The Wilson Cycle: History staged, history made

The Wilson Cycle: History staged, history made

By John Moore
Denver Post Theater Critic

Posted: 03/22/2009 12:30:00 AM MDT

Israel Hicks, on the set of the DCTC’s upcoming “Radio Golf,” “is one of the unsung stars of the American theater,” says artistic director Kent Thompson. ( Joe Amon, The Denver Post )

History is being made at the Denver Center Theatre Company. And the actors there not only feel it.

“We know it,” said Harvy Blanks, “and we can put our finger right on the pulse of it: Israel Hicks.”

On Thursday, when Denver’s Tony-winning regional theater company opens “Radio Golf,” Hicks will become the first director in the world to have helmed August Wilson’s entire 10-play, 10-decade exploration of the black experience in America for the same theater company.

Thus culminates an artistic odyssey by the Denver Center that has spanned two decades and two artistic directors. For a company to have presented Wilson’s entire 20th-century cycle through the singular vision of one director is an accomplishment luminaries across the country are heralding.

“I think Denver audiences have been most privileged to see all of these works through the lens of Israel Hicks,” said Tony-winning actor Phylicia Rashad, who earned her place in TV history as Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show.” “This is significant not just because Israel will have done this — but because of the director that he is.”

Now, when you talk about great achievements in the American theater, Blanks said, “this has to be right up there among them.”

And to think, when former artistic director Donovan Marley approached Hicks to direct “Fences” back in 1989, his first instinct was to say no.

Eventually, he agreed, “and I’m grateful that I did,” said Hicks, a soft-spoken man who most always dons a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap. “What else would I wear?” he says with a smile: Pittsburgh’s rundown Hill District is the setting for nine of Wilson’s 10 plays that show the impact of slavery on subsequent generations of black Americans.

“I had worked in regional theaters long enough to have been burned,” said Hicks, who found that “often you do a good play, and you never get invited back. Yet, those same theaters are happy to claim you on their grant applications.”

Hicks had full freedom to cast actors, beyond company regulars, whom he knew understood the language and melody of Wilson’s words. “It was one of those things where you could feel the energy and the rhythm from Day 1,” said Hicks. “It was magnificent. We had a really good time with that production.”

When Marley learned Wilson would attempt an entire cycle, he laughed. “Even Eugene O’Neil had been unable to write such a monumental work,” said Marley, who was certain Wilson would never finish.

But “with typical green- room bravura,” he added, “we said out loud that if he completed the cycle, we would produce all 10.” Wilson finished “Radio Golf” in 2005, the year he died.

“August called our bluff,” Marley said.

And the Denver Center asked Hicks back. He responded, “OK . . . to do what?”

Says Phylicia Rashad of Israel Hicks’ 10 plays: “What people in Denver have been able to see all these years is truth.” (Craig Blankenhorn, CBS)

“How would you like to do as many plays that August Wilson writes?” Marley said. His answer? ” ‘Hell, yeah.’ Who would say no to that?”

But Hicks was wary of being labeled the token black director of the token black plays. So he stipulated he also be allowed to direct the wider theater company in other plays every other year.

“I wanted the freedom to select what I was going to do,” said Hicks. That led to everything from Shakespeare plays to world premieres like “Coming of the Hurricane” to adapted classics like “The Madwoman” and “A Selfish Sacrifice.”

National experience

Hicks is a 65-year-old native of South Carolina, named after his father. He studied at Boston University and got his graduate degree from New York University. He’s directed all over the country and is now artistic director of Ebony Repertory Theatre in Los Angeles and chairman of the theater program at Rutgers.

He caught Rashad’s eye when she attended his staging of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at New York’s Juilliard performing arts conservatory.

“I couldn’t believe I was seeing what I was seeing,” Rashad said. “I couldn’t believe people who were so young had been directed to go to a place that was so historically and culturally authentic.”

Rashad knows August Wilson’s work. She played the 285-year-old Aunt Ester in Broadway’s “Gem of the Ocean,” and she is involved with the Educational Teachers

Terrence Riggins as Harmond Wilks in the Denver Center Theatre Company’s current production of August Wilson s “Radio Golf,” directed by Israel Hicks. (Terry Shapiro)

Association.

“I see a lot of actors perform in August’s plays, and it’s as if the natural rhythm had been trained out of them,” she said. “So to go to Juilliard, which is not only one of the most prestigious theater schools in our nation but also Euro-centric in its training of actors, I was blown away by this performance.”

Rashad met Hicks after the show and asked him how he had helped these students succeed in ways many professional actors never do. “And he just very quietly said, ‘Well, we were looking for some truth,’ ” Rashad said. “And this is characteristic of his work.

“What people in Denver have been able to see all these years is truth. It is not uncommon for directors to want to put their own stamp on a work, or for actors to want to have their own interpretation of the work — neither of which is necessarily synonymous with truth.”

“Unsung star”

The truth is, the Wilson cycle might have ended after eight plays, when Marley retired in 2005. But successor Kent Thompson quickly announced he would finish what Marley had started.

“Israel Hicks is one of the unsung stars of the American theater,” said Thompson, who had long before directed a play for Hicks when he headed the theater program at SUNY-Purchase. He had also come to Denver twice, long before he was hired here, to see Wilson plays.

“Israel’s intelligence, heart and humor always shone through those productions — and you need all those qualities to direct a Wilson play,” Thompson said. “So the thought of completing August Wilson’s American Cycle without him seemed both unwise and unimaginable.”

To actor Charles Weldon, who like Banks has appeared in six of the 10 Wilson plays here, it’s not so much that Hicks has completed the series, but that he was the right director to complete the series.

“It’s like when you’re doing Shakespeare,” Weldon said. “You can get somebody who generally knows the plays. But you really want to get someone in the trenches who can deal with iambic pentameter and the phraseology, who can get his actors to deliver what the words truly mean. That’s what Israel does with August Wilson.”

Hicks is not a terribly sentimental man. He does not look at this milestone as a great individual achievement.

“It’s work, to be honest, and I am grateful for the work,” he said. “I’m grateful to August for having written 10 producible plays, which is a remarkable feat.”

With all due respect, Blanks says what Hicks has done is, indeed, a great individual achievement. “I think Israel Hicks is the finest theater director in the country,” he said.

Weldon does him one better. “The only difference is that I don’t think it,” he said with a laugh. “I know it.”

John Moore: 303-954-1056 or jmoore@denverpost.com


“Radio Golf”

Drama. Denver Center Theatre Company, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex. Written by August Wilson. Directed by Israel Hicks. Starring Darryl Alan Reed, Harvy Blanks, Terrence Riggins, Kim Staunton, Charles Weldon. Through April 25. 6:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 7:30 p.m. Fridays; 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays. $25-$51. 303-893-4100 (800-641-1222 outside Denver), all King Soopers or denvercenter.org.


See the entire Wilson Cycle in Denver in photos

An ‘August’ Century’: The entire Wilson Cycle, as performed by the Denver Center Theatre Company, in photos. Includes brief summaries of each play. click here


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