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Wilson’s ‘Fences’ comes home

Playwright’s echo resounds with director Leon

By Megan Tench
Globe Staff / September 6, 2009

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Winding up the stairs inside the Huntington Theatre Company’s rehearsal hall, Kenny Leon pauses for a moment to reflect on his emotions. “This was the place I last saw August really alive and active and engaged,’’ says the nationally acclaimed director, stopping short in the middle of the stairwell.

“He would run to the back room,’’ Leon says, pointing, “scribbling fast some rewrites and notes. Or he would be smoking outside on the sidewalk. My best memory of August is the two of us walking up and down Huntington Avenue and talking for two minutes that turned into hours. . . . I miss him. I really do.’’

The legendary playwright August Wilson may have died almost four years ago at age 60 of liver cancer, but at the Huntington, which became an artistic home, his work is thriving. “Fences,’’ the sixth work in Wilson’s pioneering 10-play cycle about 20th-century African-American life, kicks off the Huntington’s season on Friday.

The 1987 Pulitzer- and Tony-winning drama is about a black family in the ’50s struggling with broken dreams and desperate impulses. The Huntington tapped Leon, Wilson’s longtime collaborator and friend, to direct.

“If there was one writer people told me over and over again they wanted to see, they really, really wanted August Wilson back,’’ says artistic director Peter DuBois. “And now it feels like he has come home, and people are really excited to see him.’’

The Huntington’s relationship with Wilson began in 1986, when he went there to develop “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,’’ featuring a young Angela Bassett. The experience was so special, says Michael Maso, the Huntington’s managing director, that for the next 20 years, Wilson came to the Huntington to rework seven other plays - “The Piano Lesson,’’ “Two Trains Running,’’ “Seven Guitars,’’ “Jitney,’’ “King Hedley II,’’ “Gem of the Ocean,’’ and “Radio Golf’’ - before taking them on to New York and Broadway. Those Boston productions starred such talented actors as Charles S. Dutton and Phylicia Rashad, who went on to greater fame in Hollywood.

“Watching August work was a remarkable privilege,’’ says Maso, recalling Wilson’s evolution from a shy writer to one who confidently owned his work. “The notion there won’t be any more plays from him is odd to me. And doing this play without August around is odd to me. It was a great, great loss.’’

Strict rehearsals
“Fences’’ may be Wilson’s best-known work. Written in 1983, it centers on Troy Maxson, a deeply flawed ex-con and former Negro League baseball player who never got the recognition he believed he deserved.

By 1957 he is a trash collector in Pittsburgh fighting for equal rights. But embittered and resentful, Troy can’t bring himself to encourage his athletic son’s football aspirations, to paint the porch of his cherished ramshackle home (paid for by his disabled war-vet brother Gabriel), or even to commit to his wife, Rose, who is starving for his affection.

Inside the rehearsal hall, Leon runs a tight ship. The actors sit on chairs off to the side, with scripts in their laps. The room is filled with props: a vintage refrigerator and radio, a decaying sink and chairs, old tin lunchboxes, a worn baseball bat. They practice their lines until Leon enters the room.

Leon directed “A Raisin in the Sun,’’ which garnered two Tony Awards in 2004, and has helmed Wilson’s “Radio Golf’’ and “Gem of the Ocean’’ on Broadway. He’ll return to the Huntington to direct a February production of Lydia Diamond’s “Stick Fly.’’

Bald and handsome at 52, he was named one of People magazine’s 50 most beautiful people in 2004 and was once the face of a Martell Cognac ad campaign. (Sorry, ladies, he has a longtime girlfriend.)

When he arrives, the actors all snap to attention and take their places. Leon, perhaps without knowing it, quietly mouths the lines as they rehearse.

“It’s OK to buy her one drink. That’s being polite. But when you buy two or three drinks, that’s what you call eyeing her,’’ says actor Eugene Lee in the role of Jim Bono, who is quick to point out his married friend Troy’s none-too-subtle flirtations with another woman.

“Long as you’ve known me, you ever known me to chase after women?’’ retorts Troy (played by John Beasley), standing tall.

“Hell yeah! As long as I’ve been knowing you!’’ Jim exclaims to fits of laughter in the rehearsal hall. “You forget I knew you back when.’’

Moving his fingers across the air as if playing a piano, Leon hears a rhythm and poetry in Wilson’s plays, he says, and he won’t leave a scene alone until the actors get it exactly right.

In fact, whenever there’s major confusion about the placement of a prop or a line in the play, Leon makes anyone present in the room - cast, staff - drop and do 10 push-ups, which happened more than once during this particular rehearsal. There’s a monetary fine for anyone whose cellphone rings.

