I saw the Goodman's main-stage production of Two Trains Running, the 1960s entry in the cycle. It was my first experience with Wilson. The play's set in a diner in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1969. The neighborhood's about to be obliterated so the city can build an expressway. Memphis, the diner's owner, wants a fair price for his building. That's the basic framework of the plot, and there are discussions of gentrification, black power, and the Great Migration, but mostly the play's a portrait of a particular world, with its own particular language, that's now been lost. Afterward, I felt a bit sad. How many other worlds have been completely lost because no one was ever able to put them on stage?
On election day, Willa Taylor, the Goodman's director of education and community engagement, met me to talk about why Wilson's work is still so important and necessary. Here's an edited version of our conversation:
Two Trains is my favorite, because of the time period. I'm a kid of the 60s. But there were three I hadn't seen, Radio Golf, Gem of the Ocean, and King Hedley II. Last night I saw Radio Golf at the Court Theatre. That's the one from the 90s. It was hard to believe he wrote the play 20-some years ago, in '97. But it's about what's going on now, this election. Chuy's a man of the people, he wants to be the mayor for the people. Rahm is from a very different kind of community. The rhetoric around them, that's exactly what's going on in Radio Golf.
A lot of people have been to every play. It's a citywide celebration in a real sense, from Pullman to Evanston. After four weeks, things are starting to blend. But it's a great opportunity. Five years ago, the Kennedy Center did a festival of all the plays, but I couldn't spend two months in D.C. Seeing them all at once, you see how they relate to one another. Sterling in Two Trains is in Radio Golf, and Aunt Ester's house is in several of the plays.
The festival came together surprisingly easily. We wanted to do something special. [Director] Chuck Smith had the idea of the symposium. The Court Theatre has done five of the plays, and Congo Square has done a few. It made sense to work with them. It's indicative of the way people hold [Wilson's] work in esteem that everyone said yes. It's outside the season of most theaters, especially the smaller companies, but everyone said yes right away. The only real problem was space. We didn't want to make everyone come downtown. So we looked to see where we had relationships with organizations and see if they had some nontraditional spaces. We have a relationship with Pullman from when we did Pullman Porter Blues a couple of years ago. The community doesn't get a lot of arts support. Fleetwood Jourdain hooked us up with the Evanston Public Library. There was some jockeying [for plays], but not much. Chuck chose Two Trains. Besides loving the play, he felt it had resonance.
Chuck called Constanza Romero, August's widow, to get her blessing. She's a really amazing woman. She was really humbled by our commitment.
We're trying to make sure August's work gets taught in schools the way kids study Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, and Shakespeare. If they don't get it in school, they're never going to get it. There's a difference between studying theater and studying drama. Theater is about the transition from the page to the text. Drama is the text.
It's a difficult discussion to have about race. But it's not a black thing or a people of color thing. It affects everybody. The reason some teachers give for not teaching Wilson are the language or lack of familiarity with the references. The teachers are so afraid of punitive measures. And how do you, as a white teacher from the suburbs, how do you have a discussion about the N-word in class? How you use it in a discussion about race and history depends on context. If you can't talk about that word, you can't talk about history. There are hundreds of years of context. In context, in Two Trains, there are different ways of using it, from affection to disdain. In Radio Golf, one of my favorite speeches is when Sterling talks about the difference between Negros and niggers. It's the legacy of reconstruction all the way into the 90s. So much of American history has been shaped by the exploitation of masses of people. How can we move forward unless we have a conversation about that history?
One of the things Constanza has been careful about is not letting [Wilson's] work be exploited and diluted. August was insistent about how his work should be performed. One of the most amazing times in my life was when I saw a debate at Town Hall [in New York] between Wilson and Robert Brustein. Wilson was insistent that his work be performed by and for African-Americans and that a white director did not have the agency to perform. Brustein thought differently. Constanza has been very careful about curating the work. It still has purity. It hasn't been turned into films, except for The Piano Lesson. Unless you're living somewhere with access to theater, you don't see it. The Piano Lesson and Fences are the most accessible. But Wilson's language has a rhythm and poetry. Not everyone can do it.
I've seen Two Trains six times during this run. I'm fascinated to watch Terry Bellamy, who plays Memphis. He was at Penumbra [Theatre, in Saint Paul] when August was getting started. He grew up proficient in that language. He was learning from the guy who created it. I'm jealous of people who got to meet and work with him. I met him once at the Goodman, but I was so awestruck, I couldn't talk.