May 10, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 39
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August Wilson’s ‘Radio Golf’ a heartfelt journey

Michael Kuchwara

NEW YORK — “Radio Golf,” the final chapter in August Wilson’s monumental, decade-by-decade look at the black experience in 20th century America, is a play forged by illness, reworked in a furious burst of creativity during the last months of the playwright’s life.

Its two-year trek to Broadway, where it opened Tuesday, is the stuff of heartfelt emotion, involving Wilson and Todd Kreidler, his boyish collaborator. Yet its author was missing for much of the journey.

“Todd, man, we have one shot at this,” Wilson told Kreidler in June 2005 after revealing he had inoperable liver cancer. The two men quickly set out to polish the play, which had its world premiere two months earlier at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Conn.

Much of the time, the playwright and his dramaturge sat on the porch of Wilson’s home in the Capitol Hill section of Seattle. They talked. Wilson wrote. Kreidler made suggestions. At one point, Kreidler moved in, staying with Wilson and his wife, costume designer Constanza Romero.

“At Yale, we basically … had a thumbnail sketch when we went into rehearsal,” said Kreidler, who had worked with Wilson since 1999 when “King Hedley II” had its world premiere at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. “The play’s seminal material was there, a lot of the key monologues and ideas, but in terms of story … all that was done in the heat of rehearsal.”

Still, more rewriting was needed before the play’s next production later that summer at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

As Wilson’s health deteriorated, it became apparent he would be unable to attend Los Angeles rehearsals. Script changes were e-mailed to Kenny Leon, the play’s director, in Los Angeles. And Kreidler made a couple of trips to look in on rehearsals and consult with Leon. “I can’t be in the rehearsal room, so you are going to have to be my eyes,” Wilson told Kreidler.

Characters jumpstart Wilson’s plays — from “Gem of the Ocean” to “The Piano Lesson” to “Seven Guitars” and more. Plot took more time to get right. In the past, Wilson could leisurely work on the stories as the plays traveled through various regional theaters before coming to New York.

“As he worked, August always started in a foggy place, sort of like a collage artist, and then scenes connected as he slowly rewrote,” said Romero, recalling her husband’s writing habits.

Wilson didn’t have that luxury now.

“August had horrific physical symptoms but his mind was always sharp and clear during this working process,” Kreidler said. “We started things schematically. We talked more about how to drive the story. We had never worked together like this.”

Jack Viertel, one of the Broadway producers of “Radio Golf,” said Wilson essentially completely overhauled it between the first and second productions.

“It’s a massively new play,” Viertel said. “And August continued to work on it while the play was at the Taper and actually left behind some changes that went into the Seattle production,” which followed in early 2006.

“Radio Golf,” which takes place in 1997 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District — the setting for many of Wilson’s plays — concerns middle-class blacks, a first for Wilson.

“These characters are educated people who have not necessarily suffered the consequences of what other blacks have suffered — the main character is the son of a wealthy father,” Romero said.

“It’s about how to find the center of your soul — who you are, where you’ve been and where you’re going,” she added. “The play is about … what kind of debt you owe to your race and to your heritage. Or if you are going to go out there and just earn money or status or a reputation.”

Wilson died in October 2005 at 60, but “Radio Golf” lived on, with productions after Seattle in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago and Princeton, N.J. — where the Broadway leads, Harry Lennix and Tonya Pinkins, joined the cast.

After Wilson’s death, Kreidler stayed in Seattle until the following May, sorting the playwright’s papers — and doing his own writing, something he has done since he was 15.

“August was always telling me, ‘Go on, write your plays. Keep growing,’” explained the 32-year-old Kreidler, who these days lives in Chicago with his wife, actress Erin Annarella.

And Leon has given him a chance, too.

“In this time of tremendous sorrow and loss, we … have become close colleagues,” Kreidler said. Leon runs True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta and a year ago invited him to become associate artistic director. It’s where one of Kreidler’s latest efforts, a play called “Jumbo Small,” may get a production in 2008.

But it’s Wilson’s last work that even now occupies much of his time, and he is satisfied with the results — on view at the Cort Theatre, which has symbolic importance for Wilson fans.

Back in 1984, it’s where New York audiences discovered a major new playwright had arrived with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Eight more have followed it there — with “Jitney” being Wilson’s one play in his 10-play cycle to have only an off-Broadway run.

“‘Radio Golf’ is a finished play,” Kreidler said. “Would it be different had August been alive and had seen those other productions? Undoubtedly. Yet it is done.”

Done thanks to the persistence of both Wilson and Kreidler.

“The relationship between the two of them happened at the right time for exactly the right reason,” Romero said. “August always loved to tell stories. He loved to talk about his ideas. And Todd is such an amazing listener. He absorbed everything. August thought of him as a protégé, and toward the end he really thought of him as a son.”

(Associated Press)

Tonya Pinkins and Harry Lennix, stars of August Wilson’s “Radio Golf,” act out a scene from the new drama by the late playwright, which opened Tuesday at Broadway’s Cort Theatre in New York. (AP photo/Barlow-Hartman, Carol Rosegg)

August Wilson (left) sits beside his dramaturge, Todd Kreidler, during a rehearsal for Wilson’s play “Radio Golf” at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., on April 7, 2005. Kreidler also is advising the company for the current Broadway production of the play, which opened at the Cort Theatre in New York on Tuesday. (AP file photo/Michelle McLoughlin)

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