Dear GRSF: Why don’t you do August Wilson plays?

Dear GRSF: Why don’t you do August Wilson plays?

“Dear GRSF” is a new series for our newsletters where staff and company members at Great River Shakespeare Festival answer your questions about the “whys” and “hows” of our company. To submit a question, click here.

Recently, a GRSF patron asked our leadership team, “Why doesn’t GRSF do any August Wilson plays?”

Answer by: Doug Scholz-Carlson, GRSF Artistic Director

The founders of the festival were committed to aesthetically spare productions of Shakespeare. This was driven both by their artistic vision to focus on Shakespeare’s language and by the constraints of our modest budget. As we began to look for plays beyond Shakepeare’s canon, we initially focussed on language-based plays that could be successfully presented on our unit set with a similarly spare aesthetic. While seeking to present plays that were a universal exploration of the human condition, we failed to recognize that we were all white men in the room making choices of what plays to present.  Though we considered a variety of compelling criteria, we did not make producing plays by BIPOC playwrights a priority. We can now better recognize our own complicity in systemic racism. It is wrong, and we are committed to change.

The real change we want is in progress. GRSF is a company and a community where theater artists, technicians and patrons get to know each other over time in order to engage in meaningful conversations through works of art that build a real community. Real change means incorporating a range of voices into the company at every level so deeply that doing an August Wilson play will feel like a natural expression of an American theater company producing an important American playwright. Our promise is that soon, August Wilson and Alice Childress will feel as natural for our company as Tennessee Williams or Tom Stoppard. And yes, David Henry Hwang, Larissa Fasthorse and many other names should be on that list – we have a lot of work to do.

With our new perspective, we see that August Wilson’s plays are in many ways a natural fit for GRSF. We look for plays that have the qualities that we love in Shakespeare. Wilson’s plays explore the human condition in complex and nuanced ways, inspire enriching conversations in the audience, employ poetic and original language – the list goes on. Perhaps more importantly, Wilson’s plays would offer a perspective that is different from almost every other play we have produced. 

Even given our desire to present plays from different perspectives, we may or may not get to August Wilson. Wilson’s plays tend to ask for realistic sets which is still difficult for us. Perhaps, more importantly, Wilson premiered several of his plays at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul. Penumbra regularly employs gifted theater artists who worked with August Wilson and know his plays like no other artists in the world. If we do August Wilson, we’d approach it with humility. With our current company, we’d do August Wilson well, but we might serve our audience best by saying: please go to Penumbra. (https://penumbratheatre.org/)  

There are many other BIPOC playwrights who might also serve our audience and our company well. Some, like Carlyle Brown, have direct connections to GRSF, and some of his plays have a direct connection to Shakespeare.