In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt asked Booker T. Washington to dinner and it made headlines because a black person had never been invited to eat at the White House before. Now, of course, Barack Obama has a real chance of moving into the White House. And that is one way you can measure the progress that black people have made in this country over the last century. Another way is through August Wilson’s remarkable 10 plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century and together creating an emotional epic of the African American experience over the past 100 years. All but one of them (Jitney) opened on Broadway, two won Pulitzers, eight earned Tony nominations for Best Play and all of them have created more opportunities for black actors to do dramatic work on Broadway than anything else in the history of theater in this country. James Earl Jones, Laurence Fishburne, and Viola Davis won Tonys for their performances in Wilson plays; twice as many of their colleagues have been nominated.
Wilson was still revising Radio Golf, the final installment of his cycle, when he died from liver cancer two years ago at just 60. But this month the play opened at the Cort Theatre and it has won generally favorable reviews and four Tony nominations, including Best Play. I’ve been a fan of Wilson’s work ever since I saw his first Broadway show, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, also at the Cort, back in 1985. I love the lush poetry of his language, the humorous way his characters spin their yarns, his compassion for their struggles to hold on to their dreams and their dignity, and the fact that I can see people on stage who look like me. But I can’t say that Radio Golf will go on the list of my favorites alongside Fences and the majestic Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. I felt as though much of what he says in this new play he’s said before and said it better in the past.
It was hard for me to write that last sentence and, in fact, it’s been hard to write this entry because Wilson was a great, great talent. And I feel indebted to him for the many wonderful nights he’s given me in the theater. I mourn his passing, as I do those of Lloyd Richards, who directed Wilson's first six plays and died last year; and Ben Mordecai, who produced them and died in 2005. The theater community has already honored Wilson by naming a Broadway theater after him. The Signature Theater Company devoted its past season to his work. But I think the tribute he—and I know I—would most appreciate would be for producers to invite other gifted black, Asian and Hispanic playwrights into the white house that Broadway still too often is.