The Collage Artist

From the backs of napkins, out of scavenged scraps of paper, August Wilson's monumental play cycle evolves.

Cover Story

April 23, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

NEW YORK -- August Wilson sits in a scruffy, linoleum-floored eatery in the heart of the theater district holding a sheaf of discount coupons for "Miss Saigon."

He's not planning on seeing the show, but he's put the coupons to good use. Neat black handwriting progresses in even lines down the back of the coupons, each barely larger than a theater ticket. These are rewrites for Wilson's newest play, "King Hedley II," which opens in Boston next month.

"King Hedley II" is the latest installment in Wilson's decade-by-decade chronicle of African-American life in the 20th century. It's one of the most ambitious bodies of work in American theatrical history -- two of the plays have won Pulitzer Prizes -- and much of it has taken shape on scavenged bits of paper.

"You never know when an idea is going to strike you, and I still like the idea of writing on napkins or scraps of paper because it doesn't count," he says.

Wilson claims collage artist Romare Bearden as a chief inspiration, so his method seems fitting. Just as Bearden fashioned pictures of black American life out of small scraps of cloth, photographs and found objects, Wilson has pieced together characters, monologues and images to create a stunning opus.

"No one else -- not even [playwright Eugene] O'Neill," the New Yorker wrote in 1996, "has aimed so high and achieved so much."

Although he spends more and more time writing at his Seattle home, Wilson remains drawn to the spontaneity of jotting things down in cafes and bars. "I like the noise and the music, the distractions," he says.

In New York, his favorite hangout is the Edison Hotel coffee shop. Here Wilson hunkers down over successive cups of coffee, writing whatever comes to mind. First, however, he washes his hands. "I always approach my work with clean hands," he explains, settling down for a chat on a brisk April morning. "Maybe it comes from my altar-boy days."

'Jitney' rides into New York

These days, director Marion McClinton is generally the recipient of Wilson's scraps of paper. "I soak up whatever he's got whenever he's got it," McClinton says. "When you work with him, you have to stay on your toes because he works. You have to keep up."

Wilson is in New York working on "Jitney," the 1970s installment of his play cycle. Begun in 1979, "Jitney" was his first full-length play.

It also was the first in which he used vernacular black speech, freeing him from writing what he has described as stiff and unnatural dialogue.

Under McClinton's direction, "Jitney" will make its long-delayed New York debut on Tuesday at Second Stage Theatre, after performances at regional theaters across the country, including Center Stage last season. Tuesday's opening, however, marks a departure for Wilson; it will be his first New York production to open off-Broadway instead of on.

Though his characters often launch volubly into rapid-fire monologues, Wilson, who turns 55 this week, is soft-spoken, choosing his words slowly. He has introduced American audiences to any number of powerful stage characters -- mystics, musicians, even murderers. But their creator conveys the shyness of a poet, his chosen field before he became a playwright.

Only when he pulls out a handful of snapshots of his 2 1/2 -year-old daughter, Azula Carmen, does a twinkle break through the seriousness of his expression. (His other daughter, Sakina Ansari, 30, from his first marriage, lives in Baltimore.)

Wilson is known for writing lengthy first drafts that get chiseled down during rehearsals and pre-New York productions. That's one advantage of the collage approach. Pieces can be shifted around, or removed entirely. "Jitney," however, holds the distinction of being the sole Wilson play to expand along the way.

Set in a jitney, or gypsy cab, station in Wilson's hometown of Pittsburgh, the play concerns a group of drivers, focusing in particular on Becker, the man who runs the station. Becker faces two major hurdles: His jitney station is slated to be torn down for urban renewal, and his estranged son, Booster, is about to be released from prison, where he has served 20 years for murder.

"Jitney" was produced twice in the 1980s, then went into a drawer, not to re-emerge until 1996. By then, Wilson had become one of the country's leading playwrights, with a slew of awards to his credit, including Pulitzer Prizes for "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson."

Four years ago, he took "Jitney" out of the drawer and agreed to a production at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. The work of a young playwright still learning his craft, the script ran only 90 minutes the first time it was read by the cast. "I looked at Marion and Marion looked at me and we thought, 'We've got a long way to go,' " the playwright recalls.

In Pittsburgh, Wilson added the type of lengthy monologues for which he has become known. He also eliminated repetitive dialogue, according to Joan Herrington, who wrote a book about Wilson's writing process, "I Ain't Sorry for Nothin' I Done."

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