Ten for 10
STC announces a decade-long commitment to August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle
The Sacramento Theatre Company is launching an almost insanely ambitious project—and we admire the plan.
Artistic director Peggy Shannon intends to produce the late August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle—a monumental ten-play series, depicting African-American life from 1900 through the 1990s. STC will stage one play annually, starting in the 2008-09 season, and concluding in 2018.
Wilson began writing the cycle in the 1980s, and completed it shortly before his death in 2005. The series includes Fences (set in the 1950s), which won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award in 1987. The Piano Lesson (set in the 1940s) won a Pulitzer in 1990. Several other plays received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and were Tony nominees. On the strength of the cycle, Wilson is widely ranked as a major American playwright.
Shannon knew Wilson when they were both in Seattle during the ’80s and early ’90s. Wilson was a name. His wife Constanza Romero designed costumes for several of Shannon’s shows, and, as Shannon recalled in a recent conversation, “They were dinner guests at my house.”
Shannon described Wilson as “a great writer, a theatrical warrior … funny, laid back, smart, feisty. He was also full of contradictions.
“[He] hated the idea of actors of color doing Shakespeare. I responded, ‘Actors of color want to play classical roles, kings and queens.’ But he was convinced that ‘white’ theaters saw that as a way to get out of really committing to alternate voices.”
Wilson, she continued, “was fiercely in support of black writers, black actors, the black experience. Sometimes, it takes people who have an extreme stance to get other people’s attention. And August, with his incredible writing, and strong stance about color, and voice, and life experience represented on stage, caught the imagination and attention of serious American theatergoers.”
Wilson’s dramatic language is distinctively black, reflecting the rural South and urban North. “I once asked August ‘How do you come up with this dialogue?’” Shannon said. “He said, ‘I sit places and I just listen, and sometimes write down what I heard, and shape it into a script.’ He’d sit in diners and barbershops. He had a gift for the musicality of the voice, the humor and rhythm and tempo.” He also had an ear for the blues. You’ll hear references to Bessie Smith and Muddy Waters.
Shannon has wanted to stage Wilson’s plays since arriving here in the late ’90s. But the timing wasn’t right—and the casts were too large—during her early years at STC, when the theater was on the ropes financially. “Then, when August passed,” she said, “I just felt it was time.”
Several Pittsburgh Cycle plays have been staged individually in Sacramento by community or college groups. STC staged two professionally, more than 13 years ago.
But this is the first attempt to mount the whole cycle, in sequence. Launching a ten-year project is a bigger task than some artistic directors might attempt, and it’s especially ambitious for a small regional company like STC. “There’s a leap of faith that the theater, with or without me, will continue this vision and dream,” Shannon said.
It’s a dream in which Shannon, who is white, might not participate directly. “I haven’t directed his plays,” she said. “August felt strongly about his plays being directed by African Americans.”
The project presents challenges, yes—and opportunities. There are a limited number of professional black actors here, so far not enough to satisfy all the age and gender requirements for this project. But, as Shannon added, “If you build it, they will come. So far, nobody [we’ve approached] has said no.”
Much of the fundraising will fall to STC managing director Mark Standriff, who is also an actor. (He played Atticus Finch in STC’s To Kill A Mockingbird last fall.) Standriff is enthused. “I produced three August Wilson plays at a theater I ran in Ohio,” he said. “He is one of the great American voices.”
Standriff said the 10-year project “imposes a unique opportunity for fundraising and sponsorship,” partly because the casts are larger than average. “Financially, it’s a challenge, to make sure we have the stage filled with talent. That’s why we’re announcing it now.”