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What It Takes - August Wilson, Lloyd Richards

What It Takes - August Wilson
What It Takes - August Wilson
What It Takes - August Wilson
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00:00:07 ALICE WINKLER: I'm Alice Winkler. Usually, on this podcast, we tell the story of one phenomenal person, but on this episode, we’ve got two — two men whose collaboration produced some of the best, most profound work in the American theater, August Wilson and Lloyd Richards.

00:00:26 LLOYD RICHARDS: Why the theater? I guess the theater because I couldn't do anything else. By that, I don't mean I couldn't do anything else. I mean I couldn't do anything else.

00:00:41 AUGUST WILSON: Writing a play is like walking down this landscape of the self, and you have to be willing to confront whatever you find there. And your baggage that you carry with you, your weapons — or the small imperial truths that you have accumulated over your life — that is all you have, and hopefully, you will emerge from the landscape with a greater truth, a more illuminating truth.

00:01:03 ALICE WINKLER: August Wilson wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences. It's now a movie, as well. He also wrote nine other plays about the lives of African Americans across the last century — almost all of them made it to Broadway, and almost all were directed by Lloyd Richards. Lloyd Richards was already a luminary of the theater when he met August Wilson. He had brought A Raisin in the Sun to the stage, after all.

00:01:30 Now it may be a little cliché to say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but the phrase does perfectly capture what emerged when August Wilson and Lloyd Richards combined artistic forces in 1983. You’ll hear about the lives and work of both men on this episode of What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the bountiful audio archive of the Academy of Achievement.

00:02:01 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:02:07 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:02:14 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:02:18 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:02:26 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:02:34 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:02:39 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:02:52 ALICE WINKLER: We are a week out from the 2017 Academy Awards as I sit down in front of my mic to record this. Fences is up for Best Picture, and August Wilson is up for Best Adapted Screenplay, even though he wrote it just before he died twelve years ago. If Wilson wins, it’ll hardly be his first award for Fences. As I said earlier, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 and the Tony that year for Best Play.

00:03:22 In 2010, five years after he’d died, Fences won the Tony Award for Best Revival. That production starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, who are, of course, the stars of the movie, both also nominated for Oscars. But let’s get back to the source. What you’re going to hear now is August Wilson in 1988, days after Fences completed its first Broadway run. He was at the Academy of Achievement Summit in Nashville, talking to students.

00:03:54 AUGUST WILSON: I began my career in seventh grade, writing poems for Nancy Arland. Nancy was the girl in the school that all the boys — every boy in the school was in love with her. And I was trying to get her attention, so I would write these poems, and I would leave them on her desk. I did not know then that I should have put my name on them.

00:04:15 And I think that Anthony Curven was the beneficiary of my poems.

00:04:21 ALICE WINKLER: Despite a rocky start, Wilson did end up a poet, and he has a personal backstory worthy of a poet’s life. His father, who he barely knew, was a German immigrant pastry chef. His mom was an African American cleaning woman, who ended up raising her six kids alone for a time in the working class black-Jewish-Italian neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where they lived in the 1940s. By high school, though, they were living in a white neighborhood, and the racism was so intolerable, August Wilson dropped out, choosing instead to educate himself by reading, day-in, day-out, at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

00:05:03 He stumbled into theater for a bit but then found his way back in his mid-30s when he learned about a summer workshop offered by the National Playwrights Conference, which was run by the famous director Lloyd Richards.

00:05:17 AUGUST WILSON: So in 1978, I became aware of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. As a workshop situation, every summer they invite various playwrights to come up to the conference and work on their plays and improve them and hopefully work them up to where they might be able to get a production. So when I began to write plays in 1979, I wrote a play called Jitney. I wrote a play called The Coldest Day of the Year. I wrote a play called Fullerton Street.

