A small, round man with a graying goatee and a whisper-soft voice, Lloyd Richards has been called everything from "the theatrical Duke Ellington" to a "black Santa Claus."
He's also been described this way: "He's a big man but he don't act like a big man. . . . He can go anywhere and sit with his back to the door because he knows he ain't done nothing to no one. How many men can sit with their back to the door?"
That description comes from a skit presented last year at a benefit honoring Richards' retirement after 12 years in the dual -- roles of dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre. It was written by August Wilson, one of an impressive list of playwrights whose careers have been shepherded by Richards over the past three decades. Other names with which the director is invariably linked include the late Lorraine Hansberry and the South African writer Athol Fugard.
Richards' relationship with Wilson, however, is special -- closer, more formative, almost parental. Richards was not only the first to recognize Wilson's play writing ability a decade ago, but he has also directed the initial productions of all of his plays, including the current quadruple Tony Award nominee, "Two Trains Running," and "The Piano Lesson" -- winner of the 1990 Pulitzer Prize and the only Wilson play to have a post-Broadway tour. On Tuesday, "The Piano Lesson" begins a four-week run at the Mechanic Theatre, the final stop on its eight-month tour.
'The Piano Lesson'
Set in Pittsburgh in 1936, "The Piano Lesson" continues Wilson's decade-by-decade chronicle of the black experience in 20th century America. The play focuses on an heirloom piano, decorated with elaborate carvings that hark back to the days of slavery, and which becomes the subject of a heated argument between a brother and sister about the proper function of a legacy.
It seems appropriate that this play about a legacy also says a lot about the ongoing relationship between its director and playwright, as well as about Richards' approach to theater in general.
"The Piano Lesson" got its start in Waterford, Conn., in the summer of 1986 as a staged reading at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center's National Playwrights Conference, where Richards has served as artistic director since 1968. The O'Neill -- was also the place where Richards first identified Wilson's play-writing skills back in 1982 with a play set in a 1920s recording studio; the play, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," became Wilson's Broadway debut.
This doesn't mean there was an immediate spark between the two men, however. To the contrary, Wilson submitted scripts to the O'Neill for several years before "Ma Rainey" was accepted. Interviewed over the phone from his home in New York, Richards admits he doesn't remember those earlier efforts, but he does remember the source of the problem. "[Wilson] was a poet. He couldn't write dialogue," the director recalls. But he continues -- and the fatherly feeling behind his words is unmistakable -- "He was persistent, and I respect that."
When "Ma Rainey" crossed the older man's desk -- Richards refuses to reveal his exact age, but he is approximately a generation older than Wilson, who was born in 1945 -- the director felt an instant familiarity with the material. "The characters that he creates are people I know, people I've met. As a matter of fact, I used to go and listen to them as a young man," says Richards, son of a Jamaican-born carpenter, who immigrated to Canada and then to Detroit, where the young Richards grew up.
"I used to go to the barbershop on Saturdays," Richards continues, "and listen to the older men talk about sports and philosophy and politics. It was like sitting at the feet of the elders, and August's characters were in that barbershop."
An artistic partnership
For his part, Wilson, reached at his home in Seattle, describes the key to their artistic partnership this way: "He doesn't write for me and I don't direct for him." But then he gives an example that suggests a considerably deeper level of trust and understanding. "When I sent Lloyd the draft of 'Piano Lesson,' he called me up and he said, 'I think you have one too many scenes in here.'. . . And sure enough, I find a scene I can do without, and I take it out," the playwright explains. "To this day I don't know if we were talking about the same scene. He wanted me to go through there and find it myself. It's the way he works with actors, also -- letting them find what it is he wants them to find."