A Wonzong in my heart
After 30 years at Chico State, theater professor Randy Wonzong directs his final stage production
Randy Wonzong, who directed the spring musical, Man of La Mancha, that opened Wednesday at Laxson Auditorium, is not really retiring, and that’s a good thing. He will still be able to bring a breadth of experience, a deep historical sense of the drama and a much-celebrated teacher’s intelligence to the Chico State Theatre Department.
Wonzong, whose intense, dark-brown eyes and classroom vitality suggest a man who is anything but “over the hill,” is going into a kind of half-retirement, which means that he will be teaching only five courses a year, instead of the usual eight, dropping from a CSUC teaching load to a (rather heavy) UC one.
Man of La Mancha is being advertised as Wonzong’s swan song, his final production as a director. And certainly the dozens of plays he’s directed over the years comprise a substantial portfolio of accomplishments. But few who know him will be surprised if, sometime during this half-retirement, he returns to the boards to direct again. For a man who grew up on a Midwestern farm, he’s got theater in his blood.
Wonzong was the child of second-generation German farmer/immigrants. His father made it through fifth grade, his mother through second or third. As he puts it, “It was a world where, when you’re big enough to put a halter on a horse, you have no further need of schooling.” But Wonzong fell in love with school, succeeded, and went to high school in rural northern Illinois. From there he went to Illinois State at Bloomington/Normal, where he majored in English, finally adding the equivalent of a minor in drama.
Picking up a master’s degree during the summer, Wonzong moved to inner-city Peoria, where he taught high-school English and drama for five years. He was so liked and widely known that he could drive his teenage actors home at night through sections of the Peoria ghetto even black people shunned with no more that an occasional friendly shout: “Ho! Mistuh Wonzong!”
His eyes dampen as he recalls being called back as a favorite teacher to a Peoria high-school graduation and encountering the mother of a young African-American man he had inspired to go on to a community college degree. She first thanked him for the wonderful help he had given her son and then went on to explain how the young man had been killed in a knife fight at only 23.
In graduate school at Northwestern University, Wonzong studied theater and wrote a dissertation on the plays of Arthur Miller, perhaps the central figure in his favorite era, the American theater of the first two-thirds of the 20th century, an era to which he has frequently returned in his local productions. Not long after, in 1974, he arrived in Chico.
The Chico State Theatre Department has changed markedly over the last 30 years. Originally an offshoot of the English Department, it was at first dominated by Lloyd Jones, Harlen Adams and Larry Wismer, men who were at once speech, English and drama teachers. Their productions often seemed amateurish, high-school-like plays that were as much about elocution as they were about the focused dramatic interaction among real people.
Wonzong, a thoroughly trained actor and theater history scholar, was a new breed who, in my memory at least, improved steadily as a director and, with Ted Wendt, moved from the stiffer productions of his predecessors into more lively, psychologically believable renderings of both the classics and the gems of the so-called Theatre of the Absurd. He taught, at one point or another, nearly all the courses that the Theatre Department offered but, because of his literary and historical background, became specially adept at teaching theater-history courses, which mixed a lot of reading of the classics (Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Restoration comedies, Ibsen and the realists, the Expressionists and Brecht, contemporary theater) with a history of techniques, attitudes and cultural vogues over the ages.
At the same time, Wonzong busied himself with a number of larger university affairs, including chairing “almost every committee at the university and a number of others no one ever knew about.” He was for years an active member of the Faculty Senate and was its chairman twice. He was also, under President Robin Wilson, a participant in a notorious Oprah Winfrey show he was invited to attend as a spokesman for a proposed university regulation forbidding instructors from having sex with their students. What he failed to realize was that Oprah would also invite, of course, a number of flamboyantly outspoken defenders of the opposite point of view to participate in the discussion.
When a tall man stood up and said, “Well, I’ve had affairs with at least 32 of my students, and I think it was a productive learning experience for us all,” Wonzong discovered just how far apart academic discussions and daytime television really were.
One of the impressive things about Wonzong, though, is how positive he is about all such experiences. While many professors would say, after delving into university politics, that such activities are ultimately a hollow business, Wonzong remains proud of what he has done and contented with his experiences. He even brushes off the fact that he will not direct next year with a positive “Younger people need a chance.”
True, the teaching of theater is changing. Chico draws an increasing number of potential theater students and sends forth an impressive array of highly capable actors, make-up specialists, costume and lighting managers and stage managers, many of whom have risen to prominent positions in the worlds of theater and television.
And the nature of teaching and directing has changed as well. It is much more focused on the play/production and less on the history and culture behind it. Wonzong’s two-semester History of Theater class has been cut to one semester.
Nonetheless, if one looks at a number of Chico State’s recent productions—such as Molière’s Tartuffe, Aristophanes’ The Birds, the recent Everyman—one will notice that such intriguing windows into past ages and cultures are being kept open. And one strongly suspects Wonzong will direct again.
Indeed, the pendulum keeps swinging, and I can certainly sense in my own students a growing desire to understand how all the fragments into which specialization and post-modernism have broken our world came about, and how they relate to specific times and places. Indeed, without drama’s windows into the stupidities of our history, we are doomed, as the saying goes, to repeat these stupidities.
So Wonzong and his wisdom and experience will be with us for a while. And this week he is directing his favorite musical, the delightful re-enacting of several episodes from one of history’s great works, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a magnificent novel that is great partly because it combines those two deep selves we all share, the skeptical doubter and the crazed optimist. And yes, we are all made up of both. But, personally, I have little doubt with which one Randy Wonzong’s deeper sympathies lie.