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Theatre Preview: The Short North Stage, With Collaborators, Presents a Year-Long Celebration of August Wilson in 2016

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theatre Preview: The Short North Stage, With Collaborators, Presents a Year-Long Celebration of August Wilson in 2016Gem of the Ocean, one of the plays during the August Wilson Festival, and Mark Clayton Southers.
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Pittsburgh native August Wilson (1945-2005) was arguably the most important playwright of the late 20th century. His 10-play Pittsburgh cycle, starting with Jitney (premiered in 1982) and ending with Radio Golf (premiered in 2005) covered 100 years of black American, life with a combination of language and scope that had never been seen on the stage. This year, Columbus gets to benefit from The August Wilson Festival – A Celebration. The celebration is a wide-ranging survey of Wilson’s work (7 of the 10 plays) along with satellite events to throw light on Wilson’s contexts, passions, and influences, with Short North Stage at the festival’s center.

As befits the scope and range of Wilson’s world, Short North Stage is working with a veritable who’s who of astounding collaborators to pull this off. First and foremost is Mark Clayton Southers, an award-winning playwright and director who served as Artistic Director at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture from 2010-2013, founded and artistic directed the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, and most recently seen in Columbus directing what’s still my favorite piece performed at Short North Stage, Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s Passing Strange. Southers will serve as Artistic Director for the festival and said, “Mr. Wilson’s work reaches across all ethnic lines in his ability to speak to the common man,” says Southers. “Truth, honor, commitment and courage are some of the many themes that make his work so special. I’m delighted to help give Columbus the chance to be a fly on the wall, observing his characters and being enriched by Black Culture.”

Hugely involved in this endeavor is local company PAST Productions, founded and run by Patricia Wallace-Winbush, Tony Roseboro, Scott Porter, and Truman Winbush, Jr.. PAST is doing three plays of the cycle at Short North Stage’s Garden Theater, Two Trains Running, Jitney, and Radio Golf. The other piece in the interlocking theatrical puzzle is Denison University’s theatre department. Denison, chaired by Mark Evans Bryan, are staging perhaps Wilson’s best-known play, The Piano Lesson, first at the University and then at the Garden, in a very rare direct local collaboration between a professional theatre company and an academic institution.

Beyond those theatrical collaborators, Southers and Short North Stage have reached across the rest of the art scene to engage institutions and artists for help providing illuminations on Wilson’s worldview through other media. Wilson said, to The Paris Review, “My influences have been what I call my four Bsthe primary one being the blues, then Borges, Baraka, and Bearden. From Borges, those wonderful gaucho stories from which I learned that you can be specific as to a time and place and culture and still have the work resonate with the universal themes of love, honor, duty, betrayal, etcetera. From Amiri Baraka I learned that all art is political, though I don’t write political plays. That’s not what I’m about. From Romare Bearden I learned that the fullness and richness of everyday ritual life can be rendered without compromise or sentimentality.” 

Three of those four appear in the opening celebrations for the festival on January 13th. At 2:00pm at the Columbus Museum of Art, chief curator David Stark will present a lecture on Romare Bearden’s collage work using examples from the CMA’s permanent collection before their being displayed indefinitely alongside works of Columbus artist Aminah Robinson and with dramatic readings from Wilson’s work. At 7:00pm that evening at Short North Stage, with support from the Johnstone Fund for New Music, drummer Mark Lomax II leads his trio through a new 7-part composition based around Amiri Baraka’s landmark text Blues People. On a personal note, Amiri Baraka was the same kind of revelation for this writer as when I first came into contact with August Wilson, one of the foremost poets, critics, and playwrights who splintered my world apart and left me to figure out where the pieces went. One of my foremost cultural experiences to this day was seeing Baraka read at the King Arts Complex when I was in college; providing music for that event was a local combo called Blacklist, asked by the guest of honor to back him for his set, an early collaboration by January 13th’s composer Mark Lomax and saxophonist Eddie Bayard, still in his trio. These are two events not to be missed by anyone interested in Columbus culture and culture at large.

After this opening ceremony, curtains open on the first play of the festival the next day, a reading of The Gem of the Ocean, the first play chronologically in the cycle, directed by Southers. I saw Gem of the Ocean at the Goodman in Chicago when I was visiting during college, before its transfer to New York, and it opened my eyes to new ways that poetic language and myth can infuse the innate physicality of the theatre. This story of Aunt Ester (285 years old at the time of the play) and her guidance of Citizen Barlow, just come up from Alabama on a search for redemption, in 1904, is something I’ve read nearly a dozen times and still marvel at.

I could say that for every play being done here and the music, art, and discussion around it. This is one of the most important projects launched in Columbus art in my memory and it should cherished and supported.

A full list of events follows. For tickets and more info, please visit http://www.shortnorthstage.org/

Listing of Festival Events:

January 13: Opening of Romare Bearden/Aminah Robinson Exhibition extended display, Columbus Museum of Art, lecture at 2:00 p.m. (Exhibit is ongoing throughout 2016.) $10 for CMA members, $20 for general public. (Museum admission is extra. It’s free for members, $14 for general public, $8 for seniors and college students, $5 for school students and free for children 5 and under.)

January 13: Blues People by the Mark Lomax Trio on Wednesday, January 13 at 7:00 p.m. at the Garden Theater. Free

January 14-17: Gem of the Ocean (a Short North Stage reading), Garden Theater, 8:00 p.m. January 17 at 3 p.m. Tickets: $15.

January 15: Festival opening reception, Garden Theater, 6:00 p.m. Free.

March 10-20: Two Trains Running (PAST Productions full play) Garden Theater, Details to be announced.

June 2-21: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Short North Stage full play) Garden Theater Green Room, evenings at 8 pm, matinees at 3 p.m. $25-$30.

August 17: Original Blues Composition by Mark Lomax, presented by Johnstone Fund for New Music, Garden Theater, 7 p.m. Free.

August 18-21: Jitney (PAST Productions reading), Garden Theater Green Room, details to be announced.

September 8-25: Fences (Short North Stage season opener), Garden Theater, evenings at 8 pm, matinees at 3 p.m.

October 13-23: The Piano Lesson (Denison University full production) October 13-15 at Denison; Oct 21-23 at Garden Theater, 8 p.m. details to be announced.

December 1-17: Radio Golf (PAST Productions full play) Garden Theater, Details to be announced.

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