Two of the work's featured players, John Earl Jelks and Anthony Chisholm — who saw the show through a pre-Broadway national tour from its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre — are now carrying the play's proverbial torch for their beloved playwright and have been nominated for Tony Awards for their efforts.
"It's been so rewarding every city. We knew we had a really tight show, but we also knew to prove it to the world, we needed to get to Broadway," said Jelks, who returned to the work following a hernia operation that prevented him from appearing in the Boston run.
His fellow co-star and Tony nominee Chisholm shared his determination. "It's been an incredibly inspired journey, a heavy-hearted one. August was my friend. I've been working with him on his plays since 1990. He literally died writing this play, so I have a responsibility to see him through."
Both Jelks and Chisholm have previously worked on Wilson's dramas. Jack Viertel — who, with Jujamcyn Theaters, produced Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, King Hedley II, Gem of the Ocean and now Radio Golfon Broadway — also kept coming back to the playwright's works.
Why? Viertel answers: "August's plays are very political, deeply involved in the history of whichever decade they are set in, but so subtly that what comes across are these family relationships that everybody has. So there's a universality in them that holds together for people so they come back to be with those people." "It's the truth. He writes the truth," offers Jelks. "He's fearless about writing how Black Americans see themselves and how they speak — they talk about their pain, their glory, their life, their kids — and how they have assimilated into America in a way that you can't take it away from them."
"Someone asked me — a year or more before he died — 'What would the world be like without August Wilson?'," shared Chisholm. "And I said, 'It would be a world with a hole in its heart.'"
The absence of Wilson — who would normally be in the rehearsal room — was undeniably felt by all. Jelks revealed, "I wanted to be able to turn to him and say, 'What does this really mean? What is he really saying?' but he left it all on the page."
Viertel concurred. "The biggest challenge for us was not having him here. Although he finished the play, he was a playwright who was very involved with every aspect of a production. He had very strong and articulate opinions about music between scenes, the costumes, the lighting, the blocking and we — [director] Kenny Leon and the whole team — were in the position of every night sort of looking up in the sky and saying, 'Is that what you meant, August?' And hoping that he was saying yes."
For Chisholm, that question has been answered. "I can feel his presence inside of me. He has such determination as a writer that the power of that is still here and has journeyed through all these cities until our arrival here. I feel him smiling in kind of a universal completion for him."