Two weeks before the Memphis premiere of Charles S. Dutton's one-man show Goodnight Mr. Wilson, Cookie Ewing, the Rhodes College theater professor recently honored by the Memphis Arts Council with a lifetime achievement award, sat in her office and worried.
Would the McCullough Ballroom be too large and impersonal for the celebrated actor's intimate tribute to August Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Fences, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom? Or would Rhodes' McCoy Theater, a 200-seat black box, be too small?
Ewing wants to see Memphis turn out for "The August Wilson Celebration," a four-day festival conceived by the Hattiloo Theatre's executive producer Ekundayo Bandele and produced with the assistance of Rhodes College and the University of Memphis. But she worries. And so does Bandele.
"I had a friend ask, 'Who is August Wilson?'" Bandele says, a hint of frustration in his voice. "And this was an educated person with a post-graduate degree."
In spite of his obvious accomplishments, Wilson's brand penetration is hard to gauge. He was born and reared in Pittsburgh, and his major works were produced in Seattle before moving to New York. Although The Piano Lesson was adapted for television by PBS, none of Wilson's plays were ever adapted to the big screen. And with the exception of Fences and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, his groundbreaking plays chronicling the urbanization of black culture in America have rarely been produced in the Memphis area.
"But why not Memphis?" Ewing asks, considering the author's legacy. "Wilson's plays may be set in Pittsburgh, but they were all influenced by the blues. His characters have come up through Mississippi at some point. That's why we're putting together the trip to Clarksdale. That's why Joyce Cobb is going to talk about August Wilson and the blues.
"Wilson also was influenced by the [Harlem] painter Romare Bearden," Ewing says. "And Rhodes has Professor David McCarthy who is an authority on Bearden's work."
"We live in a world where most people, when they think of black theater, think of Tyler Perry," Bandele says. "Wilson was the counterbalance to that kind of theater. He is the equivalent of Richard Wright."
Bandele and U of M African-American literature professor Ladrica Menson-Furr have collaborated on a project called "The August Wilson Songbook," an 11-song revue exploring Wilson's work through music and scholarship.
"We've got one opening song and a song for every play in the cycle," Bandele says. "We're using songs like Ma Rainey's 'Prove It on Me' and W.C. Handy's 'Joe Turner Blues.' For Fences, we're going to do the song 'Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball.'"
Bandele and Menson-Furr had hoped to include excerpts from Wilson's plays but were unable to secure the rights. "We wanted to perform a scene, then have some commentary but were told that even if we used an excerpt we'd have to pay the full royalty for every play we referenced," Bandele says. "I can't remember how much it was going to cost us, but it was a lot."
A staged reading of Wilson's Gem of the Ocean was also canceled due to ongoing problems with the Wilson estate.
In spite of minor frustrations and setbacks, "The August Wilson Celebration" kicks off Wednesday, September 19th, at 8 p.m. with a solo performance by Charles S. Dutton at Rhodes' McCoy Theater.
On Thursday, September 20th, at 6 p.m., Sandra Shannon of Howard University delivers the keynote address at the U of M's Rose Theater, followed by selections from "The August Wilson Songbook."
Friday, September 21st, begins with a 10 a.m. lecture on "Location, Regionalism, and the Delta's Influence on August Wilson's Characters" at the McCoy Theater.
The day culminates with a staged reading of Joe Turner's Come and Gone at Art Village Gallery, 412 S. Main. There is also an 11 a.m. bus tour to Clarksdale ($40, reservations required).
Saturday, September 22nd, begins at 10 a.m. at the McCoy Theater with a continental breakfast followed by discussions on Bearden, Wilson's female characters, and the topic "Music and August Wilson."
The festival concludes Saturday evening with a performance of "The August Wilson Songbook" at the Hattiloo Theater at 8 p.m. and a finale party with Joyce Cobb at Marshall Arts Gallery at 10 p.m.
For more information on "The August Wilson Celebration," call 843-3834.