August Wilson Full Circle (read the feature story here) provides one of those "together again for the first time" reunions for True Colors artistic director Kenny Leon and Alliance Theatre associate artistic director Kent Gash. In 2003, Leon directed True Colors' inaugural production, August Wilson's Fences, at the 14th Street Playhouse. At the same time, Gash directed Wilson's most recent play, King Hedley II, across the street at the Alliance. Gash's production even included a nod to the baseball themes in Fences: a mural of a baseball player painted on the back fence of the Alliance Hertz Stage set. With Leon directing The Gem of the Ocean and Gash helming Radio Golf for Full Circle, the Alliance presents their work as more of a collaboration. Here they discuss August Wilson and the current project.
How does it feel to bring the August Wilson cycle to a close at the Alliance? Is it a "full circle" for you personally?
It's pretty amazing. When I was here as artistic director, we were able to do seven of the plays. Kent directed King Hedley II with Susan Booth, and now we're doing the last two. To come back and have this partnership with True Colors and the Alliance and Atlanta audiences, it's kind of surrealistic. The whole journey feels like it's complete. It's like it was meant to be.
Were you nervous when you first met August Wilson?
I was absolutely star-struck. A twice Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, the person who provides all my inspiration as an African-American artist – of course I was nervous. But he's the kind of person who makes you feel like the star. It's almost like the gift Bill Clinton has in talking with large groups. When we were working on The Gem of the Ocean in Boston, I had a five-minute question for him after one of the shows, and it turned into a three-hour conversation in the street. He was always working out ideas with you while talking with you. He was smoking a cigarette talking about the dialogue of the play and American history. It was one of my best moments.
This may be an unfair question, but do you have a favorite August Wilson play?
Absolutely. The Gem of the Ocean. It's actually my favorite play of all playwrights. I love Gem because 100 years from now, it's going to be done by more people. It's as grand as Shakespeare, as rich as the Greeks, as poetic as Tennessee Williams. It's as big as the world. Before that, it was Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Radio Golf is the most timely of his plays and deals with us as we are now. It's so close to us that folks might not want to look at it.
For Gem and Golf, have you two been keeping track of the choices in each other's shows to create continuity between them?
Yes, insofar as how the texts speak to each other. The fact that we share the same ensemble of actors also means that how we are informing them in one production is in a constant dialogue with how they are working in the other production, and vice-versa.
I have consciously made a few choices to heighten the connection of Radio Golf to Gem of the Ocean. The design choices definitely take into account that we are presenting these two plays in dialogue with each other and acknowledging Radio Golf as the culmination of the entire Century Cycle.
How are you helping the cast keep up with the demands of appearing in two shows at once?
Hopefully by being as kind, generous, loving and supporting as possible. The great fatigue is mental and working in repertory is all about streamlining and making your creative process maximally effective in a minimal amount of time. It helps that we are working on great plays. It's much harder with weak writing. What this company of actors is doing is nothing short of the actor's Olympic decathlon! I am especially proud that five of the seven performers are from right here in Atlanta.
Did August Wilson's concerns as a playwright change over time?
I don't know whether the concerns and interests changed over time or not. I know that the plays themselves are wildly varied and reveal August Wilson as an artist of enormous range, breadth, power. I know that when he was here with us working on King Hedley II, August began his signature on my poster by saying "THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES..." I think all the plays speak to the human struggle, refracted specifically through the African-American experience but attaining universality because of the greatness of the writing. I feel August has always been interested in the human struggle and our innate responsibility and connection to each other.
Kenny Leon worked closely with Wilson before his death. Did Wilson influence or inspire your own work as a theater artist?
Yes. I feel that I've been inspired and buoyed up by all of August's cycle. His work is a consistent benchmark of excellence for its unflinching truth, its complex vision of humanity and the power of August Wilson's poetry. Joe Turner's Come and Gone probably had the most profound and immediate effect on me. I saw all of the plays in their NYC incarnations as well as around the country at various regional theaters, but Joe Turner is the only play I've ever seen that haunted me. I had trouble sleeping for weeks after seeing the original Broadway production. It articulated and dramatized a sense of never-ending existential rootlessness and longing even while our hope led us to new families and new communities, fiercely born in a hostile environment. Every time I work on his plays, I feel I become a stronger director because each play demands something new from you.
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