The Legacy Of Playwright August Wilson
KPBS Midday Edition Segments / February 12, 2020
Speaker 1: 00:00 For black history month. We're celebrating playwright August Wilson. His play Jitney is currently on stage at the old globe theater. KPBS arts reporter Beth OCHA, Mondo spoke with the plays director Ruben Santiago Hudson about Wilson's legacy and about adapting him to film. Just start with Ruben. Give us a little summary of what Jitney is about.
Speaker 2: 00:23 Jenny is about, uh, so many things, you know, on, on the surface it's about unlicensed cab drivers making the living, uh, and trying to sustain the environment that they've all always been in or created. That's, uh, being threatened by, uh, urban renewal that's on the surface internally. It's about so many other things. It's about community. It's about love. It's about a young lovers, uh, with a child figuring out the best way to move forward. Uh, it's about a father and son with a fractured relationship because the son has been gone, gone away for 20 years for a murder. He comes back looking for the last bastion of comfort that he had before he left, which is with his father. His mother has already passed away. He comes to his father in the conflict of who are you? You are a 19 year old young man when you left and now you're a seasoned, 39 year old ex-con. How do we find a common ground again? So you know those two, those two stories really are the center of the play. But it's set in, you know, in the on the Hill district of Pittsburgh, 1977 and these guys who are unlicensed cab drivers
Speaker 1: 01:34 now August Wilson's plays have a very specific time and place in them. So as a director, how do you approach that and also get to the universality of it?
Speaker 2: 01:45 Well, for first of all, the thing that's universal, a particularly in African American community is who the people are. The people are the same people. They're Northern colored people who were Southern colored before they came North. And the only thing to change was the location. So their ways, their ways of doing things, their style, their history, what they had seen, what they had lived, they brought North, whether it was the way they dressed, the way they danced, accorded a subtle disputes. We do things differently. African American people, particularly those are the South where we all pretty much came up from the South. So that's universal in the African American community. What's universal in the world is humanity. People dealing with their humanity, their frailties and the impact that they can have human beings have on each other in relationships. That's universal, you know, so we dealing with the specific and the universal.
Speaker 2: 02:34 And so the way I deal with this specific is whatever year the play is put in, the music is absolutely authentic to that period. Not one note out of place, not one rap song in, in, in, in piano lesson. I don't do, uh, things that are out of context. So I'm, I'm culturally specific the way African American people do things. What I've seen as a child raised by Northern color people, ways by people from best Alabama, Farmville, Virginia, the way they do things. I observed real keenly as a child and I loved and admired it when I went on out in the world, you know, to get, uh, uh, the higher education thing, you know, the hell of walls and universities. All those old customs and ways seem to be shunned and pushed aside. But I cherished and kept them. And then when I met that writer name August Wilson, I got to reveal them just the way I saw them, the way a black woman may straighten the hair of her child. How is that actually done? What is that ritual in my place? I make sure everything is culturally specific.
Speaker 1: 03:40 And what is it about August Wilson's writing that you think makes him, makes his plays, have this longevity that people keep returning to them and keep finding things in them?
Speaker 2: 03:50 Great storytelling is the first thing. Second of all, extraordinary writing. When I mean, I don't mean in the language because the language is the language of, of the people I know, the things that he says into play, things like the little sayings, you know, uh, sayings I've heard all my life, that's not brilliance. The brilliance is how you put that all together in, in a dynamic platform, create conflict, deceit, love, jealousy, disappointment. How do you put all those things in and reveal them in the context of just storytelling? So that's one of, he's a great writer. I mean, no one's received more accolades, no one but 10 plays all tend to Broadway to people's surprises, several Tonys. His writing is impeccable. Everybody will understand it all the time. And the thing, the way I direct August Wilson, I'm not trying to explain my people to you. I want you to experience them the same way I experienced Filoni route the same way I experienced David Henry walks, Khan fool the same way I experienced any other culture, whether it's printer or checkoff. I just want to sit there and be inundated by something that I really don't know everyday, externally and internally, something I know every day. Relationships.
Speaker 1: 05:06 What is it that you find in Wilson that you connect with most
Speaker 2: 05:09 home. I'm home. I'm home. I know these people intimately. I know the way they smell, whatever we do, breath, smell, you know. So I'm home with August Wilson.
Speaker 1: 05:19 What was your first introduction to August Wilson?
Speaker 2: 05:22 Ma Rainey's black bottom 1984 court theater, Broadway. Snuck in at an emission, sat on the stairs and double double mezzanine and started watching these people talking. I just started crying and I just didn't believe that people would celebrate the people that I knew so intimately. And then I saw the dis writer was doing it and I just chased him notes, appearances showing up, begging for auditions until I got in. When I got in, he and I immediately within a very short time bonded, he found out that my rhythms of conversation, we're very similar to what he had known all his life. And he was wondering why do you talk that way? Why do you, you sound like a country boy but you from upstate New York. And I say because I'm raised by country people. So when I started telling August my stories and he started telling me he is, he was like, yo, you know, we've got to do more of this. And that's what we did.
Speaker 1: 06:16 And do you think August Wilson's writing works better on stage than on film? Cause there don't seem to be quite as many film adaptation.
Speaker 2: 06:25 Yeah, it's written for the stage. It's written for the stage. I just wrote the movie version of Merranie very difficult because the stage, the stage people come to listen in film people come to watch you because if you can come listen, you know to Shakespeare you come to listen. If you come to checkoff you come to listen Ipsen you come to listen. August Wilson you come to listen. Motion pictures is that we tell them the story with pictures more than words. So my challenge when I wrote Marini to movies, how do I save the Arias as many as I can? What are the most important areas? And then how do I make some Arias visual?
Speaker 1: 07:01 Cause it does seem like some language bounces off of four walls better than like on a film image.
Speaker 2: 07:07 You know when you come into a room with a lot of seats that people sit in and the strangers sit in in a dark room and the lights come on and there's a storyteller there. You want to hear the story. It's a difference when you go into a dark room and the lights come up on a big screen, you want to see what's on that screen. In theater we want to see too, but it's not a whole lot of, uh, visually impaired people or blind people that December spend afternoon in a movie. But they'll quickly say, I'll say they do, but many will say, I'm going to hear play, you know, because it's about the language, the word Smiths, you know, saying what August's a Shakespeare. Very similar because they both have melody.
Speaker 1: 07:49 Well, I want to thank you very much for talking about August Wilson.
Speaker 2: 07:52 Thank you for having me.
Speaker 1: 07:55 That was Beth haka. Mando speaking with Ruben Santiago Hudson, August Wilson's Jitney continues at the old globe theater through February 23rd.
For Black History Month we are celebrating playwright August Wilson. His "Jitney" is currently on stage at the Old Globe Theatre (through Feb. 23). KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando spoke with the play's director Ruben Santiago-Hudson about Wilson's legacy and about adapting him to film.