August Wilson is one of the late 20th-century’s best playwrights. He was a Seattle resident for the latter part of his life. But are his plays performed in Tacoma? Not much.
Which is why three local arts groups are partnering to present readings of Wilson’s 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle” over the next five years: two plays per year. The first one, “Gem of the Ocean,” is on Saturday night.
“He’s arguably the finest American playwright in the last 50 years,” says Bryan Willis of the Northwest Playwrights Alliance. The NPA is part of the Wilson series partnership: They supply directors and actors, the Washington State History Museum is supplying the theater, and the Broadway Center for Performing Arts is handling marketing and contributing financially to ensure everyone gets paid. The cycle is also produced in special arrangement with Samuel French, Inc. It’s a great thing for Tacoma, Willis says.
“Wilson hasn’t really been produced in Tacoma,” he says. Why not? “The plays are large and expensive to put on. We’re concerned he’s going to become a literary footnote, not appreciated. This is our way to keep these plays alive.”
The Pittsburgh plays each tackle one decade of American life, told from the African American point of view. Wilson, who won two Pulitzer prizes for the cycle, grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of a German immigrant father and an African American mother from North Carolina. From 1994 until his death in 2005, Wilson lived in Seattle, where he was a member of the same writers’ group as Willis.
“He was an extremely passionate and generous man, especially to the theater community,” remembers Willis, “even if he was a bit controversial.”
Saturday’s play is “Gem of the Ocean,” the first of the cycle, which tells the quasi-mythical story of young Alabama man Citizen Barlow on a quest for a new life. On the way he meets various characters, including former slaves. Tacoman David Dear will direct local actors including Rosalind Bell, Charles Canada and Tim Hoban. In June, the reading will be the Tony-nominated “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” set in the industrial turnaround of the North in 1911 and dealing with themes of migration and racial discrimination. Local playwright Rosalind Bell will direct.
"Gem of the Ocean" begins 8 p.m. tomorrow at the Washington State History Museum. "Joe Turner’s Come and Gone" runs 7:30 p.m. June 6. $12 one show/$8 each for both. 253-591-5894, www.broadwaycenter.org