For several years now, I have been encouraging my friend TimBen Boylston the executive director of Santa Clarita’s Canyon Theater Guild to use his stage to introduce the great playwrights to the people of the Santa Clarita Valley. In many different ways, he has said that if great plays were to come to Santa Clarita the local people would stop going to the theater.
In many other different ways, I have been telling TimBen that the local people of Santa Clarita had a lot more need of the real theater of the world than he is assuming.
Specifically, it has been a problem of the great playwrights being allowed to be staged in America. August Wilson is the foremost among them, and he may be the greatest playwright America has ever known. And surely it is not just the Canyon Theater Guild that has effectively banned Wilson as well playwrights of his level from being shared with audiences across America. The ban is in effect among regional theaters all over the nation, stage companies that seemed to have adopted an old Soviet style of limiting theater productions to the roster of high school theater productions.
But now Hollywood has chipped in to help introduce the theater of August Wilson to Americans, specifically by making his play “Fences” into a very successful Hollywood movie.
Of course, this is not the first time Hollywood has chipped in to free a great American playwright from being held hostage by the Broadway elite and allow him to speak to the rest of America. The actress Elizabeth Taylor almost single-handedly created a national audience for the great American playwrights Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee with her searing respective film roles as Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and in her equally fiery role as Martha in Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Marlon Brando and Paul Newman have done the same for Williams in their respective film roles for “Streetcar Named Desire" and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Albee is not be as easy to transfer to film as is Williams, because Albee is more of an interior writer, while Williams is given to big external characters that lend themselves to film creation.
But the plays of August Wilson do have what it takes to go on the big screen, the broad unravelling of character, as “Fences” has proven.
Moreover, other plays by August have a strong musical component that have traditionally successfully been amplified and heightened by cinematic translation.
Specifically, the play that brought August Wilson his first Broadway hit– “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – brings back the ambience of African-American music and its star Ma Rainey at the turning of a new world-warring century. The play brings the music to a grand scale, just as a Wilson later play “Seven Fences” brings its music to a just as successful intimate scale,
So Canyon Theater Guild, and the rest of you regional theaters across America, you need no longer fear staging putting August Wilson’s marvelous plays on stage for the benefit of Americans. Americans need to hear what he says. And those high school plays you have been putting on are simply too outdated to really address what Americans need to hear right now. Hollywood has run interference for you in bringing “Fences” to America in a movie that is as chewable as popcorn, so you will no longer shock anyone by bringing “Fences” to the stage. And if you do not have access to all the African-American actors to fill the entire roster of Wilson’s African-American roster of characters, simply use actors of any race. American theater at its greatest is anything but wimpy – it can address any problem, and does.
Chris Sharp- Commentary
Chris Sharp is an Educator and a prize-winning professional writer. He has recently published a new book titled How to Like a Human Being . His commentaries represent his own opinions and not necessarily the views of any organization he may be affiliated with or those of The SCV Beacon