NEA Arts Magazine

American Storyteller

Signature Theatre Applauds August Wilson

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Cherise Booth and Russell Hornsby

Cherise Booth and Russell Hornsby in Signature Theatre's production of August Wilson's King Hedley II. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Over nearly three decades of work, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson made an indelible mark on American theater. Signature Theatre honored that legacy by celebrating Wilson's work for its 15th anniversary season. James Houghton, the theater's artistic director, said Wilson was an obvious choice. "I think August Wilson's contribution to the American literary canon, not just theatrical canon but literary canon, is profound."

The New York-based theater hosts a resident playwright each season. Wilson's residency was planned to coincide with the end of his seminal ten-play cycle on 20th-century African-American life. According to Houghton, Wilson was planning new work for the residency. "As much of a blessing as [the ten-play cycle] was for him, it was also a huge responsibility and burden that he was carrying for nearly 25 years. He was very anxious to move on from that cycle to these other stories he had to tell."

After Wilson's death from cancer in October 2005, it was uncertain if the season could go forward. With the support of Wilson's widow Constanza Romero and other of the playwright's collaborators, however, Signature reconceived the season as a tribute to the author, featuring Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, and King Hedley II. Wilson's "bookend" plays, Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf, already were scheduled for New York runs, and Houghton thought that those three plays filled in the gaps.

Houghton said the NEA's support for King Hedley II was crucial to the production. "It takes a lot of support to make any of these projects come to life or this mission come to life, and to get a grant of that scale and size for a particular production...made it possible to even occur."

Mounting a season of a late playwright's work was a departure for Signature, which prides itself on working with the playwright in the room. Houghton explained, however, that in some ways, "the presence of the playwright was never felt more deeply. We felt that burden that we were there to shine light on [August Wilson] and his work and to celebrate him completely."

At the same time, Signature also launched the Signature Ticket Initiative, primarily underwritten by Time Warner, which enabled the theater to offer tickets for only $15 and make a live theater experience accessible to more people. To make the program a success, Signature concentrated on reaching underserved communities by participating in neighborhood events and inviting community members to visit the theater.

The season may have been bittersweet, but Houghton called it worth the effort. "I think we were able to take all of the grieving and the complete loss of August that we were feeling...and channel that into a very proactive celebration of his work and his life."