00:05:48 I wrote a play called Why I Learned to Read. And I sent them all to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference, and they sent them back. And when they would send them back, I would sit down, and I would write another one, until finally, I wrote a play called Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which they didn’t send back. And I went up to the conference, and I worked on the play, and Lloyd Richards, the director of the conference, later produced the play at his theater, the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

00:06:15 And then, on October the 11th, 1984, we opened on Broadway and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. By the time that play had opened on Broadway, I had already written two other plays, a play called Fences and a play called Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and they, likewise, followed the same route. Now, what happened? What was wrong with the first four plays that I had written, or the first five plays?

00:06:42 Did I, all of a sudden, suddenly become a playwright? What made me do what in essence was better work? And I began to think about that, and I thought that that is probably what I should try to explain to you. When I was writing the earlier plays: one, I did not think of myself as a playwright; two, in the writing of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, I came across some ideas that I found to be very liberating.

00:07:15 I had already had an artistic agenda. I was trying to answer James Baldwin’s call for a profound articulation of the black experience, which he defined as that field of manners and ritual of intercourse that will sustain a man once he has left his father’s house. I was trying to do that. I wanted to place that tradition on stage simply to prove that it was there and that it was capable of offering sustenance.

00:07:40 I also had a quote from Romare Bearden, who said, "I try to explore, in terms of the life I know best, those things which are common to all culture." I was trying to do that. But yet, something was wrong, and I would like to think that I came to all these things in one night, so I will use my artistic license and say that I did. But what I came up with was: one, I was writing a play to go to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference instead of writing the best play that had ever been written, but I didn't know how.

00:08:21 And so, one night, it occurred to me that I am sitting in the same chair that Tennessee Williams sat in, that Eugene O’Neill sat in, that Arthur Miller sat in, the same chair that Ibsen sat in. Because, as I am sitting here, I am confronted with the same problems that they were confronted with: how to get an actor on stage, how to get him off stage, how to develop character, how to shape the scenes.

00:08:51 The problems that I was confronting were no different than the problems that they were confronting. And when that realization hit me, I became empowered by the chair. I suddenly became Eugene O’Neill; I suddenly became Tennessee Williams. And I realized that I was capable then of doing anything that I wanted to do, provided that I was willing to confront myself, provided that I was willing to confront my demons. For, to write a play, to stand it up on a stage, one is making oneself very vulnerable, and one has to be willing to do that.

00:09:27 So I began to put all those things together and imagine myself that I was the heavyweight champion of the world — because I love boxing. And a boxer goes in the ring, and he does not confront the opponent. His battle is with himself. He is confronting himself. He knows his capabilities, and he will be pushed to them, and he will probably learn something about himself to raise the level of his capability.

00:09:52 So this is what I began to — the idea or the attitude in which I began to approach my work, and once I began to approach it, I became totally free. I felt like I was Picasso, standing in front of a canvas — and for that moment, anyone who picks up a paintbrush and stands there for that moment is Picasso. And the tools are color, shadow, mass, whatever, and it’s how you apply those tools and how you use them. So once that revelation came to me, I have, in a sense, never looked back.

00:10:22 And I would like to leave you now with a poem I wrote for my daughter, which says, “Lean ahead; languish not in the toils of distant drums gone by. Be willing, as warrior brave, but bound with wicked intelligence that dispels and frightens foolishness. Remake each error with courageous correcting. Conceive and conspire with each instance for its terrible honesty. Give to each hallowed star its own revolving orbit, and many roads will open for you." Thank you.

00:11:06 ALICE WINKLER: August Wilson was trying to inspire a group of talented students when he recited that bit of poetry in 1988, but he could just as well have been describing what Lloyd Richards had done for him, providing that revolving orbit.

00:11:22 IRV DRASNIN: What were you looking for when you found August Wilson? What was it in August Wilson?

00:11:27 LLOYD RICHARDS: Genius. You're looking for genius.

