‘August Wilson’s American Century Cycle’ starring Phylicia Rashad comes to life

theGRIO REPORT - Phylicia Rashad, Taraji P. Henson and S. Epatha Merkerson open up about performing in 'August Wilson's American Century Cycle' ...

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Phylicia Rashad, Taraji P. Henson and S. Epatha Merkerson had nothing but praise for the work of August Wilson during a recent press conference at the Greene Space in Manhattan.

The three actors are all working on recordings of the August Wilson American Century Cycle—the 10 plays Wilson wrote that capture the complexities of African American life from 1900 to the dawn of the 21st century. The audio recordings (produced in chronological order) are performed in front of a live audience and are available to view via live webcasts.

The plays include Broadway hits such as Fences and the Piano Lesson and the recordings are being done by many award-winning actors such as Leslie Uggams, Anthony Chisolm, Clarke Peters and Keith David.

Taraji P. Henson, who took on the role of worldly woman Molly Cunningham in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, called Wilson her Shakespeare.  “When I was at Howard University and I was introduced to August Wilson, I felt at home. The words felt close to me. He spoke directly to my soul, directly to my struggle,” said Henson.

Another Howard alum, Phylicia Rashad, explained her own deep appreciation and respect for August Wilson’s work. “ I grew up with a poet and a playwright, my mother, Vivian Ayers.  So I have great respect for the discipline of writing. I have great respect for the power of the written and the spoken word,” said Rashad who directed the Joe Turner’s Come and Gone reading for the August Wilson American Century Cycle series.

Attending or viewing a reading of a play gives audience members a different level of engagement with the work. Because there is not as much emphasis on set design or costume (the actors are just sitting in chairs on a stage, reading their lines), more attention is placed on the actual words. Taking in a reading of the work of a playwright like August Wilson, who took such care with crafting authentic dialogue and creating multi-layered narratives, is a unique joy.

In the reading Rashad directed, the entire cast did a stellar job telling the stories of several colorful characters that were in and out of the doors of a modest Pittsburgh area boarding house in the 1910s.  Roger Robinson, who played the role of eccentric Bynum, was a crowd favorite with his textured voice that sounded something like honey on sandpaper. The child actors Alexis Holt and Nile Bullock were just as professional and believable as the grown ups and Jason Dirden’s turn as guitar-strumming lothario Jeremy had women in the audience laughing and swooning at the same time.

S. Epatha Merkerson, another top-notch actor in the Joe Turner’s Come and Gone reading, acknowledged the need to go beyond preserving just Wilson’s written word. “The young people coming up now have the opportunity to study and perform August Wilson. What an amazing opportunity. The importance of the sound of August Wilson can’t be over-stated. So now we’ll have these recordings. It’s important that we archive this rhythm before we become too many generations removed from it, said Merkerson.

The artistic director of the series, Ruben Santiago Hudson, noted the cultural and musical element of Wilson’s words. “When we speak of Shakespeare, we talk about iambic pentameter. Stephen McKinley Henderson calls Wilson’s style, the blues iambic and he’s right. That’s what August writes. Even certain licks and lyrics he says are blues licks,” said Hudson. As an example, he quoted a line from Joe Turner where a character named Lumas compliments a woman on her attire. Instead of saying “You look good in that dress,” he says “That dress got a color to it. “

“My imagination is probably much broader than anything I will ever see and I think that’s what children will gain from this experience and these voices and these sounds that they’ll hear with these plays.  They’ll have the opportunity to visualize and they’ll have that rhythm to do it with,” said Merkerson.

Go to the Greene Space website to see the calendar for upcoming recordings of the August Wilson American Century Cycle. All of the performances are sold out, but live video webcasts will be available and there are tickets for discussions about Wilson’s work featuring some of the actors and producers of this series. .

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