“I was always committed to August’s rhythms and tempos,’’ says Leon. “He said to me, and I will never forget, that he writes his plays always as if something is going to happen, even if nothing happens. He always wanted his audiences to lean forward in their chairs. So I have to force the actors to constantly be in the moment, so it will feel like something is going to happen.’’

Leon, who founded True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta in 2002, says he has directed “Fences’’ four times, but with each time he tries to discover something new and different about the play. For this production, he helped cast what he calls “Wilsonian soldiers’’ - Lee, Beasley, Crystal Fox (Rose) and Bill Nunn (Gabriel), nationally recognized actors who have given solid performances in three or more of Wilson’s plays.

Beasley, a television, film, and stage actor, has played Troy several times and has worked alongside Wilson on numerous projects.

“Kenny is taking me to a place with this character that I’ve never been before, and this is exciting to me,’’ he says in a deep, throaty voice. “I guess I had such a feel for the character I thought I didn’t have to work so hard, but I was wrong.’’

Long relationship
It was more than 20 years ago that Leon first encountered Wilson’s work. Leon was a directing fellow at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., and he took a busload of Baltimore residents, mostly white, to see “Fences’’ on Broadway.

“I was like, ‘Whoa,’ ’’ he recalls. “For the first time, I heard my mother and my grandmother’s rhythms onstage, and I experienced looking at their rituals onstage - whether that be Rose braiding a young girl’s hair or somebody on the porch cooking collard greens. That took theater to a whole other level for me.’’ From that day forward, Leon later wrote, “August was at the center of my artistic life.’’

Leon grew up on a farm in Tallahassee with his grandmother, while his mother, a teenage single mom of three, attempted to make a living elsewhere. It was on this farm that Leon became familiar with the toil of hard living - using outhouses, having no running water, chopping wood for the stove, and sharing bath water - but he also experienced a deep, profound sense of what it means to be in a loving and respectful family.

When he reached high school age, Leon returned to live with his mother, who had settled in St. Petersburg. He was among those who first integrated a wealthy white school.

“At this school, all the plays that they did, they didn’t have roles for blacks except for servants and things like that,’’ he says. “I remember boycotting the theater department, but I wanted to be part of the solution, so I became student council president.’’

Leon went on to Clark Atlanta University, and after attending law school for one year, he decided that theater was his calling. A year after seeing the Broadway production of “Fences,’’ Leon became associate artistic director of Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta, where he pushed to produce Wilson’s work. Wilson responded by visiting often and giving him new scripts year after year.

“It’s like one of those things where you feel like you’ve known someone all your life,’’ Leon says, laughing. “I remember telling him, ‘Man, give me some notes,’ and he was surprised because directors usually don’t want to hear notes from the playwright. The next day he handed me a folder containing a notebook full of notes! I was like ‘No, man! Just tell me a few things!’ ’’

And so began a deeply collaborative relationship, with the two men exchanging ideas on nearly every creative endeavor. Wilson was a champion of regional theaters, says Leon, who maintains that calling Wilson’s work “African-American’’ only serves to marginalize him: His work is about the American experience and is for everyone.

It was in Boston that Leon and Wilson worked out the kinks in “Gem of the Ocean’’ for a 2004 Huntington production before taking it to Broadway, cutting an hour from the original script.

“August liked me because I was fast,’’ Leon says, smiling. “And he would be frustrated with directors who just sat back and tried to please him. I would always push back. After Boston, the night before we opened on Broadway he said he liked working with me and he wanted me to work with him on his last play, ‘Radio Golf.’ This was before the reviews came out. That meant more to me than anything.’’

Leon, however, was already committed to doing an opera at Yale by Toni Morrison. So “Radio Golf’’ premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in May 2005 without him. But Leon returned to take over “Radio Golf’’ when it came to the Huntington for a 2006 production and then went on to Broadway.

Working on the play with Wilson in 2005 was a bittersweet experience, says Leon. When he learned of Wilson’s terminal illness, it devastated him. But Wilson insisted on seeing the play through. Leon would periodically hop on a plane to Seattle, where Wilson lived, and together they would sit on Wilson’s porch, go over notes, and share laughs and memories. Wilson died on Oct. 2, 2005.

Leon says he learned four things from Wilson during that time: “Live life to its fullest, claim your birthright, feel inferior to no one, and die with dignity.’’

Maso was among Wilson’s mourners in Pittsburgh.

“August always said no funeral is complete without fried fish and whiskey,’’ says Maso. “So, before his funeral his wife invited his close friends to this dive, this greasy fried fish place in Pittsburgh. And she served fish and whiskey, cheap whiskey. It was great.’’

FENCES

Presented by Huntington Theatre Company at BU Theatre, Friday through Oct. 11. Tickets: $20-$82.50. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org

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