00:11:30 ALICE WINKLER: So this is Lloyd Richards’s version of how he and August Wilson came to work together, as he told it to Academy of Achievement interviewer Irv Drasnin in 1991. There’s overlap, but it’s always instructive to hear the same story told from two angles.

00:11:47 LLOYD RICHARDS: I run a program called the National Playwrights Conference. I've run that since 1968, and every year we get around — this year, 1,400 scripts came in. And what are we looking for? I remember talking to a wonderful man who ran the BBC, and we were comparing notes, and I said, "What's your ratio?"

00:12:15 He said, "Well, ten percent of everything that I get is worth reading. That's a hundred in a thousand. Ten percent of that is worth doing. That's ten in a thousand. And ten percent of that is exceptional, which is one in a thousand — and the other guy may get it." So that's what you're looking for. You are looking for that exceptional, unique voice for the theater.

00:12:45 And it's really like looking for a needle in a haystack. It is looking for genius. And it may be in its rough form, and you may be wrong, but that's what you're looking for. And I know that it's not easy to find, and it's not easy to develop, even once you find it. It's a hard thing to try and develop a playwright.

00:13:13 You know what it costs? I mean it isn't a matter of sitting somebody down and having them write something and rewrite it and rewrite it. In order to really understand their work, they have to see it done. What does it cost to get work done? So, an aspiring playwright, where do they get that from? So we have a program called the National Playwright's Conference. We invite people to submit. Then we try and select from those — those that we will work with in one month of the year.

00:13:47 IRV DRASNIN: And August Wilson submitted something?

00:13:49 LLOYD RICHARDS: Yes. So we take those playwrights who we select, and for one month we bring them together with very talented directors, talented actors, and we work on their scripts with them. We do a stage screening, and we discuss the work with them, and we try and affect their work in that manner. Now, August Wilson, he will tell you, he submitted to us — he is a poet who was in the process of teaching himself to become a playwright, at the suggestion of some friends.

00:14:28 And he was rejected by us five times. It was on the fifth try that he was selected. He even tells the story that, once, he didn't believe that we had really read his play, so he submitted the same play the next year, and it was also rejected. Well, he thought, "Well maybe these people have a point." But that is the important part of that, is the fact that August Wilson did not arrive full-blown.

00:14:58 He was a person who did not, in getting rejected, turn around and say, "Oh, there's something wrong with you, the rejecter." He ultimately accepted the fact that he was in process, and there may have been something wrong with what he was doing, and he had to learn more, and he had to do more. And he did, and he finally got to that point where his work was accepted for work.

00:15:22 And finally, that was when he came to the Playwright's Conference and our relationship began.

00:15:32 ALICE WINKLER: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the first play of Wilson’s that Lloyd Richards accepted, needed a lot of work. It was really two different stories, and they weren’t coming together, but by the time it opened on Broadway, a couple of years later, theater critic Frank Rich had pronounced August Wilson a major find for the American theater.

00:15:53 In his review, he wrote, "Wilson sends the entire history of black America crashing down upon our heads. This play is a searing inside account of what white racism does to its victims, and it floats on the same authentic artistry as the blues music it celebrates."

00:16:15 MA RAINEY: You don't sing to feel better. You sing because that's a way of understanding life. The blues help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you aren't alone. There's something else in the world. Something's been added by that song. This'd be an empty world without the blues. I take that emptiness, and I try to fill it up with something.

00:16:42 ALICE WINKLER: Fences was the next play August Wilson brought to Lloyd Richards.

00:16:47 LLOYD RICHARDS: It was four hours and fifteen or twenty minutes — I say twenty; he says fifteen. And so our work began to be to find what the true line of that material was — because it was material. It was a lot of wonderful material, and hidden in it was a story. Our job became one of searching for that line and putting that line through the material and lifting it up and seeing what hung on it, what belonged there, what was essential, what was necessary, and finding the core of the life of that man.

