August Wilson’s death in late 2005 was a major blow to American theater. It was also a sucker punch to black actors on Broadway. For almost a quarter century, beginning with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in 1984, Wilson could be counted on to produce plays that centered on the African-American experience, and thus employed either exclusively or primarily black casts.
With this season’s “Radio Golf,” the last of his plays has its debut on Broadway. (“Jitney,” a 10th play but the first written, was performed Off Broadway.) Over the years, the Wilson oeuvre has earned 45 Tony noms and eight wins. Tellingly, six of the wins went to thesps, as did most of the noms. Though no one is suggesting that Wilson’s primary goal was putting black actors on the Broadway stage, there’s no denying that his absence leaves a palpable void.
“It’s certainly worrisome that there are so few roles for black actors to begin with, and there will be fewer now,” says “Radio Golf” producer Rocco Landesman, who heads up Jujamcyn Theaters and spearheaded the naming of Broadway’s August Wilson Theater in 2005. “The hope is that Wilson’s plays are going to be revived from time to time.”
With notable exceptions like Lorraine Hansberry’s classic “A Raisin in the Sun” (1959) and Suzan-Lori Parks’ two-hander “Topdog/Underdog” (2002), no other dramas put black actors front and center the way Wilson’s do. And no other playwright did it with such consistency over the years.
“Wilson was one of the major playwriting talents of our time,” says Landesman, “and the fact that he was black created opportunities for black actors that you’re not going to have. We need to find another August Wilson fast, and I don’t think that’s going to be too easy.”