Historic Tribute to August Wilson

August Wilson, Phylicia Rashad and Leslie Uggams join an all-star cast to record his plays. (Getty Images)
August Wilson, Phylicia Rashad and Leslie Uggams join an all-star cast to record his plays. (Getty Images)

(The Root) — By the time August Wilson passed away in 2005, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright had completed a profound body of work that has left an indelible mark on black culture, American literature and Broadway. Now, in a historic event, his series of 10 plays, each chronicling a decade of the African-American experience during the 20th century, will be recorded for the first time ever.


Titled August Wilson's American Century Cycle, the groundbreaking series brings together a stellar group of actors, directors and other talents — many of whom worked with Wilson — for live staged readings and recordings of the playwright's dramas at New York Public Radio's the Greene Space. They include actors Phylicia Rashad, Leslie Uggams, Keith David, S. Epatha Merkerson, Wendell Pierce and Taraji P. Henson (in her Wilson debut) as well as theater directors Michele Shay and Kenny Leon, artistic director Ruben Santiago-Hudson and associate director Stephen McKinley Henderson.

The readings will be scored with original music by Grammy-nominated composer Bill Sims Jr. and other composers who worked with Wilson, and the plays will appear in the order in which they premiered, starting with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and ending with Radio Golf. There will also be a talk series, giving audiences a deeper look at Wilson's plays, the themes he explored in his works and the historic relationships he formed with his artistic collaborators.

Several of those involved in the project say it's an endeavor that was a long time coming, and according to Santiago-Hudson, "It needed a force that would make it happen." Three forces, in fact. First, the Greene Space's founding executive producer, Indira Etwaroo, fresh on the heels of producing a highly successful music and literary salon celebrating the 75th anniversary of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, proposed doing something similar to honor Wilson.

Second came New York Public Radio President and CEO Laura Walker, who loved the idea and OK'd it. She then approached Constanza Romero, Wilson's widow and executor of his estate, and got her on board. Finally, "I sat down for tea with Ruben to pitch him the idea. He was so incredibly thrilled," recalled Etwaroo. "In many ways, it was the meeting of the minds."

"She'd heard that I was an August Wilson enthusiast and good friend of his and that I had the same intention of doing all of his work in some sort of framework," said Santiago-Hudson, who earned a Tony in 1996 for his performance in Wilson's Seven Guitars. "It was a big thing to say I wanted to do it — all 10 plays, 77 roles, multiple directors, multiple stage managers and original compositions."

On top of all that, he was adamant about having the series run for five weeks, with three-hour slots for each production read twice in its entirety, in order to get the best-possible performances. "These are things that are pretty much uncommon for NPR or radio in general." Just as uncommon are the visual elements that are being included — set design and lighting — for the benefit of studio audiences and those viewing the live webcasts of the readings.


Those who've worked with Wilson speak adoringly of him and consider themselves fortunate to have brought his words and stories to life. They've even coined the terms "Wilsonian soldiers" and "Wilson army" to describe the sense of duty and mission they feel in performing his work, and are exuberant about being included in these recordings for posterity.

Director Michele Shay likens Wilson's ability to show the humanity of his characters to Shakespeare's and believes that, like the bard, his impact will last for years to come.


"I feel like those of us who were in the same room with him have been honored to bear witness to that, and this is still the beginning of the coining of the appreciation of August Wilson," she said.

"He was always somewhat of a mentor, but just a friend first," said actor and playwright Eugene Lee, who starred in the Broadway production of Gem on the Ocean. Some of the best advice he got from Wilson regarding the characters in his first play: " 'It's OK to let them talk,' and that just freed me from some of the reluctance I might have had in terms of the craft."


Though Wilson wasn't a historian, said Santiago-Hudson, he was authentic in his take on 100 years of black life. Of his plays, he said, "They're little celebrations of African-American culture. They talk about how we did what we did and why we did it that way."

August Wilson's American Century Cycle runs Aug. 26 through Sept. 28 at New York Public Radio's the Greene Space. Tickets are still available for some performances. For more information, click here.


Julia Chance is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based journalist and the author of Sisterfriends: Portraits of Sisterly Love. Follow her on Twitter.