00:17:28 And we struggled to find that, but I think the key moment when we found that was after the death of the woman whom he had become involved with and who had borne his child. When he heard of her death, he used to have a speech to God, and I finally said to August, I said, "You know, that's wrong. He doesn't talk to God. This is a man who lives with death. He talked about it in the first scene, that death is his constant companion, and death is the thing that he is doing battle with, for his life, continually."

00:18:13 And that speech was changed. Death had betrayed him and stepped into his family, and there was the essential inner conflict, the thing that began to bring it all together for us.

00:18:28 TROY: I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to take and build me a fence around this yard! See? I'm going to build me a fence around what belongs to me! And then I want you to stay on the other side! You stay over there until you’re ready for me. And you come on! Bring your army! Bring your sickle! Bring your wrestling clothes!

00:18:59 I’m not going to fall down on my vigilance this time. You aren’t going to sneak up on me anymore. When you’re ready for me, when the top of your list says “Troy Maxson,” that's when I want you to come around here! You come up knocking on the front door. Nobody else has got anything to do with this! This is between you and me, man to man! You stay on the other side of that fence until you’re ready for me, and you come up knocking on that front door any time you want!

00:19:34 I'll be ready for you.

00:19:36 ALICE WINKLER: That's a clip of Denzel Washington on Broadway in the 2010 revival. Now August Wilson wasn’t the only playwright lucky enough to find a champion in Lloyd Richards. Lorraine Hansberry, Athol Fugard, John Guare, Lee Blessing, John Patrick Shanley, Wendy Wasserstein — Lloyd Richards provided them all with the nurturing and collaboration they needed to develop into world-renowned playwrights.

00:20:04 His name may not be as recognizable today as theirs, but Lloyd Richards’s contributions to American theater were so significant that I’m going to spend the rest of this podcast on his amazing story. It starts in Detroit in the 1920s. Lloyd Richards’s parents, who were of Jamaican descent, moved the family there when Henry Ford started advertising jobs that would pay five dollars a day. But when Richards was nine years old, his father died, so...

00:20:36 LLOYD RICHARDS: Now my mother took in laundry. I remember the kitchen filled with large white shirts that she was doing for some businessman living out somewhere so that we could not only survive but find that way to make a life. She did the impossible. There were suggestions, when my father died, that the family be broken up, that this uncle takes one, or somebody else takes another, but she would have none of that.

00:21:09 ALICE WINKLER: And she was determined that her kids would not only finish high school but go to college, too. The first time Lloyd Richards remembered being exposed to theater was in grade school when he had to memorize a soliloquy by Shakespeare.

00:21:24 LLOYD RICHARDS: And then I was asked to stand up in front of the class and do it. I did it, and I found myself saying beautiful words, phrases, thoughts that I agreed with, and I found myself expressing myself through someone else's words, and there were people there, and they responded, and there was a connection made.

00:21:49 And I guess there was a connection made in me, that I felt something or received something in that that was deeply satisfying. That didn't mean I left in front of that class and went into the theater. It didn’t at all because, at that time, the theater was not a place where a young black man aspired to because there were no images there. You were not reflected.

00:22:17 ALICE WINKLER: When he went to college, the plan was he would study law. That was still pretty aspirational at the time for a young black man, but it had better future prospects than theater. In college, though, he kept finding himself drawn to the speech courses. When it was time to apply to law school, Richards did an about-face and announced to his family he was going to be an actor. It was ludicrous. There were virtually no parts for black actors and no playwrights to write them.

00:22:49 LLOYD RICHARDS: And I had to ask myself the question, “What is security? Is security simply the fact that you can, month after month, meet the bills and have the luxuries that one might want to have? Or is security something else?” And it was at that point that I had to decide that security, for me, was getting up in the morning and not counting the hours, not counting the time, not counting what the paycheck would be, but knowing that every minute was going to be spent doing something that one loved, and that was security.

00:23:32 ALICE WINKLER: Lloyd Richards had seen actor Canada Lee in a production of The Duchess of Malfi and Paul Robeson as Othello. They were his only role models but what incredible role models.

