The new work by the then-young playwright was Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and the play — which would mark the first of the epic ten-play cycle — would win the contest. The final play in the series and for the playwright, Radio Golf, comes now to Broadway courtesy Wilson's longtime producers Jujamcyn Theaters.
(Wilson's widow, Costanza Romero, will be joined by friends, collaborators and more as they commemorate what would have been his 62nd birthday, April 27, with August Wilson Day.)
Viertel encountered Wilson's work again while serving as dramaturg for Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum, receiving The Piano Lesson as a possible production for the company. "We wanted to do it, but [Wilson's longtime director] Lloyd Richards decided he didn't want to do it in a non-proscenium situation. Then I, quite shortly after that, got hired by Jujamcyn, and I came here committed to the idea that we would do that play."
Following the first performance of that play at Yale Repertory Theatre, Viertel introduced himself to the scribe and shared his delight with a scene he had read in an early draft. "I said 'Well, that one piece of the play completely floored me' and he said 'Oh, well I rewrote that. That's not in the play anymore,'" Viertel remembered. "So that was my introduction to August Wilson."
From that play, Jujamcyn Theaters would go on to produce the Broadway runs of the rest of Wilson's works. "I decided I was never going to work with a more gifted playwright, so I wanted to do them all." As the cycle's end drew near, Viertel recalls Wilson's plans. "I knew that when we did King Hedley II that there were two plays left and they were the first and the last. He said to me, 'I'm going to put Aunt Esther onstage,' and I said that was exciting, and we never really talked about the last play until Gem of the Ocean was well on its way. At which point, he said, 'I'm writing this play called Radio Golf, and I said, 'That's a strange title.' He said, 'My daughter thought it up.' She was about six or eight at the time.
"[Wilson] said, 'I have to get into what happened when the middle class and the upper middle class began to actually exist in a significant way toward the end of the century. It's just not a complete story without that part. But I think these people' — it was interesting because he always suggested the play was writing him, not that he was writing the play — 'I think these people are related to the people in Gem of the Ocean. That's all I know about them so far, somehow they are related.' I thought that was an interesting idea. He had begun to more and more include characters and ideas from other plays as the cycle went on."
Another point of note is Viertel would write letters to the playwright after reading Wilson's works: "August re-wrote plays in a funny way to me; if you asked him the right question or expressed confusion about something in the play, he often would write a different scene or a different take on the scene that never answered the question directly, but made the question go away.
"It was almost a point of pride, I think, that he would digest your note and give you back something that was a million times more original and unexpected than most of us who aren't playwrights would ever think of."
Wilson, according to the producer, was a "very leisurely rewriter. I think he believed — and I think that was right — that it helped him to be able to watch some of the play and then rewrite and then do it again and rewrite some more of it."
But, Viertel sensed the playwright knew after he had completed the first draft of Radio Golf that time was a luxury he would not have for his final work. "For all I know, he may have known it before but we never talked about it," said Viertel.
Following a Yale Rep run, Wilson went to work and completely overhauled the play before its run at Los Angeles' Taper. "It was like a whole new play. And the difference was much more marked than it would have been in a typical process."
"He never saw the play at the Taper because he was getting progressively weaker, but once the play was in rehearsal, he was communicating constantly with Todd Kreidler — who was his dramaturg — and [director] Kenny Leon and continuing to write and rework things all through the rehearsal process. Then after the play opened, he continued to work."
With the help of Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson and the theatres where the work would play up to and including Broadway, the funding was gathered to allow the show to go back into rehearsal the week before the close in L.A. to put in the changes straight from Wilson's pen.
"He was writing and faxing pages, and Kenny Leon and Todd were going back and forth to Seattle while the play was running in Los Angeles. And we did indeed go back into rehearsal and played the final week or weekend with a new text. There were some changes that were left behind that didn't get into the play that he did that went into [the] Seattle [run]. By the time the play opened in Los Angeles, probably 85 percent of the rewriting was done and the rest was just done as he could afford to do it, as his health permitted."
Wilson died Oct. 2, 2005, before his concluding drama would reach his hometown of Seattle and before the work would make it to Broadway. Jujamcyn Theaters renamed the Virginia Theatre in Wilson's honor.