August Wilson: Man of the Century 

Alliance Theatre brings playwright full circle

Which is worth more, a bucket of nails or a multimillion-dollar development project? Watch the two plays of the Alliance Theatre's August Wilson Full Circle, a theatrical event more than 20 years in the making, and you'll discover they have equal value: Each may be precisely worth the life of an African-American man.

Full Circle stages the Atlanta debuts of the final two plays in playwright August Wilson's "Century Cycle" of heavyweight dramas. Also called "the Pittsburgh Cycle," Wilson's landmark project consists of 10 plays, mostly set in Pittsburgh's African-American Hill District, with each script representing a different decade of the 20th century.

The Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904, takes place in a house on Pittsburgh's Wylie Street, and involves two men whose fates hinge on a seemingly trivial theft from an oppressive mill. In Radio Golf, ambitious developer Harmond Wilks sets his fortune on a 1997 land deal that will launch his mayoral campaign and revitalize the Hill District, unless questions over that same Wylie Street house demolish his plans.

The Gem of the Ocean/Radio Golf twofer, playing on alternate nights and featuring the same actors doubling up, would be must-see theater based on the strength of the shows alone. August Wilson Full Circle proves even bigger than the sum of its parts. It marks the beginning of the Alliance Theatre's 40th anniversary season, caps off the late playwright's epic decalogue of American theater, and provides a kind of personal culmination and homecoming for director Kenny Leon, former artistic director of the Alliance.

Many African-American theater artists of Leon's generation took inspiration from Wilson, who won Pulitzer Prizes for Fences in 1985 and The Piano Lesson in 1990. Leon saw a production of Fences in 1987 while visiting Baltimore as a National Endowment of the Arts directing fellow. "That was my defining moment as an artist. That told me what I wanted to do." When Leon met Wilson during the trip, he recalls, "I was absolutely star-struck."

He took over as the Alliance's artistic director in 1988 and tapped for his first production Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone, while it was still in manuscript form. When Wilson visited the playhouse, Leon asked the playwright if he had any notes for the upcoming production. Wilson was surprised, saying "Most directors don't want notes," but he happened to have a yellow pad full of suggestions. The fan and his idol walked across Peachtree to the Houlihan's at Colony Square, and hashed out the details in a few hours. "After that, we were friends. August was the kind of person who makes you feel like the star."

During his vibrant tenure at the Alliance, Leon's heart unmistakably belonged with Wilson's work. Nearly every season he staged Wilson's latest play, with the writer granting the Alliance permission for a show that was still on Broadway, or a revival of an older one. In championing Wilson and the African-American canon, Leon built bridges to black audiences and showcased talented regional actors, including Bill Nunn, Carol Mitchell-Leon, Thomas Byrd and Afemo Omilami (one of the leads in Joe Turner who returns for both Gem and Golf).

Admittedly, some white subscribers tuned out, misperceiving the plays as African-American guilt trips. White racism unquestionably provides the subtext for most of Wilson's work, but the plays focus far more on the tensions within African-American families, workplaces and neighborhoods.

Despite his flair for political ideas and poetic language, Wilson's stagecraft resembles the work of a community organizer (if those aren't fighting words). Even the bleakest, most violent plays resound with humorous chat, hustling entrepreneurship, elaborate storytelling and traditional songs. As a director, Leon always excelled at rich conversational scenes, which makes assessing his relationship with Wilson's work a chicken-or-the-egg proposition. Did Leon gravitate to Wilson because he had a natural flair for those emotionally abundant social situations? Or did he hone those aspects of his craft as a kind of student of the writer?

Leon directed most of Wilson's plays during his 12-year tenure at the Alliance, after which he founded True Colors Theatre Co., a company devoted to the African-American works. Fences, not surprisingly, served as True Colors' inaugural show and coincided with the Alliance production of Wilson's eighth play, King Hedley II, directed by associate artistic director Kent Gash.

