Dr. Michael Downing Interviewed for Article on August Wilson’s ‘Jitney’

2 Mar

Michael Downing

I am excited to report that the conversation I had with Nadine Matthews of the New York Amsterdam News a few months ago related to August Wilson’s “Jitney” has come full circle and has been published.

The article, titled, “Stage and screen acting vet Santiago-Hudson directs ‘Jitney’ on Broadway” appeared online on Feb. 9, 2017.

The excerpt:

Michael Downing, editor of the August Wilson website and blog and associate professor of English at Kutztown University, remarked, “The beats of the characters, the rhythms of the language, the overall flow and tempo … it’s like hip-hop onstage, punctuated by the regular ringing of the telephone. It crackles. The telephone itself is an excellent device for Wilson, as it enables him to add even more language nuance to the play. As has been established, Wilson’s ear is one of his significant strong points. With the telephone, we get to hear Becker and occasionally other characters speak into the phone and to other characters onstage. In this way, the play actually represents two levels of dialogue, an ‘internal’ voice, used within the jitney station and an ‘external’ voice, used to speak to customers.”

“Jitney” is one of my favorite Wilson plays.  Glad to see it getting solid treatment on Broadway by a legendary director.  It seems Mr. Wilson is getting the attention he so much deserves.

‘Fences’ Movie Comes to Villanova

26 Feb

By Mike Downing

fences-1Our friend, Ellen Bonds of Villanova University, tells us that Villanova is planning to provide students with opportunities to see the film, “Fences,” and to engage with scholars in a colloquium on August Wilson.

“Fences” will screen for three days:

March 27 (at 3:30 p.m.) March  28, and 29 (at 6:30 p.m.) in Connelly Cinema (main campus theater) in Connelly Student Center

The university will also be hosting a colloquium for graduate students and undergraduates on April 19, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.  Dr. Herman Beavers from the University of Pennsylvania and Suzana Berger (a dramaturge at U of Penn) will be the speakers.

Location TBA.

August Wilson Society Announces New Officers

26 Feb

By Mike Downing

AUGUST WILSON SOCIETY OFFICERSaugust-wilson-society-logo-jan-2017-1

Sandra Shannon, Howard University

Director of Communication
Michael Downing, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania

Website Managers
Tamera Izlar, Morehead University
Sekou Sankofa, Howard University

Laurence Glasco, University of Pittsburgh

Membership Coordinators
Ladrica Menson-Furr, University of Memphis
Shondrika Moss-Bouldin, Kennesaw State University

Educational Outreach
Chris Bell, University of North Georgia
Artisia Green, College of William and Mary

History and Mission of the August Wilson Society

26 Feb

Posted by Mike Downing

History and Mission of AWSAugust Wilson 14

The August Wilson Society (AWS) was founded in 2005 by a group of scholars at Howard University shortly after the passing of Mr. Wilson at age 60.  In 2016, on the heels of the international August Wilson Conference at Howard in October, the group has formalized, elected officers, and is working to become a resource providing access to expert speakers, educational materials, and scholarly opportunities related to August Wilson.

The Society defines itself as an interdisciplinary learning community dedicated to commemorating Mr. Wilson by promoting the studying, the teaching, the researching, and the ultimate safeguarding of the rich legacy that Wilson has bequeathed to us in the form of 10 plays that chronicle the stories of African Americans from 1904 to 1997.

For more information, contact president Sandra Shannon or director of communication Michael Downing.


Schomburg Center to Host Session on the Importance of August Wilson

7 Feb

schomburg-2017By CoCo Harris

An upcoming August Wilson Theater Talk has been announced by Howard University Professor and Director of the August Wilson Society, Dr. Sandra G. Shannon.  The event is scheduled for Feb. 20 at the Schomburg Center in New York City.

The title of the event is “Theater Talks: August Wilson Effect.”

According to the NY Public Library website, “Amidst a moment of vibrant re-imaginings of August Wilson’s work, both on stage and screen, this conversation will contemplate the meaning of his work and legacy, explore the practice of contemporary practitioners of stage and screen craft, and imagine the future of the trajectory of black storytelling.”

Featured attendees include:

Producer Kamilah Forbes

Playwright Chisa Hutchinson

Writer, actor, recording artist Carl Hancock Rux

Director of August Wilson’s Jitney currently on Broadway, Ruben Santiago-Hudson

Moderator Dr. Sandra G. Shannon.

For more details and tickets, please visit this link.

@SchomburgCenter #TheaterTalks



The “Dear August…” Project

22 Jan

For more information, click on the image.

Thanks to CoCo Harris.


‘Fences’ Movie is Sensitive, Faithful Portrayal of Wilson’s Original Work

12 Jan

By Mike Downing

fences-1I went to see the Fences movie during the Christmas holiday, starring  Denzel Washington as Troy and Viola Davis as Rose, with Russell Hornsby (Lyons), Mykelti Williamson (Gabriel), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Bono), Jovan Adepo (Cory), and Saniyya Sidney (Raynell).

