Stephanie Gularte, American Stage’s Producing Artistic Director: So, Peter! You are about to come back from the West Coast again this year to join us here in St. Pete. The last time you were here at American Stage you directed an August Wilson production that was recognized with 5 Tampa Bay Award nominations, winning four including best production and best director.
L. Peter Callender, Actor & Director: Yes, I had the great pleasure of directing Jitney at American Stage in 2015 at American Stage. It was a theatrical experience I will never forget. Now I am preparing to direct the company’s final production in the cycle, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in January 2017.
Stephanie: In our conversations about August Wilson work you speak with great passion and seem to have a natural affinity for his stories, his characters and his words. What do you think draws you to Wilson’s work?
Peter: Several things: the language, the spiritual journey each play takes its listeners on; the depth of the people, and the power of the storytelling. His careful, poetic telling of stories of everyday life over the centuries that still resonate today “without compromise or sentimentality.” His plays aren’t just to be watched, but realized in a deeply spiritual way; the performances are rituals; speaking truth to leadership, and like Mr. Shakespeare’s works, will endure for all those reasons.
Stephanie: You’ve had a very accomplished and diverse career in the theatre as an actor, director. Educator and artistic director. What experiences have you had with August Wilson prior to American Stage’s productions of the Century Cycle?
Peter: Well, thank you for saying that! Actually, years ago, I was honored to have been nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for a production of Playboy of the West Indies at Arena Stage in DC. Mr Wilson was given an award that very night. I had no idea who he was before that time. After meeting him and hearing of his works, I was hooked! I soon read all his plays to that date and knew I needed to speak his words to an audience. It took a few years, but my first August Wilson role was King Hedley in King Hedley II. I, then, went on to play Sterling Johnson in Radio Golf and Red Carter in Seven Guitars. I’ve also directed Fences.
Stephanie: One of the fascinating elements of the cycle are the threads that run through each of the plays, including, in some instances, characters from the same family that reappear in various plays. Have any of the characters you’ve played been a part of the same family?
Peter: No, but close. I’ve done Seven Guitars. In Seven Guitars, Hedley meets young Ruby, newly arrived from Alabama. She is pregnant with her boyfriend, Elmore’s, baby. After getting together with Hedley, she tells Hedley the baby is his. He names his boy King Hedley II. I’ve played the son in King Hedley II. Also, in Seven Guitars, Red Carter, the role I played, has a son he named Mister, Mister becomes King Hedley’s best friend in King Hedley II.
Stephanie: With the variety of styles that you have worked in throughout your career, what would you say is unique about an August Wilson play?
Peter: August Wilson had a monumentally exact understanding of how a people talk. The rhythm. How they move. How they love and laugh. How they fight; their fears and joy and how they handle tragedy. A poet first, he used dynamic phraseology and heightened language to communicate passion, ideals, dreams in people who felt left out, left behind, ignored and not represented. My job as director is to allow these stories to be told honestly, clearly and by people who are enthusiastic about telling them. People (actors and lighting, set, sound and costume designers) who are connected, vulnerable, open-minded, real, and who wish to be true to life. True to the life of the work. It’s all about the power of the story!
Stephanie: In Wilson’s 10-Play cannon, do you have a favorite, or one that you find the most compelling as a theatre artist?
Peter: That’s hard to say. I love them all. But if I were to choose, I’d say Joe Turner and Gem of the Ocean because of their deep spirituality and connection to the ritualistic. King Hedley II for its sheer power and raw emotion. Fences for some of the greatest writing in the canon, but also for its historical place in American sports lore. Ma Rainey for its humor, musicality and complex characters, and Seven Guitars for its story of love, love lost, guilt and betrayal. I can go on, but I must mention Jitney. Very few writers, with the exception of Shaw and Shakespeare, have given us plays where we can take a scene and perform them singularly, out of context, and still have great impact. Jitney has such a scene with Booster and Becker. Father and son. A masterful struggle, of disappointment and judgement; of pride and dignity all shaped and fueled by love and familial bond. Brilliant!
Stephanie: Denzel Washington is starring in the film version of Fences opening on Christmas Day this year and he is said to be planning to produce film versions of the entire cycle. What do you think is the significance of Wilson’s work being given this kind of attention at this point in our nation’s history?
Peter: As a nation of gadgets and technology, our attention span is diminishing. We are constantly looking for ways to make things quicker, cheaper, lighter, smaller. Putting all the plays on film might be bad for the American theaters committed doing his plays. Although I am thrilled that Mr. Washington is taking on the Cycle on film for the world to see and certainly for the actors involved. My only concern is that the plays themselves will suffer and may lose their popularity. The richness of the language and the tight structure of the plays might be watered down, and the audience becomes detached. If you can own Fences on DVD for $20, why pay $50 plus to sit in a theater? I hope this will not be the case. I hope he stays as close to the true life and breadth of the pieces. I pray there will still be a large quantity of theatergoers and general public who will still be willing to bear witness at live theater.
Stephanie: This January, 2017 American Stage will be among a very small collection of theaters in the world to complete August Wilson’s Century Cycle. How does it f
eel to be a part of that legacy?
Peter: Simply: Honored! A special thank you to American Stage! As theater artists we all say: Just spell my name right and I’ll be happy. Well, in this case, my name will be among the few, the happy few, who have been engaged to do this great work we love. I am now part of an everlasting legacy associated with this great man of letters who has left us all an enduring collection chronicling, for the ages, the stories of African-Americans over the centuries. I couldn’t be more proud. How many more will he inspire? How many others will pick up this mantle and share the love and the laughter? This story is just beginning…
Stephanie: All of us at American Stage are really looking forward to having you back here to take on Joe Turner, our final production of the cycle, and the play that is rumored to have been Wilson’s own favorite among the 10 plays.
Peter: Thank you, Stephanie! I can’t wait to get started!
Mr. Callender is an actor, a director and is the artistic director of African American Shakespeare Company in San Francisco, California. For more articles in the Century Cycle Series, click here.