Few playwrights have sparked the careers of so many fine actors as did August Wilson. From Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 1984 to Radio Golf, produced on Broadway in 2007, two years after the writer’s death, his ten-play cycle of African-American life during the 20th century has proved a springboard for many an actor’s career. A few have gone on to film and television stardom, while others simply enjoyed a fruitful stage career after their first Wilson credit. Playbill.com took a look at all the Wilson ensembles from over the years and selected eight of the most prominent of the playwright’s artistic interpreters.
Wilson credits: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, 1988
Where Is She Now: Angela Bassett was an unknown when she took the part of boarding house owner Martha Pentacost, part of the ensemble of the Broadway premiere of Wilson’s 1911-set Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Her television and film credits began to accumulate directly thereafter. She was part of the cast Boyz N The Hood, the groundbreaking 1991 independent film about life in a Los Angeles ghetto. She played Betty Shabazz, the wife of Malcolm X, in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic about the civil rights leader. By 1994, she had received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of music legend Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It. Since 2013, she has been a cast member of the anthology television series American Horror Story. In 2011, she returned to Broadway in the historical drama about Martin Luther King, Jr., The Mountaintop.
Charles S. Dutton
Wilson credits: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, 1984; The Piano Lesson, 1990; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, 2003.
Where Is He Now: Dutton was the first actor to achieve stardom through work in a Wilson play. His barnstorming performance as trumpeter Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom—Wilson’s first play on Broadway—won him wide acclaim, a Drama Desk Award and a Tony Award nomination. He returned to Wilson and Broadway as Boy Willie, the central figure in The Piano Lesson. Again, he won critical praise and Tony and Drama Desk nominations. He parlayed that success into his own television series, Roc, which ran from 1991 to 1994. He was nominated for a Golden Globe Award and Emmy Award for repeating his performance as Boy Willie in the 1995 television version of The Piano Lesson. He has won Emmy Awards three times, for The Corner (2000), The Practice (2002) and Without a Trace (2003). In 2003, he returned to Broadway in the play that began it all, again playing Levee in Ma Rainey. Recently, most of his work has been on television.
Wilson credits: The Piano Lesson, 1990
Where Is He Now: After performing in a trio of Shakespeare plays in repertory on Broadway in the late ‘80s, the Cincinnati-born Carroll finally drew critical attention playing Lymon, the sweet-natured friend of Charles S. Dutton’s boisterous Boy Willie in the Broadway debut of Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. He was nominated for both a Tony and Drama Desk Award for the portrayal. In 1991, he followed Dutton to the small screen, playing Joey Emerson for three seasons on Roc, Dutton’s sitcom vehicle. He continued in television as Dr. Keith Wilkes for four seasons (1996-2000) of the long-running hospital drama Chicago Hope. Following short stints on the series Welcome to New York and The Agency, he settled in for a long haul as part of the NCIS universe of crime dramas. The show began in 2003 and Carroll joined the cast in 2008 as assistant director Leon Vance. He has also appeared on the spinoffs NCIS: New Orleans and NCIS: Los Angeles.
Wilson credits: Seven Guitars, 1996; King Hedley II, 2001; Fences, 2010
Where Is She Now: Davis is arguably the biggest acting name to have come out of the extended family of performers associated with August Wilson’s plays. She first gained notice for playing Vera in Seven Guitars in 1996, netting Tony and Drama Desk nominations. She won those same awards for her performance in King Hedley II, five years later. Her film career began with small roles in films like Far From Heaven and Traffic. But by the late ‘00s, she was getting better roles, and received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Doubt (2009) and The Help (2012). By 2014, her rise to stardom was complete when she assumed the leading role in the television series How to Get Away With Murder. She won an Emmy Award the next year for playing a criminal defense professor in the series. Wilson has continued to bring Davis luck. When she returned to Broadway in a revival of Fences in 2010, she won her second Tony and Drama Desk. She will repeat her performance in an upcoming film version of the drama, directed by Denzel Washington.
Wilson credits: Jitney, 2000 (Off-Broadway); King Hedley II, 2001; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, 2003; Seven Guitars, 2006 (Off-Broadway); King Hedley II, 2007 (Off-Broadway); Fences, 2010
Where Is He Now: Henderson, while late in joining the Wilson acting family, may have performed in more Wilson productions in New York than any other actor to date. His performance as the mealy-mouthed, shifty Turnbo in the taxi-stand-centered drama Jitney in 2000 was a standout, and he has worked steadily on stage ever since. He was in the original Broadway production of King Hedley II in 2001. When Signature Theatre Company devoted its 2006-07 season to Wilson’s works, Henderson appeared in two of the plays, Seven Guitars and King Hedley II. For his performance in the 2010 Broadway revival of Fences, he won a Tony nomination. He achieved a notable non-Wilson success in 2014 as part of the cast of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Stephen Adly Guirgis play Between Riverside and Crazy. He was nominated for nearly every theatre award for his performance as Walter “Pops” Washington and won the Lucille Lortel Award.
Wilson credits: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, 1988
Where Is He Now: Aside from Angela Bassett, Delroy Lindo is the best known actor to have emerged from the cast of the Broadway debut of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Lindo was one of four actors from the cast to be nominated for a Tony Award. Thereafter, he began to appear in film and television. He began an association with director Spike Lee beginning with 1992’s Malcolm X. The year 1995 was particularly fruitful for Lindo, as he appeared in both Lee’s Clockers and the hit comedy Get Shorty. Further films included Ransom, The Cider House Rules, A Life Less Ordinary and Gone in 60 Seconds. He was due to return to the work of Wilson in 2004, when he was cast in Gem of the Ocean, but was replaced during rehearsals of a pre-Broadway production of Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company.
Wilson credits: Seven Guitars, 1996; Gem of the Ocean, 2004; How I Learned What I Learned, 2013
Where Is He Now: Santiago-Hudson won a Tony Award for his sly, funny performance as Canewell in the Broadway bow of Seven Guitars. In the years that followed, he forged a uniquely deep relationship with Wilson’s material. In addition to acting in Gem of the Ocean in 2004, he began directing Wilson’s work, including Seven Guitars in 2006 and The Piano Lesson in 2012, both Off-Broadway. He won a Lucille Lortel Award for the latter. His connection to Wilson was furthered when he impersonated the writer himself in the autobiographical piece How I Learned What I Learned. He is also the most notable Wilson actor to follow the playwright into his profession. Santiago-Hudson wrote and starred in Lackawanna Blues in 2001. On television, he was a regular on the series Castle.
Courtney B. Vance
Wilson redits: Fences, 1987
Where Is He Now: Vance earned attention playing Corey, the son of James Earl Jones’ character in Fences. He was nominated for a Tony Award for the performance. He won another plum role in 1990, playing the duplicitous schemer Paul in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, netting another Tony nomination. (He finally won the Tony when he returned to Broadway in 2013 in Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy.) Vance has worked regularly on television since the late ‘80s, including the 1995 TV version of The Piano Lesson, and a regular role on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. But he arguably won the greatest acclaim of his career just recently, when playing lawyer Johnnie Cochran in American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson. In 1997, he married fellow Wilson actor, Angela Bassett.