I enjoyed it very much, as did the members of my group.  As you might expect, after playing Troy on Broadway, Denzel shows a great familiarity and sensitivity to Wilson’s work…the characters, the language, the personal and interpersonal struggles, and the essential humanity, along with a full appreciation of the fact that this work is, first and foremost, a play.

What I mean by that last point is that while Denzel was clearly attempting to make the best movie he could make, he didn’t want to co-opt the essential nature of the original text, which is, in fact, a stage play and turn it into a Hollywood movie, with too much slickness.  Since seeing the movie, I’ve read reviews that–not inaccurately–indicate that the movie is, occasionally, “stagey.”  Sure.  At times.  However, it is important to remember that at least part of the sacred goal here is to commit Wilson’s work faithfully to film while keeping in mind the fact that Wilson was not a movie or TV scriptwriter; he was a playwright (and a poet before that).  His plays are, therefore, living poems taken to the stage.

Consider Wilson’s stage directions from Fences and how they do not necessarily lend themselves to the rapid-sequence cuts and wide array of settings that are common in Hollywood movies of today.

From the play, Fences:


The setting is the yard which fronts the only entrance to the Maxson household, an ancient two-story brick house set back off a small alley in a big-city neighborhood. The entrance to the house is gained by two or three steps leading to a wooden porch badly in need of paint.

A relatively recent addition to the house and running its full width, the porch lacks congruence.  It is a sturdy porch with a flat roof. One or two chairs of dubious value sit at one end where the kitchen window opens onto the porch. An old fashioned icebox stands silent guard at the opposite end.

The yard is a small dirt yard, partially fenced (except during the last scene), with a wooden sawhorse, a pile of lumber, and other fence-building equipment off to the side. Opposite is a tree from which hangs a ball made of rags. A baseball bat leans against the tree. Two oil drums serve as garbage receptacles and sit near the house at right to complete the setting.

Pardon the pun, but do you see how “fenced in” Denzel is in terms of setting?  As written by Wilson, the entire action of the play takes place in a back yard in Pittsburgh.  Taking that into account, I think Denzel did a nice job of taking the audience inside the Maxson house (all three floors), onto the street in front of the house, rambling along behind the garbage truck, into the bar where Troy and Bono see one another near the end, and into a grand building downtown, where Troy faces those in power.

Wilson was also particularly sensitive about the question of who would eventually direct the movie versions of his plays because, as he said, the movie versions are “forever.”  I would guess that Denzel was keenly aware of Wilson’s position on this issue.  Denzel had a fine line to walk in terms of making the movie come alive, while simultaneously  remaining faithful to Wilson’s original script.  I think he did a great job, all things considered.

Another of Wilson’s great strengths is his ability to create memorable characters, and the actors in the film version step nicely into the shoes of those characters.  Denzel was great, appearing in every scene (until the end), but it was Viola Davis who brought a tear to my eye. Her intelligent and emotional portrayal of Rose was something that will stick with me forever.  The character is one of Wilson’s most powerful and memorable women.  And Mykelti Williamson nailed the difficult role of Gabriel.

One of the things I liked most was the fact that Troy is portrayed as fully human.  This is central to the play.  It would be easy to fall into the trap of depicting Troy as another  “angry black man.” If that happened, the movie would not work.  Wilson is not interested in an ideological screed.  Instead, he is interested in representing the many facets of the (black) human condition.

In fact, when you read his work, you see that he always offers another perspective…and another, and another.  That’s among his greatest gifts.  So, even as he writes his own form of agitprop, Wilson’s work is not exclusively ideological propaganda.   He always keeps the wheel turning.

Therefore, it is essential to make Troy human.  He clearly loves his sons, despite his outward actions toward them.  And he surely loves Rose, despite his betrayal.  He is man in conflict with himself, and we come to more fully understand his humanity when we understand how he was treated by his father in the incident with Joe Canewell’s daughter and the life that he was forced to assume from that point forward.

In order for the play and the movie to work as a tragedy, and it is clearly a tragedy, Troy’s humanity must be present and, in fact, dominant.  He cannot be portrayed in simple stereotype or the work falls flat.  Troy is mostly kind, deeply flawed, and entirely human.

Finally, in terms of Denzel’s faithfulness to the original text, I think it’s essential to point out the importance of preserving all of Wilson’s original language.  As mentioned above, Wilson’s plays can be viewed as poems come to life, and for a director to move too far away from the actual words in an effort to make a blockbuster movie would not be in line with Denzel’s goals of preserving Wilson’s work (and words) for future generations while allowing the work stand, essentially, on its own.  I believe the course that Denzel set was the best strategy.

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