “August could empathize with that. He knew what the ‘other’ was. We shared this friendship. It wasn’t like we would discuss Catholicism. This was just how we grew up. We never felt part of the mainstream of the faith that we were baptized into.”

During his first year at the O’Neill, Wilson was stunned to see all the theater people hugging one another, but now he was one of them. He took it upon himself to initiate his new friend to the summer camp experience. “The bottle of scotch made the preconference much better,” Yoshimura said. And they were willing to share. “We made a lot of friends.” Yoshimura needed liquid encouragement to get through the process of reading his play aloud before strangers. He was there with “Ohio Tip-Off,” a drama about seven athletes on a minor-league basketball team who are vying to make it to the N.B.A. The team has four Black players and three white players. Wilson did not question his new friend’s subject matter, but he did question the way he read his play for the group. “I read my play very badly, and he laughed aloud about how bad I was — while we were still sharing our scotch.” Wilson did not tell Yoshimura that he had been at the O’Neill the summer before (nor that he had become the controversial star after the Frank Rich [review disguised as a feature] ran in The New York Times, nor that he was in discussions about bringing “Ma Rainey” to Broadway). When Yoshimura found out, he asked Wilson about it. “He was humble. He didn’t want to talk about it.”

Wilson, who later went on to make strong public statements about the need for a Black director to direct a film version of “Fences,” nurtured Yoshimura. He never suggested that Yoshimura should not be writing Black characters. His friend played basketball, and he was writing what he knew. “All of our discussions were about aesthetics,” Yoshimura said. “It was never a matter of color. He was like, ‘If you write it, you write it. If it doesn’t work, you gotta fix it.’” Wilson told other playwrights the same thing over the years. Laura Maria Censabella, who was also a jazz singer, came to the O’Neill with her play “Jazz Wives Jazz Lives.” The characters included Black jazz musicians that she based on her friends and colleagues in the jazz world. Some at the O’Neill questioned whether she, as a white woman, should write Black characters. Wilson defended her; she was writing from her own experience. Because of his support, the griping stopped.

Wilson had different issues with “Fences.” It clocked in at more than four hours when Wilson read it at the preconference. “My impression was, this guy can write, but he hasn’t heard of the two-hour limit,” Yoshimura said. “It took two hours to get through the first act.”

Yoshimura was the perfect partner for Wilson at the O’Neill, where, in addition to learning about playwriting, he enjoyed the college experience he had never had. The two bonded over sports. Wilson was still obsessed with the 1965 boxing showdown between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston. Ali unexpectedly knocked out Liston early in the first round, leading to suspicions that the fight was rigged. Wilson could dissect that match for hours, and Yoshimura was a willing audience.

The Broadway revival of “Fences,” in 2010, featured Viola Davis, Denzel Washington and Stephen McKinley Henderson. They all went on to star in the 2016 film adaptation.Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

When Yoshimura’s wife showed up to visit, Wilson made sure to teach their young son how to hit a baseball with a tree branch, a skill he had learned on the streets of Pittsburgh’s Hill District. They were improvising, onstage and off.

This endearing friendship was formative for both men. Yoshimura had been told that he would succeed only if he wrote plays about Asian Americans, but Wilson assured him that was nonsense. Yoshimura tried to engage him on the subject of father-son relationships, since that is the foundation of “Fences.” Wilson, who was willing to talk about any subject for hours, shut down when asked about his father. Yoshimura intuited that his friend was “deeply wounded” and didn’t push the issue.

Bill Partlan [the director of “Ma Rainey” the year before] was assigned to direct “Fences,” and Edith Oliver, the theater critic for The New Yorker, was the dramaturg. At the preconference, they both told Wilson that the play needed cuts. They made suggestions, but he said he wanted to see it first before excising any scenes or monologues. Wilson had never studied dramatic structure. He was learning fundamental rules such as the fact that an actor can’t be soaking wet in the rain at the end of one scene and then appear at the top of the next scene in fresh new clothing and dry hair.

After the first performance, he stayed up all night and cut 45 minutes from the script. (Helen Hayes had been in the audience that night, and she left after the first act, reportedly saying, “I think I’ve had enough theater for one night.”) Wilson took out a long monologue about bones walking on water, a poetic piece of writing. Partlan told him to hold on to it. The monologue would be the foundation of a moving speech in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”

“Fences” revolves around the tragic hero, Troy Maxson, a former slugger in the Negro Leagues who never got a chance to play in the Major Leagues because of the color of his skin. At its heart, the play is about the confrontation between Maxson and his son Cory, a theme that Wilson had explored in “Jitney!” as well. At the end of the play, Troy dies, and his brother, Gabriel, who was wounded in World War II and is mentally disabled with a metal plate in his head, wants to send his brother off to St. Peter in heaven. He blows his trumpet, but no sound comes out. The stage directions say it all. “He begins to howl in what is an attempt at song, or perhaps a song turning back into itself in an attempt at speech. He finishes his dance and the Gates of Heaven stand open as wide as God’s closet.” With that, Gabriel lightens up and says, “That’s the way that go.”

On the second night of the performance at the O’Neill, the fog from the Atlantic Ocean rolled in at the end of the play. This was a common occurrence. Eugene O’Neill wrote about the fog in his masterpiece, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” How thick the fog is,” he wrote. “I can’t see the road. All the people in the world could pass by and I would never know.”

At the O’Neill, the natural setting was magical. The weather changed just as Gabriel, played by Howard E. Rollins Jr., went to play his trumpet. “The fog came in, and the lights pierced through the fog,” Partlan said. “I sent Howard up the ramp that leads to the door in the barn to usher Troy into heaven. It was magic. I can still see and feel it today.”

The wallop of that final scene became a sort of touchstone at the O’Neill. Other playwrights aspired to achieve that emotional depth. At the end of the preconference when Wilson first read his play, he and the playwright John Patrick Shanley got drunk together one night [a story that is recounted in Jeffrey Sweet’s “The O’Neill”]. Shanley said, “You son-of-a-bitch. You wrote that stage direction at the end of that play,” referring to Gabriel blowing the trumpet. “You son-of-a-bitch. Nobody can touch that.”

A revival of “Fences” is running at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Mass., through Aug. 27. Hartigan will be there at the Aug. 12 matinee for a discussion about her book, which will be published by Simon & Schuster on Aug. 15.

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