August Wilson plays coming to public radio

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson poses during a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson poses during a visit to Kansas City, Mo. (Oct. 2, 2005) Photo Credit: KRT

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Linda Winer Newsday theater critic and arts columnist Linda Winer.

Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday, which she joined in 1987. ...

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Ever since the theater world began to grasp what August Wilson was doing in all those plays he kept turning out, it seemed obvious that, some day, we would be able to see the entire 10-part cycle in one magnificent swoop.

After all, this is our great decade-by-decade chronicle of African-American life in the 20th century, an epic told through vibrant stories and cataclysmic life in Pittsburgh's Hill District, where the Pulitzer-winning playwright was born and raised.

But Wilson died at 60 of liver cancer in 2005, soon after finishing the 10th and final installment of this groundbreaking mountain of a social and artistic monument. Plans for a celebratory marathon at the Signature Theatre Company were put on hold, where they still apparently sit. Who could tackle the cost and logistics of such an achievement without the guest of honor to spur things on?

So it's a thrill to tell you about a different, but hardly less admirable, project that New York Public Radio (WNYC and WQXR) initiates at 7p.m. Monday through Sept. 28 at its Jerome L. Greene Performance Space, 44 Charlton St.

Called "August Wilson's American Century Cycle," this is the first-ever recording of all 10 plays, with many of Wilson's most closely associated collaborators and newcomers -- including artistic director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Phylicia Rashad, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Kenny Leon, Leslie Uggams, Jesse L. Martin and S. Epatha Merkerson.

The readings are open to a studio audience for $40, but there is only room for 130 at each taping. Fear not. Each live event will be webcast worldwide, one time only, on thegreenespace.org. Then, starting in January, the radio plays will be rolled out on Sundays over WNYC/93.9 and other public radio stations, then made part of the New York Public Radio archives and shared with institutions around the country.

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The brainstorm began with Indira Etwaroo, the scholar and artist who launched the Greene Space in 2009 and is most recently responsible for a radio play, starring Santiago-Hudson and Rashad, based on Zora Neale Hurston's 1937 novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God."

"I am constantly looking to take advantage of our incredible ability to tell stories through sound," she told me in a recent phone interview. "I started thinking about August Wilson's great stories. His language is so poised for listenership. By preserving these through sound for generations to come, with people who knew August and worked with him, we can carry on his amazing ethnography with an incredibly heroic artistic team."

She got the rights for the 10 plays from Constanza Romero, Wilson's widow and the protective executor of his estate. She approached actor-director Santiago-Hudson, whose deeply felt, deeply musical staging of Wilson's "The Piano Lesson" was a major event last season. He also has been entrusted with performing the world premiere this fall of "How I Learned What I Learned," the autobiographical monologue Wilson was scheduled to perform at the Signature Theatre before he died. Actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, the source of so many indelible Wilson characters, is associate artistic director.

Santiago-Hudson says he believes there should be a record for theater kids to hear and understand the style. "Kids are always asking, 'How do you do this August Wilson?,' " he explains in a telephone interview. Although he had dreamed of doing all 10 plays on DVD, meetings with Etwaroo convinced him that radio plays made good sense.

"You can close your eyes and you can see all the actors dancing across the stage," he imagines. "Of course, they're going to be just sitting down with very little movement." The movement is in the storytelling and the words -- what Santiago-Hudson calls "a world of words ... the beautiful and melodic language."

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Wilson and his magnificent ear created highflying monologues with the special rhythm of jazz. He also gave life to characters who had never spoken on the stage and gave work to countless actors who had never before had the chance to create such rich, fully formed parts of American life.

Over the years, the actors could be recognized as a kind of a loosely organized company, experts who let us luxuriate in the special music of his conversations and characters so real they made us wonder how they were doing when we weren't watching.

Etwaroo is touched how the tapings also promise a kind of "reunion. It's humbling to watch the artistic team pull this together, working together with hundreds of people."

Santiago-Hudson directs the opening "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (with a live band) Monday, plus "The Piano Lesson" and the one he yearns to get to Broadway, "Jitney." "That's my goal," he says, "It's the only one that never was on Broadway. ... I want to accomplish that before I can move on to adopt another writer." He also will repeat his Tony-winning portrayal of Canewell in "Seven Guitars."

He doesn't underemphasize the trickiness of the casting. "Some are doing roles they did before, others are doing roles they didn't create. Some people are questioning why they aren't doing this or that role. There was some switching around," he admits. "But 98 percent of the actors said yes before I could even finish the invitation."

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Some of the actors have moved away. Some are still here. "People have to make a living in the theater," he says without having to mention the scarcity of roles this rich for black actors. Some are professors, teachers, doing TV or films. They're spread out. ... We lost a lot of the August Wilson family."

When they get here, they will have one day to rehearse. "But people who love August can put the scripts in their hands and the words just leap from their mouths," he says. There will be one tech rehearsal and one dress rehearsal (which will be attended by students involved in Greene Space's audio-theater project with New York City high schools).

Seven evenings when there are no tapings will have talks about Wilson's themes, including "Wilson's women," "Bringing black works to Broadway" and "religion, spirituality and Africa."

Etwaroo talks about the "deep dive" that Wilson took into stories that are "both personal and universal." I think about all the unforgettable residents in his vast yet intimate creations that had the feel of chapters in a book we dreaded ever having to finish. How wonderful to be able to get back to them again.

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