What's on Stage? A Roundup of NEH-Supported Projects on Playwrights

Article excerpt

THE DRAMATIC VISION OF AUGUST WILSON

by Sandra Shannon Using poetry, the blues, and Romare Bearden's art, August Wilson fuses elements of African American culture into his dramatic biography of African Americans. Of his projected cycle of ten plays, Wilson has completed more than half-Jitney!, Fullerton Street, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Two Trains Running, and two Pulitzer Prize-winners, Fences and The Piano Lesson. Wilson is also a recipient of the National Humanities Medal.

Sandra Shannon, professor of African American literature at Howard University, introduces Wilson's "dramatic agenda," traces his artistic development, and explores his political commitment to African American writing. Her book, which received $30,000 in NEH funding, offers a fifty-year Wilson chronology and an interview with the playwright. The interview allows the reader to hear Wilson speak on topics such as the inspiration for his plays, his twentysix years of writing poetry, and his decalogue, which he views as the "autobiography of myself and my ancestors."

AFRICAN AMERICAN THEATRE DIRECTORY 1816-1960

by Bernard L. Peterson, Jr.

Beginning with the creation of William Brown's African Company, the first African American theater group, Bernard L. Peterson's reference book takes the reader through 145 years of theater history. Milestone groups such as the Williams and Walker Company, the most successful turn-of-the-century musical-show troupe, are highlighted with lists of performers and directors, and brief show synopses. For example, the Directory explains that Williams and Walkers's In Dahomey, their longest-running show, was an unprecedented presentation of native African elements.

Other entries deal with influential individuals such as W.E.B. DuBois, who is credited with founding small theater groups in the 1920s and 1930s and with aiding the creation of a black drama corpus by publishing plays by black authors in Crisis and Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. The directory also traces the history of cultural icons such as the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. The entries cover five hundred African American theatrical organizations, companies, and performing groups, and more than two hundred black-oriented or black-controlled theaters, halls, and performance spaces. The book also lists performing groups by type, such as minstrel companies, community theater groups, and academic stage organizations. Peterson received $30,000 in NEH support for the project.

"THE AMERICAN PLAYWRIGHT 1920-1950," annual seminar for college teachers Professor Howard Stein begins most courses with the opening line of Robert Auletta's play Alberta Radiance in which Alberta says, "I have this human life to live, and I don't know what to do with it." Stein explains that he sees drama as a test of one's humanity. For ten years, Stein has led fifteen college teachers in studying early-twentieth-century playwrights in a six-week summer seminar at Columbia University. The class examines two works apiece from six major playwrights-Rachel Crothers, Langston Hughes, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill, and Tennessee Williams-attends Broadway shows, and meets with actors to discuss their roles. Most recently, Stein brought his class to see the Broadway staging of Miller's Death of a Salesman, O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, and Tennessee Remembered, featuring Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson. The seminar group met with Brian Dennehy to discuss his leading role in Death of a Salesman, and with Kevin Spacey to talk about The Iceman Cometh. Stein received an NEH grant of $117,313 for the seminar.

"When the tyrant of Syracuse asked how he could discover what Athenians were like, Plato advised him to read the comedies of Aristophanes," says Stein. "If someone wanted to know what Americans were like in the first half of the twentieth century, I would recommend to that person, read the playwrights from 1920 to 1950. …