Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective

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Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Watershed

From dictionary.com:

wa·ter·shed ( P ) Pronunciation Key (wôtr-shd, wtr-)n.
1. A ridge of high land dividing two areas that are drained by different river systems. Also called water parting.
2. The region draining into a river, river system, or other body of water.
3. A critical point that marks a division or a change of course; a turning point: “a watershed in modern American history, a time that... forever changed American social attitudes” (Robert Reinhold).
[Probably translation of German Wasserscheide : Wasser, water + Scheide, divide, parting.]

We can all pout over the difficulties August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean" had getting to Broadway, where it had a run that certainly wasn't commercially successful. Cryin' shame! But it shouldn't stop us from recognizing that a watershed moment in mainstream American drama is upon us.

On April 22nd, Wilson's play "Radio Golf" will premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre. It completes his 10-play cycle of works set in each decade of the 20th Century.

I remember seeing "Fences" on Broadway in the 80s, and I attended Yale School of Drama at a time when Wilson was a fairly regular presence. I was skeptical then of his plan to write the cycle. I thought he should allow himself to respond more directly to the moment, that he shouldn't lock himself into something that could tie up his artistic impulses for so long.

I was an idiot.

August Wilson had a vision, and he's on the verge of completing it. The fact that his plays have often struggled commercially, primarily due to the changing economics of Broadway, only makes his clarity of purpose more inspiring. He never wavered in the slightest; he has been the truest model of a playwright-as-artist we've seen. He has earned his place as one of the mainstream 20th century greats: Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, August Wilson, and I would add Edward Albee. You don't have to like everything they do -- by all means, don't -- but you can't question their prominence and their influence.

It's time to reflect on this achievement, and I'm sure major mainstream media will do so, if not all at once. The Boston Globe has a long, biographical feature on Wilson, including an astonishing fact that The Huntington in Boston had never produced the work of an African-American playwright until "Joe Turner." It will take time to absorb his cycle, now that it's complete. I'm looking forward to putting all the play texts in front of me, and going through them not in the order they were written, but starting with the earliest-set, "Gem," and continuing through to "Radio Golf," set in the 90s. I'm sure I'll have a very different impression of them than I have individually.

We're at a watershed moment in American theatre. Recognize it. Enjoy it.