00:23:45 LLOYD RICHARDS: Those were people who began to inspire me in a very personal way because they were black, and there were very few of them, and they, in their exception, said, "Okay, something is possible." And so I determined that, yes, it was going to be a hard job, that I may be rejected, and there may be many times that I might be rejected, and that was true. But I wouldn't be rejected because I wasn't prepared, and so I set about preparing myself.

00:24:23 ALICE WINKLER: After serving in the Army in World War II, he came back to Detroit and started a theater company with friends. Their first show was Hedda Gabler. Richards kept himself afloat financially with one job as a social worker and another as a DJ on a radio station.

00:24:40 LLOYD RICHARDS: I went to work at eight o’clock in the morning, arrived at the office, did my work in the office, went out into the field and did my visitations. Late in the afternoon, I'd go to the theater, where we rehearsed. I began directing, too, at that time, as well as acting, and we would stay there and perform that evening. I would leave there, go to the radio station, do my disc jockey job, and then either come back to the theater and help build or whatnot, or rehearse, and then bring a group of kids over to my place, which my mother loved, and raid the refrigerator.

00:25:21 And that was my life for a while, and we were all aspiring to New York. New York was the place to go. There was no regional theater, as exists now, where you had choices. It was: go to New York and start making the rounds, start receiving the rejections, all for yourself. And I told everybody I was going. Nobody believed me. Bought myself a footlocker and a suitcase.

00:25:46 Nobody still believed it, and I packed up, and I went to New York. Now everybody thought I'd be back in two weeks. Well, that was 40-some years ago.

00:25:58 ALICE WINKLER: While he lived at the YMCA back in the ‘40s, Lloyd Richards depended on his veteran’s benefit, 20 dollars a week for 52 weeks — the 52-20 Club, as they called it. Broadway was still a long way off, but he did start to get the occasional part.

00:26:15 LLOYD RICHARDS: I know I have a picture, and I look at that picture sometimes, and in that picture, there were Ossie Davis, George Roy Hill, Jack Warden, Jack Klugman, myself, and others, who have gone on to do other things. But that was the place where people with some drive, some desire, and, I guess, some talent, would function, and agents would come to see it.

00:26:50 You were trying to get agents to see you. You were trying to get somebody to see you and change your life.

00:26:56 ALICE WINKLER: Richards got a little bit of work in radio dramas, but even there, roles for an African American actor were tough to come by.

00:27:04 LLOYD RICHARDS: Now the fact was, with there being so few roles — and the fact was, I did not necessarily, in radio, come over as a black actor. And they would say, "There are things you can play, but I can't cast you." I said, "Why?" They said, "Well, you know, there are such things as sponsors, and our programs go into the South, and if it was ever known that you, as a black actor, were playing something else...”

00:27:32 So you ran into that all the time. You weren't generally told that, but you knew that was behind it. You knew it because there were the exceptions, the people who said, "I want you to do this. You're a talented young person, and you should work." And so you'd end up with a shot on a show like Helen Trent or Jungle Jim or The Greatest Story Ever Told; Henry Danker, a wonderful writer and human being. Then I had a running part on a show called Mr. Jolly's Hotel for Pets.

00:28:15 ALICE WINKLER: It was not easy to track down sound of Lloyd Richards in one of these roles, but I did find a radio drama from the '50s he was in. It's called The Log of the Louisiana, part of a series on American history, produced by NBC and the American Legion. See if you recognize his voice.

00:28:33 LLOYD RICHARDS: Now, in another 30 minutes, men, we'll be ready to strike. Fifty yards down this trail, we'll spread out, fan-wise. Now have your torches ready. At my signal, set fire to the woods. They're tinder dry; they'll burn like parchment. Are you with me?

00:28:48 MEN: Yes, sir. We're with you.

00:28:50 LLOYD RICHARDS: Light the torches, men.

