By Dwight Hobbes
Pretending he was does not serve Penumbra well
August Wilson without question was one of the greatest dramatists in not only the United States but also the world. His plays Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Two Trains Running and King Hedley II were artistic triumphs of the first order. And it was, of course, fitting that Twin Cities theater-goers had the opportunity to see them produced at Penumbra Theatre (formerly Penumbra Theatre Company).
Wilson was a lifelong company member of Penumbra. Also, the venue for decades was the nation’s premiere institution in African American theater, sustaining a legacy left by the once-invaluable Negro Ensemble Company (which regrettably deteriorated into a travesty of its original internationally renowned artistry).
Wilson stepped into a void left by the passing of Lorraine Hansberry’s genius, and for years he ensured that the Great White Way, at least when his plays were produced on Broadway, took down its barrier enough to include one author of color. Face it — if you’re not White, you have to be one hell of a playwright to get your work on those boards.
August Wilson did it more often and more successfully than anyone else. He did not, however, walk on water, and here’s the rub: Penumbra Theater has proceeded as though August Wilson could do no wrong.
Even other greats, including Hansberry, whose A Raisin in the Sun stands as quite arguably the most structurally sound script known to the profession, proved herself mortal with the ponderous The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. Eugene O’Neill had his pathetic (not to mention blatantly racist) excuse for a play, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, like Tennessee Williams’ pretentious and unwieldy Summer and Smoke.
At Penumbra, though, it is sacrilege to so much as suggest that August Wilson, too, had his failures. The fact is, though, that before completing his famed cycle of 10 scripts, each devoted to depicting Black life in America during a decade of this past century, Wilson, for all his stature and ability, basically ran out of gas.
The Piano Lesson won a Pulitzer Prize, as did Fences, but it was nowhere near as well written and, in fact, was a pot-boiling morass of yammering familial angst that climaxes with an absolutely silly cop-out of an ending. (Even the people deciding Pulitzer recipients miss the mark on occasion, as they also did with Suzan Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, a barely disguised, uselessly padded rip-off of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story.)
Seven Guitars plodded along, stilted on implausible dialogue that put poetry in its characters’ mouths instead of conversation and indulged a static storyline instead of a plot that actually went somewhere.
It is highly unlikely that any producer in his or her right mind would’ve touched Gem of the Ocean with tongs if it hadn’t had August Wilson’s named attached it. From opening to closing moment it is a talkathon bereft of action or, for that matter, behavior by any of its characters.
All they do is hold forth. And hold forth. And hold forth. It comes off as a watered down, drawn out reworking of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
Jitney was an overpopulated, wholly dismissible rendering of two-dimensional characters in inert circumstances.
This season, Penumbra continues to perpetrate artistic director Lou Bellamy’s delusion that Wilson’s work merits a staging every year. It is very much like that old tale The Emperor’s New Clothes. Penumbra insists that no matter what play of Wilson’s is done, he fairly radiates artistic splendor. But, the plain, very visible truth is that for a number of his scripts, August Wilson clearly is, as it were, standing there in his BVDs.
This time around, Bellamy will direct Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. With living legend Jevetta Steele in the title role, he will quite probably and most deservedly have a runaway hit on his hands.
With the announcement last year that Penumbra is going to annually produce a play from the 10-year cycle comes the strong appearance that Lou Bellamy is milking the myth of August Wilson’s infallibility for every ticket it’s worth. Which is too bad, because it detracts from the truly valuable works in Wilson’s canon. And it doesn’t do much for Penumbra Theater’s artistic merit, either.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.