Not long after launching True Colors, Leon received an opportunity comparable to one of those Broadway clichés when an understudy goes on for the star in the big show. Wilson's usual director, Marion McClinton, had to cease work on The Gem of the Ocean due to illness, so Leon stepped in at the last minute to shepherd the play from Boston to Broadway. "We cut an hour and 20 minutes out of the show right before it opened on Broadway. It was an amazing sign of trust in me."

Although set in 1904, Gem doesn't just reflect the first decade of the 20th century, but the legacy of the 19th. Ugly emotions from the Civil War erupt in both Pennsylvania and the South, as larger-than-life Solly (Afemo Omilami) plans to rescue his sister in Alabama, where African-Americans have been virtually imprisoned thanks to Jim Crow.

The play's central character, Aunt Esther (Michele Shay), serves as a spiritual leader, claiming to be able to wash people's souls and perform other bits of folk wisdom. She also says she's nearly 300 years old, her birth coinciding with the arrival of the first slave ships in America. Shay's iconic yet earthy performance, as well as the text, emphasizes her realistic quirks over the hints of the supernatural.

Aunt Esther provides the forceful presence of the proverbial immovable object, in contrast with the irresistible force embodied in a black sheriff named Caesar Wilks (Chad L. Coleman, who played an ex-con turned boxing coach on "The Wire"). He sees himself as the king of the Hill District, announcing his every appearance with blistering gusts of oratory. Ironically, Gem's sole white character (Larry Larson) turns out to be an ally of the black citizens, while Caesar embodies the most merciless aspects of the white legal system and capitalism.

Wilson wrote Radio Golf back-to-back with Gem of the Ocean, and drew both literal and symbolic connections between the plays. Wilson thoroughly revised his plays in their pre-New York productions up until their Broadway debuts. After the first production of Radio Golf, however, Wilson was diagnosed with liver cancer and given three to five months to live. He died shortly after Radio Golf's second production at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum. Leon directed all of the show's productions up to and including its New York run, and believes that Wilson had finished Golf to his satisfaction.

"Would the play have been different if he'd lived? Certainly. Would it have been better? I don't know. The doctors told him he had five months to live, so he was saying 'We've got one shot at this.' He went at the play with a ferociousness that he didn't do with the others. If he were alive, it might have been a lesser play at the beginning, because he would've thought 'Oh, we'll fix that later.'"

For whatever reason, Radio Golf proves less compelling than Gem and Wilson's other masterpieces. It works much better as an extended epilogue to the Century Cycle in general, and Gem in particular, than a show designed to stand on its own.

For instance, Gem frequently points out that freedom is meaningless unless the freed person makes something of it. In Radio Golf, set 90 years later, wheeler-dealers Harmond Wilks (Coleman) and Roosevelt Hicks (E. Roger Mitchell) throw the nature of contemporary African-American freedom into question. "I felt free ... truly free for the first time," says Hicks, describing, of all things, the first time he drove a golf ball. In the play, golf provides a buppie status symbol and a frivolous pastime. So the heroes of Wilson's other plays struggled for decades just so African-American businessmen can play golf?

Harmond reconnects to his past when Elder Joseph Barlow (Omilami) appears at his development office claiming ownership of the Wylie Street house, despite Wilks' legal right to tear it down. The first act's thin, predictable arc builds, in Kent Gash's production, to blistering confrontations over the importance of valuing African-American heritage, as opposed to ignoring the past in favor of accommodating the white power structure. Radio Golf proves quite satisfying when viewed after Gem of the Ocean, which allows you to compare Coleman's two performances, and how Caesar treated the law as a weapon while Harmond sees it as a ladder.

African-American history flashes before our eyes in Radio Golf's final image, as if we're remembering all of Wilson's preceding plays in an instant. Full Circle drives home the magnitude of Wilson's achievement, a literary feat comparable to William Faulkner's novels of Yoknapatawpha County, Miss.

The individual plays of the Century Cycle echo each other, presenting stories of African-Americans who fight losing battles against a rigged system. Even in their acts of failure or self-destruction, they push open the doors a little further for the generations to come. In Radio Golf, the game is still fixed, but life turns out to be worth more than Gem of the Ocean's handful of nails. That's progress, of a sort.

Click for interviews with Kenny Leon and Kent Gash.

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