Honky Tonk Parade: New Yorker Profiles of Show People

Honky Tonk Parade: New Yorker Profiles of Show People

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by John Lahr

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Ada Calhoun
Lahr believes in the people he writes about, and there is an implicit hope that the people he writes about believe in him, too. For better and worse, when the stage lights hit Lahr's eyes, they turn into real live stars.
— The New York Times

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The Overlook Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.33(w) x 9.31(h) x 1.15(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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Copyright © 2005 John Lahr
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-58567-703-5

Chapter One



If anybody asks you who sang this song Tell 'em It was little Jimmy Rushing, He's been here and gone.

The playwright August Wilson lives in a leafy, genteel part of Seattle intended by the city's founding fathers to be the site of the state capitol, and so named Capitol Hill. He moved here in 1994, with Constanza Romero, a Colombian-born costume designer who is now his third wife, and they share a rambling turn-of-the-century house with Azula, their three-year-old daughter. Azula has her father's ear and number, as well as total control of the living room, which, apart from a jukebox and a piano props from Wilson's productions-hasn't a stick of adult furniture. Wilson, who doesn't drive, is more interested in the inner terrain than the external one; writing, he says, "is for me like walking down the landscape of the self.... You find false trails, roads closed for repairs, impregnable fortresses, scouts, armies of memory, and impossible cartography."

Wilson does most of his pathfinding below the living room, in alow-ceilinged basement, lit by neon bars, where he goes to sneak cigarettes, listen to records, and wait for his characters to arrive. He writes standing up, at a high, cluttered pine accounting desk, where he can prop his legal pad and transfer his jottings to a laptop computer. Pinned on a bulletin board, just beside where he stands to write, are two quotations, as bold as street signs: "TAKE IT TO THE MOON" (Frank Gehry) and "DON'T BE AFRAID. JUST PLAY THE MUSIC" (Charlie Parker). When Wilson looks up from his desk, at the dingy wall with its labyrinth of water pipes, he sees honorary degrees from the University of Pittsburgh, his home town, and from Yale, where his career as a playwright began, in 1982-just two of twenty-three he has accumulated so far, which is not bad for a fifty-five-year-old writer who quit school when he was fifteen.

For years, about two steps behind Wilson's writing table, an Everlast punching bag was suspended from the ceiling. When Wilson was in full flow and the dialogue was popping, he'd stop, pivot, throw a barrage of punches at the bag, then turn back to the work. Recently, however, during a particularly vigorous rewrite of his new play, "King Hedley II," which opens on Broadway this month, Wilson knocked the bag and its ceiling hook down, and it now rests mournfully in the corner. Wilson has a retired boxer's heft-thick neck, square shoulders, wide chest-and a stomach whose amplitude is emphasized by suspenders that bracket his belly like parentheses. Wilson is the product of a mixed marriage, but, he says, "the culture I learned in my mother's household was black." He has a handsome face that is dominated by a wide forehead and a concentrated gaze. He exudes a very specific sense of gravity. He gives away nothing at first, or even second, glance. But when his guard is down, and especially when he's telling a story, you feel what his wife calls "the sizzle."

Wilson, who was originally named Frederick August Kittel, after his German father, says that his model for manhood-"the first male image that I carry"-is not his father but an old family friend, "the brilliant Hall of Fame prize-fighter" Charley Burley. Archie Moore called Burley the best fighter he'd ever faced, and Sugar Ray Robinson refused to box him, but after his glory days as a pugilist were over Burley became a garbageman in Pittsburgh and lived across the street from the impressionable young Wilson. In Burley's Friday-night regalia-hundred-dollar Stetson, cashmere coat, yam-colored Florsheim shoes-Wilson saw something iconic. Burley was one of those black men, Wilson writes, who "elevated their presence into an art. They were bad. If only in an abstract of style."

Burley was known as "the uncrowned champion"; Wilson is known as "the heavyweight champion"-a nickname given to him by the director Marion McClinton, who is staging "King Hedley II." McClinton explains, "It's August's language-the rhythm of hurt, the rhythm of pain, the rhythm of ecstasy, the rhythm of family-which sets him apart and is why we call him the heavyweight champion." Between 1959, when Lorraine Hansberry had a hit with "A Raisin in the Sun," and 1984, when Wilson made his sensational breakthrough with "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," a play about black musicians' struggle with their white bosses in the twenties, the number of African-American plays to succeed on Broadway was zero. (There were, of course, many other black playwrights during this time-Amiri Baraka, Ron Milner, Phillip Hayes Dean, Richard Wesley, and Ed Bullins, among them-who won critical praise and a coterie following.) "Ma Rainey" ran for ten months. Almost immediately, Hollywood came calling, mostly with offers for bio-pics of Louis Armstrong, Muhammad Ali, and the like; Wilson wasn't tempted. He asked the Hollywood nabobs why so many black playwrights had written only one play. "I go, 'Where is Lonne Elder? Where is Joseph Walker?' They go, 'They're in Hollywood.' And I go, 'Oh, I see,'" he says. "I wanted to have a career in the theatre."

