On February 22 and 23, Columbia College students and faculty performed “The Wilson People,” a collection of scenes and monologues that explored human struggle and answered three important questions: Who is August Wilson? What is the foundation for American history? And how do you dance the “Juba?”
Multicultural Affairs hosted the tribute to black playwright, August Wilson, at 618 S. Michigan in the Music Hall. In an hour and a half, performers sang, shouted and engaged the audience through a series of emotional acts that spanned different eras of black history.
There were no transitions between the acts. Each piece flowed into the other, with the change of tone and set being the only indication that it was a new time period.
Director Daryl Satcher combined August Wilson’s masterpieces during the start of the six-week rehearsal period. As more cast members dived into their character’s histories, the plays were reworked for the small stage while keeping their big messages, from the “great American storyteller,” August Wilson.
Wilson wrote a play chronicling the black experience from each decade of the 20th century.
“What I find amazing about August Wilson’s plays is that they are still relevant to what’s going on today,” said cast member, Terence Sims, during the Q and A after the show.
The performance opened with the cast saying “I am one of those warrior spirits,” and then proceeded through scenes that depicted struggle through bondage, family and young versus old values.
Loomis, as performed by Michael Johnson, furiously described his tortured past of being enslaved for seven years by a man named Joe Turner.
Another act dealt with the struggle of adjusting to freedom that followed the end of slavery.
In each scene, the actors looked at the crowd as if they were speaking to them.
“Life is a mystery, but it ain’t for you to know,” said Aunt Ester, performed by Jennifer “Patience” Rowe.
The stories also had humor. The audience laughed through the act where the family begins to do the Juba Dance after a nice meal of fried chicken.
The performance ended with Aunt Ester asking, “What is at the center of your life?”
After the show, Director Daryl Satcher noted that the reason August Wilson’s plays are important to revisit today, is because of their enduring messages which audiences–young and old– can continue to learn.
“We are given this life,” said Satcher, “Are we going live it to get by or live it to our utmost potential?”
The cast, like the characters, faced struggles during rehearsals, whether it was relating to their characters, getting used to the improper speech, or like Curtis Lawrence, 52, learning new lessons each day for his stage debut.
“I’m a journalist,” said Lawrence, “and I take everything literally. So during rehearsal when the director told me that I had to treat another character like garbage– with disdain– and to ‘act like you’re taking out the trash,’ I walked out on the stage literally acting like I was carrying a bag of trash to throw out.”
The funny moments that went on behind the scenes brought the cast closer together.
Lawrence said that he discovered there was more to acting then merely memorizing lines. In one of the final acts, Lawrence held the audience at the edge of their seats with his speech as a father condemning his son for murder. The culture clash within the play between young and old showed how generations could learn from one another.
“It’s never too late to learn something new,” said Lawrence who said that since he was new to acting, he learned a lot from each young cast member while rehearsing.
The cast and crew were given a standing ovation and encouraged by questions from the audience about expanding the play into other areas and settings.
“It [the play] was fantastic,” said housewife Darlene Hall,55, from Chicago. “You could tell they worked hard and their effort paid off by getting across what August Wilson’s plays were all about.”
Iya Bukare, 28, a freelance writer from Chicago, said she was “moved by the performances,” and on the whole, she thought the talent displayed how African Americans’ past struggles were a part of America’s history, not segregated from it.
Satcher ended the night. “What I hope you all see from this play is that each character had a powerful voice and I hope that every person will let their voice be heard throughout their whole life.”