Scribe returns to Yale Rep with wrap of 10-play cycle

When the curtain rises this Thursday at Yale Repertory Theater, history will be made. For the first time, audiences will see “Radio Golf,” the play that finishes August Wilson’s 10-part, decade-by-decade chronicle of African-Americans in the 20th century. As they’ve wended through history, the plays have garnered two Pulitzers, 2,000 Broadway performances and a reputation for their author as one of America’s great writers.

Set in 1990s Pittsburgh, “Golf” both closes the cycle and returns it to Yale Rep, which boosted its own reputation by debuting the first five plays in the series. Anyone might agree that this is more than just another production.

Anyone, that is, except Wilson himself. “I don’t have this sense of, ‘Ah! I’ve done it!’ ” he chuckles. “I don’t have a sense of something coming to completion. … I say, ‘Hey, I’m glad that’s over.’ What’s next?’ “

He’s already got ideas for new plays, a novel and even a satirical film about civil rights figure Rosa Parks. While this new work will lie outside the cycle, it promises to continue the cycle’s goal, which Wilson defines as creating “a dramatic and poetic cultural history of black America.”

Indeed, all of Wilson’s work — even the obscure pre-cycle plays — grapples with the black identity. So while “Radio Golf” may be closing a chapter, it’s also part of an ever-developing story.

And this part of the story has developed quickly. When “Radio Golf” started rehearsals at the Rep, its script was unfinished. Wilson knew much of the play would emerge at Yale, but he admits getting far behind on the first draft.

The reason was this winter’s Broadway run of “Gem of the Ocean.” “I had just gotten home,” he laughs, “and they started talking about a draft of the new play. And I said, ‘Man, I don’t wanna write no play!’ I mean, I did have some idea of it, but I didn’t have it down on paper.”

Soon, however, he gave a plot outline and rough scenes to the designers and director Timothy Douglas. Ready for the unexpected, the team dove in.

Set designer David Gallo, a “cycle regular” who’s returning for “Golf,” calls this spontaneity a highlight of the Wilson experience. It certainly allows for unorthodox collaboration: During a presentation to Yale Drama students, Gallo learned about script revisions that had occurred that afternoon. Faced with a major set change, he cheerfully mused, “Working with August is like working with James Brown’s band. Key change, key change: You’ve just gotta keep up.”

Fortunately for the actors, “keeping up” is at the heart of “Radio Golf’s” story. The play follows real estate developers who are modernizing their crumbling Pittsburgh neighborhood. Their solution is exchanging ancient buildings for high-rises and trading neighborhood traditions for community golf lessons.

Yet their dreams of progress are crippled by doubt. Douglas says the characters worry because they “don’t know what the future looks like, which is kind of perfect because the actors (haven’t always) known the future of the play.” In other words, since the cast literally couldn’t predict what would happen to their characters, they could relate to the fear of an uncertain future.

Wilson has now completed the script. So far, it’s been striking deep chords. Actor Richard Brooks — best known for his “Law & Order” perfs but also a 20-year Wilson vet — sees immediate relevance in his character, real estate developer Harmond Wilkes. “The ability for black people to succeed,” he says, “is at a level we couldn’t have imagined … and what do you do with the money once you have it? I see Harmond as representing the enthusiasm to take advantage of opportunity.”

Despite this concession to success, Brooks says the play’s true purpose is “exploring the glass ceiling of ownership.” As Wilson himself explains, “I’ve had to re-examine my thoughts regarding the black middle class. … In order to have this (economic) rebirth, we may have to get rid of tradition.” That, he insists, would be a disaster: “If you don’t know who you are, you’re lost.”

His collaborators agree that nothing promotes the cultural roots of African-Americans quite like Wilson’s writing. Douglas asserts, “We have been severed from our ancestry, but August’s work opens a portal to let that legacy be seen.” No doubt the director’s own history with the cycle will help him find the complexity in “Radio Golf.” As an acting student at Yale Drama, he understudied on three Wilson premieres, making him another link between the school and the writer.

Yale’s part in “Golf” is no accident. Wilson says he always hoped the last play would premiere on the same stage as the first. He compares this journey to a baseball player who has finally run home.

“Fortunately,” he grins, “James Bundy (the Rep’s artistic director) thought it was a good idea also, or that nice poetic metaphor would have just been shot to hell.”

Bundy, in fact, was eager to have the playwright back. Within days of each other, he and Wilson had both contacted Ben Mordecai — the Rep’s associate director and a longtime Wilson producer — about closing the cycle at Yale. The old team easily reconnected.

As for the fruit of that reunion, the Rep has high hopes “Golf” will provide both an artistic and financial boon. Based on early sales, the latter seems likely. The show’s first preview, for example, has sold 92 percent of its 500 seats.

Box office goals for “Golf” have it moving over 3,000 single tickets and 1,200 group packages. That’s twice the hopes pinned on the rest of the Rep season, which included the premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s Pulitzer nominee, “The Clean House.”

Top seats go for $40, so if “Golf” keeps its momentum, it could bank low- to mid-six figures. Prospects are equally strong for the show’s July transfer to L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum.

Of course, if the show turns a regional profit, attention will move to Broadway, where soaring costs make plays a notorious risk. For example, “Gem’s” price tag was over $2 million, which the show’s short run could not recoup.

Still, Wilson’s attorney John Breglio reports that the playwright’s Gotham backers are “very excited” about “Golf.” “But it’s impossible,” he notes, “to say what (the play’s) future will be until it has been seen.”

For now, then, it’s enough to let “Radio Golf” premiere and know that somewhere in the house, August Wilson will be planning what’s next.

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