Wilson's success also triggered what McClinton calls "one of the more major American theatrical revolutions." His audience appeal almost single-handedly broke down the wall for other black artists, many of whom would not otherwise be working in the mainstream. His plays were showcases for an array of first-rate performers, such as Charles S. Dutton, Samuel L. Jackson, Courtney Vance, Angela Bassett, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and Laurence Fishburne. And the opportunities for African-American playwrights also increased. "What's happened since 1984 has been incredible," McClinton says. "A lot of black writers had doors opened to them basically because August knocked them open. So then you start seeing Kia Corthron, Suzan-Lori Parks, Keith Glover, Robert Alexander, Lynn Nottage, Sam Kelley, Carlisle Brown, Charles Smith, Michael Henry Brown-I could keep going. American theatre now looks toward African-Americans as viable members."

Wilson followed "Ma Rainey" with six critically acclaimed plays in a row-"Fences" (1987; Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award), "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" (1988), "The Piano Lesson" (1990; Pulitzer Prize), "Two Trains Running" (1992), "Seven Guitars" (1996), and "Jitney" (2000). He actually had drafts of "Fences" and "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" in his trunk before "Ma Rainey" made it to Broadway, and sometime after the success of that play, he has said, it dawned on him that each play he'd written so far was "trying to focus on what I felt were the most important issues confronting black Americans for that decade." Wilson gave himself a mission: to continue to chronicle, decade by decade, the "dazed and dazzling" rapport of African-Americans with the twentieth century. "King Hedley II" is set in the nineteen-eighties, which leaves only the first and last decades of the century to be written. The plays form a kind of fever chart of the trauma of slavery. Their historical trajectory takes African-Americans through their transition from property to personhood ("Joe Turner's Come and Gone"); their struggle for power in urban life ("Ma Rainey"); their dilemma over whether to embrace or deny their slave past ("The Piano Lesson"); the broken promise of first-class citizenship after the Second World War ("Seven Guitars"); their fraught adaptation to bourgeois values ("Fences"); stagnancy in the midst of Black Power militancy ("Two Trains Running"); and their historical and financial disenfranchisement during the economic boom ("Jitney" and "King Hedley II").

"The average struggling non-morbid Negro is the best-kept secret in America," Zora Neale Hurston wrote in 1950. Wilson has put that man-his songs, his idiom, his superstitions, his folly, and his courage-on the stage. His plays are not talking textbooks; they paint the big picture indirectly, from the little incidents of daily life. "People can be slave-ships in shoes," Hurston said. Wilson's characters are shackled together by something greater than poverty; their bondage is to the caprices of history. "We's the leftovers," Toledo, the piano player and only literate member of Ma Rainey's band, tells the other musicians. "The white man knows you just a leftover. 'Cause he the one who done the eating and he know what he done ate. But we don't know that we been took and made history out of."

Wilson's work is a conscious answer to James Baldwin's call for "a profound articulation of the Black Tradition." He says he wanted to demonstrate that black American culture "was capable of sustaining you, so that when you left your father's or your mother's house you didn't go into the world naked. You were fully clothed in manners and a way of life." In the past, playwrights such as Dubose Heyward, Paul Green, and Eugene O'Neill made blacks and black culture the subject of drama; Wilson has made them the object. "When you go to the dictionary and you look up 'black,' it gives you these definitions that say, 'Affected by an undesirable condition,'" Wilson says. "You start thinking something's wrong with black. When white people say, 'I don't see color,' what they're saying is 'You're affected by this undesirable condition, but I'll pretend I don't see that.' And I go, 'No, see my color. Look at me. I'm not ashamed of who I am and what I am."

Wilson's characters often scrabble desperately, sometimes foolishly, for an opportunity that rarely comes. But when opportunity knocked for Wilson he seized it with a vengeance. He has tried to live his writing life by the Buddhist motto "You're entitled to the work but not the reward"; nevertheless, he has become a very rich man-in 1990, he was the most produced American playwright-and he is only getting richer. After "Seven Guitars," he and his co-producer, Ben Mordecai, formed a joint venture called Sageworks, which allows Wilson to exercise unusual control over the destiny of his plays-and also to take both a writer's and a producer's share of their profits. A Wilson play has a gestation period like no other in the history of American theatre, and no other major playwright-not Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, or David Mamet-has negotiated the latitude to work so freely. Before a play arrives on Broadway, Wilson refines his story through a series of separate productions. In his rehearsal mufti-black turtleneck and cloth cap-he sits beside the director for almost every hour of every production, and, since "Seven Guitars," he's taken to "writing in the heat of the moment." By the time "King Hedley II" reaches New York, the play, which shows the fragmented life of a Pittsburgh ghetto during the Reagan years, will have been seen, digested, reconceived, and rewritten after productions in Seattle, Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington. This long reworking, like a brass rubbing, brings the play's parameters and its filigree of detail into bold relief until the drama emerges, as Wilson puts it, "fat with substance."

