Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (onstage at the Mark Taper Forum September 1 – October 16, 2016) was written shortly after August Wilson moved to St. Paul, Minnesota in 1977. There, Wilson worked as a cook for a social services agency, earning $88 a week. It was enough money to give him the freedom to write, and from that freedom sprang the story of a jazz artist and her band in 1920s Chicago. Wilson considered Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom his first real play, and the piece that prompted the idea for his 10-play magnum opus, The American Century Cycle, which chronicles each decade of African-American experience in the 20th century.
For over 25 years, Center Theatre Group has celebrated Wilson’s work, whether it be through productions at our theatres, educational programming, or assisting with his development process. Many of the staff members participating in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom worked with Wilson, and remember the playwright sitting in our rehearsal rooms, quiet and regal, listening to his characters’ voices ebb and shift. Or taking a break on The Music Center Plaza to read the newspaper in the sunshine. Or in the audience of the Taper, night after night, silently honing his work.
It seems only fitting that with the second-to-last installment of Center Theatre Group’s production of The American Century Cycle, we return to the beginning of Wilson’s playwriting career, before any of these memories were made. As our 50th Anniversary Season approaches, we revisit one of the first works of one of America’s greatest playwrights, and in so doing, retrace our own history.
In the 1980s, Center Theatre Group joined a network of regional theatres producing Wilson’s plays. As Founding Artistic Director Gordon Davidson wrote in the program for our production of The Piano Lesson in 1990, "This ‘theatre network’ has afforded plays the opportunity of moving from one theatre to the next with a kind of continuity—one different from commercial touring—an opportunity which promotes the play’s ongoing development."
It was an incredible period, for us and for him…It was that magical, perfect collaboration between August and us as a theatre, helping him complete this Cycle that was so important to him."
This process of production sharing was helmed by Yale Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Lloyd Richards—one of the great modern American theatre directors—and his producer Ben Mordecai, the only person other than Wilson to work on all 10 plays in the Cycle. Wilson traveled with the plays from theatre to theatre, analyzing and editing at each stop. It was this slow, methodical development process that enabled Wilson to perfect his works before they moved to New York.
Center Theatre Group participated in such production sharing for seven of Wilson’s 10 plays—The Piano Lesson (1990), Two Trains Running (1992), Seven Guitars (1996), Jitney (2000), King Hedley II (2000), and the World premieres of Gem of the Ocean (2003) and Radio Golf (2005).
The plays left a trail of awards in their wake. Our co-production (with Yale Repertory Theatre) of The Piano Lesson alone won four NAACP awards, five Drama-Logue Awards, an LA Drama Critics Circle Award, five Tony Award® nominations, and a Pulitzer Prize for the playwright. Our co-production of Jitney at the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain won the Olivier Award for Best New Play.
"It was an incredible period, for us and for him," said Nausica Stergiou, General Manager of the Mark Taper Forum and Kirk Douglas Theatre. "It was that magical, perfect collaboration between August and us as a theatre, helping him complete this Cycle that was so important to him."
Gem of the Ocean premiered at the Taper in 2003, featuring Phylicia Rashad, who directs our 2016 production of Ma Rainey, as Aunt Esther, one of Wilson’s preeminent characters. The performance would earn her a Tony nomination.
"August Wilson always entered the room quietly. He would sit through rehearsals quietly. Sometimes he would do some drawings on a pad. After rehearsals he would ball up the drawings and throw them in the trashcan. Many times I’ve wondered what those drawings were. I know they weren’t meaningless because he was always listening," said Rashad of her experience working with the playwright.
In 2005, Wilson completed The American Century Cycle with Radio Golf. It was also the last play he would ever write. Though he had always traveled with his plays, had always sat in the theatres where they ran, he was too ill to accompany Radio Golf to the Taper. He died two weeks after its premiere.
Radio Golf was also Gordon Davidson’s final production as Artistic Director. "I cannot express how honored I am to be concluding my tenure at the Taper with such a historic event," he wrote at the time.
In 2013, at the invitation of Artistic Director Michael Ritchie, Phylicia Rashad brought Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone to the Taper to move the Cycle further to completion. "It is an honor and a privilege to continue to give August Wilson’s work a stage and an artistic home in Los Angeles," said Ritchie. "The history and humanity his plays depict are more important now than ever."
August Wilson always entered the room quietly. He would sit through rehearsals quietly. Sometimes he would do some drawings on a pad. After rehearsals he would ball up the drawings and throw them in the trashcan. Many times I’ve wondered what those drawings were. I know they weren’t meaningless because he was always listening.
Center Theatre Group’s commitment to Wilson extends far beyond our stages and into our education programs. We are the Southern California home of the August Wilson Monologue Competition and host teaching artists at L.A. schools through the August Wilson In-School Residency Program. "These programs are part of our tradition of nurturing new voices in the American theatre," said Director of Social Strategy, Innovation and Impact Leslie K. Johnson. "They enable students from all walks of life to discover August Wilson’s profound and deeply relevant works of art, explore their own creative voices, and learn more about our shared history and themselves."
Perhaps it is this deep, artistically familial relationship to August that makes his presence, even after his death, so profound at Center Theatre Group. For those who work here, whether they have been here for 30 years or six months, there is a tacit understanding of the spiritual weight of completing The American Century Cycle on our stages. With Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, we go back to the beginning, just as we near the end.