A Celebration Of August Wilson
The Goodman Theatre's tribute includes the presentation of the playwright's gem, Two Trains Running
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TWO-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, who would be celebrating his 70th birthday, had the unique ability to interpret the Black Experience then brilliantly present to the world the agonizing, sometimes crushing realities that ordinary Black people have to face on a daily basis. Perhaps none of his work does that better than Two Trains Running, which is the centerpiece production of the Goodman Theatre’s “August Wilson Celebration” that highlights a citywide retrospective of his life and work from March 7 through April 18.
During activities to honor Wilson, who also was a Tony Award-winner, Chicago audiences can experience all 10 plays of the playwright’s renowned “20th Century Cycle,” which deftly chronicles the African-American experience. In addition, the celebration includes panel discussions and special events that explore Wilson’s enduring influence. With the exception of Two Trains Running, which is a fully staged production, the other nine plays appear in concert readings (free of charge) by partnering theaters and organizations, including MPAACT, Congo Square Theatre Company, Pegasus Theatre Chicago, Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre, eta Creative Arts Foundation and Court Theatre.
“No artistic collaborator of the past 90 years has been more important to the Goodman than playwright August Wilson,” said Robert Falls, the Goodman’s artistic director. “His work was first seen by Goodman audiences in 1986 with Fences, starring James Earl Jones. Over the next 20 years, the Goodman became a primary artistic home to Wilson and the birthplace of two world-premiere productions, Seven Guitars and Gem of the Ocean. Chuck Smith, who directed our memorable production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 1997 and had the distinction of serving as August’s dramaturg on Gem of the Ocean, has assembled a powerhouse lineup that promises to make the celebration a major American cultural event of 2015.”
Among the various, informative special events will be a discussion of the female characters in the celebrated playwright’s work, featuring Tony Award-winner Phylicia Rashad and hosted by Tony Award-nominee Michele Shay; actor/playwright Ruben Santiago-Hudson performs Wilson’s autobiographical How I Learned What I Learned; a first-time presentation of Wilson’s poetry, in association with the Poetry Foundation of Chicago; and a major summit of leading African-American artists and educators participate in a discussion of “The State of Black Theater in America: Past, Present and Future.” Smith, the curator for the special Wilson tribute, says: “August had a special fondness for Chicago and the Goodman. ‘The August Wilson Celebration’ is truly a citywide and national event, offering the most comprehensive look to date at the life and work of this uniquely gifted playwright and poet.”
With the March 7-through-April 12 return of Two Trains Running, which made its Goodman debut in 1993 after its Broadway run in 1992, a new (and old) group of theatergoers get the opportunity to experience the excellence of one of Wilson’s brightest gems. The setting in 1969 is Memphis Lee’s small restaurant, where diners sit around and gossip, debate, philosophize and tell stories during a time when the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement are more than evident in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. It’s a time when the neighborhood is crumbling, crime and poverty are rampant and economic injustice is squeezing Lee, who has a major decision to make about his future––whether to allow the city to take over his building or to sell it to a cold-hearted businessman across the street.
For more information and tickets, go to www.goodmantheatre.org. Individual tickets ($25 - $79; subject to change). Visit www.goodmantheatre.org, call 312.443.3800 or visit the box office at 170 N. Dearborn. Group savings are available for 10 or more in a group. For information, contact Groups@GoodmanTheatre.org or call 312.443.3820.
Smith, the Goodman’s resident director, says he has a special connection to Two Trains Running because it reminds him of cherished moments from his childhood. “It takes place in the ‘60s, [a period] you just don’t forget because of the turmoil and the change, some good and some bad,” says Smith. “These are things that are mentioned in the play, but it’s not what the play is about. What attracts me to this play more than anything else is the fact that these African-American men are discussing the events of the day. This is one of the things I was introduced to as a child, being taken to the barbershop by my grandfather and listening to the old men talking. I was always fascinated by the amount of talk. It was never ending, so the conversation never got to a point where there was a quiet moment. There was always conversation going on. But that’s my own particular fascination about the play––the fact that they are talking about gentrification, the neighborhood being torn down and the future of the African-American race.”
With much of the conversation shaped by Lee’s dilemma, the back and forth is practically nonstop and punctuated by some memorable antics of those involved, including Memphis (Terry Bellamy), Sterling (Chester Gregory), Wolf (Anthony Irons), Risa (Nambi E. Kelley), Hambone (Ernest Perry Jr.), West (A.C. Smith) and Holloway (Alfred Wilson). They are a strong bunch of individual characters with their own ideas, but they never lose focus of their shared struggle and heritage.
In the end, Two Trains Running shines light on a big piece of the everyday activities that continue to play out in the African-American community while, at the same time, highlighting the admirable assets of some determined people who refuse to be taken for granted.
August Wilson, who died 10 years ago, had a special relationship with the Goodman Theatre.
During rehearsal for Two Trains Running, director Chuck Smith addresses the cast, which includes (below) A.C. Smith and Nambi E. Kelley.
"I am pleased to serve as the curator for The August Wilson Celebration, a series of productions and special events that pay tribute to the towering artistry of this writer and his unparalleled influence on the American theater."
–– Chuck Smith