August Wilson’s epic account of the African-American experience began with impoverished blacks fleeing to the North after slavery times, “bludgeoning and shaping the malleable parts of themselves into a new identity as free men of definite and sincere worth,” as he put it. Now, nine plays and a century later, his characters drive Lexuses, smoke Cohibas, and hang Tiger Woods posters on their walls. “Things have changed,” says Harmond Wilks, the black real-estate developer who plans to run for mayor of Pittsburgh. Or have they?
Radio Golf, at the Cort, may not be the most accomplished chapter of Wilson’s majestic cycle, but as a capstone, it’ll more than do. Harmond (Harry Lennix) and his business partner Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams) want to rejuvenate the Hill, the historically black neighborhood of Pittsburgh where most of Wilson’s dramas have been set. In place of some derelict houses, the men intend to put up an apartment building full of yuppie amenities like Starbucks and Whole Foods. Elder Joseph Barlow (Anthony Chisholm), though, vows to protect the home of the late Aunt Ester, the embodiment of African-American memory and suffering who is said to have lived nearly 400 years. The dilemmas facing Harmond (whether to gentrify the old neighborhood) and Roosevelt (whether to be the minority face on a separate multi-million-dollar deal) are upmarket compared with the problems Wilson’s earlier characters faced. But the restless brilliance of the play, and the entire cycle, is to show how the underlying issues haven’t changed. Holding on to a disappearing past while the world advances, finding dignity through work: These challenges are every bit as vexing as they were a century ago.
Because Wilson (who died in 2005) wrote a play for each decade of the twentieth century, we’ve watched as these problems were handed down through the generations. Now that the cycle is complete, the handing down seems just as important as the problems. Wilson’s plays are, in some ways, about history itself: not just how his characters try to preserve or escape it, but what it does to us—what gets swept away and what (and who) remains. Few creative works in our culture have attempted anything like this reach; fewer still have done so with Wilson’s style, the richly lyrical dialogue that is, for me, the real source of his greatness.
Alas, Wilson’s dialogue captivated even Wilson, and Radio Golf has the same tendency to verbosity as his other plays. Here, it comes at the expense of Harmond’s relationship with his wife and campaign manager (Tonya Pinkins), which arrives and departs in a couple of undercooked scenes. The play grabs you, though, in the intramural fight between Roosevelt and the streetwise Sterling (the excellent John Earl Jelks) about how combative to be with white folks, and Harmond’s wrestling with the legacies of his family. Wilson preserves some ambiguity in both cases, but if I read him right, he doesn’t seem optimistic that easy or meaningful progress for African-Americans is at hand. Decades hence, another ambitious, gifted, and very, very brave young playwright might need to dedicate his or her life to doing for American life in this century what Wilson did with such grace for the last one.
As the Broadway season flings itself across the finish line, the playwrights of New York owe the actors of New York a drink. Time and again this year, marvelous performers turned up in shows that were, frankly, beneath them. I thought the disparity couldn’t get any more egregious than in A Spanish Play, a ridiculous French exercise that wasted the extraordinary massed talents of Zoe Caldwell, Linda Emond, Denis O’Hare, and Larry Pine. Turns out I thought wrong.
When Deuce was announced, everybody wondered what kind of magic Terrence McNally had worked to entice the great Angela Lansbury back to Broadway after a quarter-century absence. What treats would lie in store for us when she took the stage with another grande dame, Marian Seldes? The result is stupefying.
McNally’s script, about two former tennis doubles champs reuniting to be honored at the U.S. Open, has no conflict, no particular drama, little that’s funny, and a great deal that’s tedious. When Midge (Seldes) chides her partner for not preparing a speech, Leona (Lansbury) replies, “That’s how I played tennis. You were the one with the game plan.” I can understand resorting to that declarative shortcut once or twice to speed up the backstory and get the play started, but McNally relies on it all night long: “You were always the nice one.” “You never liked the French.” “You’ve always had trouble accepting any of the good stuff.” My personal favorite: “There were giants, Midge.” “We were giants, Lee.”
Atop this pile of exposition, two dopey sportscasters (unlike any I’ve ever heard) pile yet more exposition, but nothing that’s particularly moving, no wisp of an idea. Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out proved that a play about sports can address pretty much anything that matters in American society, but this one evinces no urgent concerns beyond a brief flicker of interest in the oppressed lesbians of Forest Hills.
I take it on legend that Lansbury—owl-eyed, with a wonderfully thin, expressive mouth—can do wonders onstage, and know from certain experience that the slim, regal Seldes can. All the worse, then, that their rendezvous gives them preposterously little to do, virtually no opportunities to show off or even stretch. Mainly they sit side-by-side watching an invisible tennis ball zip back and forth over the orchestra seats. Look left. Look right. Look left. Look right. Great actors deserve better.
Not to take anything away from the special badness of this play, but it’s worth noting that American playwriting (above 14th Street, anyway) has been in a slump for the past couple of seasons. It’ll end sooner or later; slumps always do. What’s frustrating in the meantime is that the city’s revivals haven’t picked up the slack. Some great plays have been staged lately—a jackpot of three King Lears this season alone—but New York continues to have an inexplicable shyness about tackling classics, and an overabundance of revivals that didn’t need reviving.
The chief offender looked, for a time, to be the Roundabout’s staging of The Apple Tree, which had been designed as a showcase of Kristin Chenoweth’s talents but ended up being a conspicuous waste of them. Now the company is putting Audra McDonald to the same perverse use. In 110 in the Shade, the composer-lyricist team Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones and librettist N. Richard Nash tell the story of a terrible drought in thirties Texas, a dearth of rain that is like the dearth of men suffered by plain, self-doubting Lizzie. The show isn’t lousy, just unbelievably corny. It hails from 1963, a time when tough-guy self-help gurus like the traveling stranger Starbuck (Steve Kazee) must not have seemed so silly. “Say ‘I’m pretty,’ ” he orders Lizzie. “Say it.”
As for McDonald (and Lansbury and Seldes, for that matter): Doesn’t anybody write vehicles for stars anymore? When that golden soprano rings out, or she unfurls a shy little smile, you feel like you’re watching an elaborate cabaret act—specifically, one of those novelty numbers where the star puts on a silly dress, and sings with a funny drawl, and you clap and smile tolerantly, because you know that before the shtick gets too old, she’ll be back in her gown and doing the top-shelf material that her extravagant gifts deserve. This shtick runs 2:30.
August Wilson’s “Century Cycle” comprises ten plays, all but one of which (Jitney) played Broadway, starting with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 1984. Fences, one of the two Pulitzer winners, had the longest run, with a total of 525 performances in 1987 and 1988. There’s a tie for shortest run—both 2001’s King Hedley II and 2004’s Gem of the Ocean closed after just 72 performances. Though it drew five Tony Award nominations, Gem ran into money problems early, but producer Rocco Landesman displayed equanimity, at least publicly: “We lost a half a million dollars on that show,” he said after the closing. “But the rewards aren’t measured just in financial returns.’’