"When I was writing 'Joe Turner,'" Wilson says, "I realized that someone was gonna stand up onstage and say the words, whatever the hell they were. That's when I realized I had a responsibility to the words. I couldn't have the character say any old thing. There couldn't be any mistakes." To achieve this sort of focus requires the kind of appetite for victory that is epitomized, for Wilson, by a breed of championship racehorses, which in order to win "bite their own necks to get more oxygen." He began his own extraordinary endeavor late, at about forty, and his time is valuable. He does not spend it on the telephone, or watching television, or going to movies (between 1980 and 1991, he saw only two, both directed by Martin Scorsese-"Raging Bull" and "Cape Fear"). His work requires a lot of "doing nothing" to generate "brain space." So Wilson, whom Azula calls "the slippery guy," is usually to be found puttering in the crepuscular gloom of his basement, where he communes with himself and, if he's lucky taps into what he calls "the blood's memory," that "deepest part of yourself where the ancestors are talking." To do so requires a kind of ritual preparation. "Before I write something, I wash my hands," he says. "I always want to say I approached it with clean hands-you know, a symbolic cleansing."

Wilson's plays, filled as they often are with visions and visionaries, have a kind of hoodoo of their own, which can seem strange to white viewers, who are often critical of his use of the supernatural. He is a collagist, making Afro-Christian parables, and his plays are best when the real and the spiritual are wedded ("Joe Turner," "Seven Guitars," "The Piano Lesson"), in order, as he says, "to come up with a third thing, which is neither realism nor allegory." Then, his intensity and his natural eloquence-what Henry Louis Gates, Jr., calls "an unruly luxuriance of language, an ability to ease between trash talk and near-choral transport"-most effectively highlight another comparatively unsung quality of his writing: the ability to unfetter the heart. Under his focussed gaze, characters take on uncanny, sometimes awesome, life, and, unlike most contemporary male playwrights, he can write memorable roles for women as well as men. Wilson's work is not much influenced by the canon of modern Western plays, almost none of which he has read or seen. "I consider it a blessing that when I started writing plays in earnest, in 1979, I had not read Chekhov. I hadn't read Ibsen. I hadn't read Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, or O'Neill," he says. By then, he had been writing poetry for fifteen years and had read all the major American poets. "It took me eight years to find my own voice as a poet. I didn't want to take eight years to find my voice as a playwright." To this day, as incredible as it seems, with the exception of his own productions and a few of his friends', Wilson has seen only about a dozen plays.

In the age of the sound bite, Wilson is that most endangered of rare birds-a storyteller. A Wilson tale takes about as long as a baseball game, which is to say a good deal longer than the average commercial play. Although audiences will happily watch sports contests into double overtime, the play of ideas and characters is another matter. In this arena, they are accustomed to what Shakespeare called the "two hours' traffic," and Wilson has taken a lot of flak for his capaciousness. According to "The Oxford Companion to American Theatre," his plays "lack a sense of tone and a legitimate, sustained dramatic thrust." This criticism is, to my mind, unjust, but it reflects a distinctive cultural and artistic difference. Virtually all the seminal white postwar plays-"The Glass Menagerie," "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "Death of a Salesman"-revolve around the drama of American individualism; they mark a retreat from exterior into interior life. Wilson, however, dramatizes community. "Community is the most valuable thing that you have in African-American culture," he explains. "The individual good is always subverted to the good of the community." Wilson's plays are distinctive-and longer-because society, not just a psyche, is being mediated. They demonstrate the individual's interaction with the community, not his separation from it.

In Wilson's plays, the white world is a major character that remains almost entirely offstage; nonetheless, its presence is palpable-its rules, its standards, its ownership are always pressing in on the black world and changing the flow of things. "I look around and say, 'Where the barbed wire?'" Hedley says, observing that as a slave he would have been worth twelve hundred dollars, and now he's worth three-fifty an hour. "They got everything else. They got me blocked in every other way. 'Where the barbed wire?'" To which his sidekick replies, "If you had barbed wire you could cut through. You can't cut through having no job." "Blacks know the spiritual truth of white America," Wilson says. "We are living examples of America's hypocrisy. We know white America better than white America knows us." Wilson's plays go some distance toward making up this deficiency. For white members of the audience, the experience of watching a Wilson work is often educational and humanizing. It's the eternal things in Wilson's dramas the arguments between fathers and sons, the longing for redemption, the dreams of winning, and the fear of losing-that reach across the footlights and link the black world to the white one, from which it is so profoundly separated and by which it is so profoundly defined. To the black world, Wilson's plays are witness; to the white world, they are news. This creates a fascinating racial conundrum, one first raised by Baldwin: "If I am not what I've been told I am, then it means that you're not what you thought you were either!"


Excerpted from HONKY TONK PARADE by JOHN LAHR Copyright © 2005 by John Lahr. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Honky Tonk Parade: New Yorker Profiles of Show People 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Like Lahr's New Yorker reviews, these pieces are extremely well written and quite insightful. He's an incredible writer he writes with excitement and passion and keen insight. He is the best theater writer alive today, hands down.