‘August in August’ serves up tasty morsels of theatre

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Generally speaking in theater circles, revivals refer to new productions of long-remembered and highly regarded works returning to the Great White Way. Liberty Avenue may not be Broadway, but last weekend saw the much-anticipated return of the “August in…” theater sampler to Pittsburgh’s Cultural District in the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

Beginning as a collaboration between the Cultural Trust’s Janice Burley Wilson and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company founder Mark Clayton Southers, it experienced growing pain and hiatuses while attracting Broadway luminaries James Earl Jones and Charles Dutton in tribute to Pittsburgh’s Hill District griot.

principle
THE PRINCIPLE PLAYERS—Mark Clayton Southers, Joseph Martinez, Anthony Chisholm, Andres Frye, Stephen M. Henderson, Antonio Fargas, David Conrad, Bria Walker and Kim El. Missing is Sala Udin. (Photos by Rossano P. Stewart)

A near-capacity filled house was treated to performances from nationally respected actors, Broadway veterans and some of the best talent from Southwest Pa in scenes from 10 plays comprising August Wilson’s “Century Cycle” that portrays African-American life in each decade of the 1900s.

To present “August in August” in the AWC in Wilson’s hometown was a full circle moment reminiscent of the African sankofa bird that returns to where it began. Metaphors aside, the symbolism was not lost on the audience as they were treated to soul food in the words and wisdom dispensed through Wilson’s pen.

The evening began with a taste of things to come in a very brief scene from “Gem of the Ocean” of an uninvited visitor intent on conferring with Aunt Ester. The ensuing scuffle disturbs Aunt Ester who queries the insistent intruder with “Didn’t he tell you to come back Tuesday?”

We do return, but this time we’re in a recording studio awaiting the arrival of Ma Rainey (Vanessa German). This scene from “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” features Antonio Fargas (best known as “Huggy Bear” from the 1970 Starsky & Hutch cop series); film, TV actor and Swissvale native David Conrad; and members of the August Wilson Center Theatre Ensemble.

In “Radio Golf,” Harmon Wilks receives a brilliant object lesson in gamesmanship, race and reality from urban philosopher Sterling; followed by an excerpt from “Jitney” where Youngblood comes clean to the mother of his child about his suspicious behavior.

“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” features Tony Award-winner Stephen McKinley Henderson as Bynum sharing his perspective on women and “Two Trains Running” highlights dialogue on current events (funerals, finance and real estate) steeped in authenticity as served up by Anthony Chisholm, Sala Udin and Fargas to close out the first half.

The second act opened with a scene from “King Hedley,” where Tonya and King argue over whether or not she should keep the child she’s carrying. Powerful performances from AWCTE member Joshua Elijah Reese and August Wilson Monologue winner Emily Kolb (an incoming college freshman) captivated the audience, as did its follow up, a scene between Chrystal Bates and Kevin Brown from “The Piano Lesson.” Both excerpts highlight the struggle of the sexes for balance with their world and each other.

The “dance” between Hedley (Fargas) and Bernice (Andrea Frye) in “Seven Guitars” sheds a different light on the male-female battle of wills (call this one a draw). Family conflict is the centerpiece of the “Fences” excerpt that has McKinley reprising his Broadway role of Bono and Udin as Troy (the Broadway role played by Denzel Washington). It’s hard to imagine Washington measuring up to the emotional stakes ratcheted up by Udin in the confrontation with son Corey (played by Carter Redwood) in the climatic scene.

A collective exhale of the built of tension is released with the evening’s closing scene from “Ma Rainey” with a hilarious, scene-stealing turn by Michaelangelo Turner.

It truly took a village to put on “August in August” and, as attested by Wilson’s widow Constanza who was in attendance closing night, would have met his approval with its multigenerational participation onstage and backstage with crew, costumers (Cheryl El-Walker, Kennedy Guess, Grace Hines and Deryck Tines) and actors. Three high school monologue winners (Kolb, Devaughn Robinson and Heaven Bobo) held their own along side theatre and Broadway vets.

The ensemble spirit was shared among the directors (including JaSonte Roberts Dean, Tami Dixon, Kim El, Frye, Henderson, Joseph Martinez, Redwood and Southers) and cast (Jeffrey Carpenter, Jason Shavers, Mark Conway Thompson and Bria Walker). Special kudos go to composer Kathryn Bostic who brought her Broadway Wilson sensibilities to bear on providing the music and the comfortable and familiar soundtrack to underscore the product.

“August in August” is a fitting conclusion to a season of transition at the AWC and an appropriate first finale for Southers’ tenure as artist director of Theater Initiatives of the namesake facility of his mentor.

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