00:28:53 That's it. Look alive! Keep them away from the brush until I give the word.

00:28:57 MAN: Torches are lit, sir.

00:28:58 LLOYD RICHARDS: All right, then. Let's get to work!

00:29:01 ALICE WINKLER: Lloyd Richards was able to piece together enough roles to make a life in the theater, always pushing to widen the cracks in the armor of a culture that did not respect or value people of color. Then — bam! — along came A Raisin in the Sun.

00:29:18 LLOYD RICHARDS: A Raisin in the Sun was a big risk. Not necessarily for me, but it was for a lot of other people. And, of course, I was putting a lot on the line. But A Raisin in the Sun happened in a strange way. As a struggling actor, you meet many other struggling actors, and I do remember Sidney Poitier as an actor you’d meet making the rounds. And when you're both quite broke — and I even recall sharing a hot dog with Sidney because neither one of us could afford to have a whole one by yourself.

00:29:59 My God. And Sidney did say, at some point, "You know, if I ever do a major Broadway show, I'd want you to direct it." That's something said in the middle of the night, you know, which would have been over a beer if you could afford one. But it was only fantasy promises or an aspect of a dream, and so it — some dreams come true.

00:30:30 And I remember getting a call from Sidney, saying — which was at a time when Sidney had begun to make it. He was making films. Sidney was six feet, something tall — a thin, attractive man. He could play leading roles. I was always a character man and had to accept the fact that I would probably get to do some of the roles that I had done in college when I got to be 62 years old or 70 years old or whatever.

00:31:03 I was short. I guess I had a certain amount of charm, but I was not — and there were no roles for young character black people at that time, you know. And so Sidney had gone ahead and made it, and I was teaching and doing what I could do to stay alive in the theater because that's what I found. I had to stay alive in it, and that's why I went back to directing, and I did all the other things that I could do, as well as act, and act Off-Broadway.

00:31:31 But I did get the call from Sidney. He said he had read a wonderful play, which had been submitted to him, that he wanted to do, and he wanted to suggest me to direct it. And he sent me a copy of the script, which was A Raisin in the Sun, and my wife and I read it that night, and we howled, and we cried, and we had a wonderful time reading it.

00:31:55 And I told him I was interested, and he said, "Well, I'll arrange for you to meet the playwright, Lorraine Hansberry.” And that was a wonderful experience. We hit it off, and we decided, "Okay, let's do it." Well, that was an adventure. It certainly was an adventure because that was not a good investment for anyone to make. So we started out to try and do A Raisin in the Sun. Now, Lorraine — we were rewriting the play, so we met once a week and talked about it, and Lorraine would work on it.

00:32:29 And I would challenge her to things, and she would top me in what she wrote, and it was a wonderful year, in that respect. It took that long to work on it. We weren't working on it simply because we wanted to work on it. We just could not get the money to produce it. I remember spending hours and hours sitting in the anterooms of the Schubert Organization, trying to get a theater, you know. There were no theaters. Investors did not consider that a play about a black family was something that would return its investment.

00:33:11 So we — in the time, which began in about November, through that whole spring, and into the summer, we had been unable to raise the money, and we ended up, a year later, in December, going into rehearsal just having made the nut. And we had scheduled four days in New Haven, a week in Philadelphia, and had nothing past that. So the possibility was that we would go into rehearsal, we would open in New Haven, get to Philadelphia, and then have to close because we had no theater, and we didn't have the money to stay alive.

00:33:58 And we went to New Haven. Philadelphia opened to a little bit more than half a house, and by the fourth day, we were a sell-out. And the Schuberts came and saw the show in Philadelphia. They said they did not have a theater for us in New York, but if we would go to Chicago for eight weeks, they would underwrite the show against loss, and they would have a theater for us in New York, the Barrymore, and it was quite an exhilarating opening.

00:34:34 ALICE WINKLER: The show opened in New York on Broadway in 1959.

00:34:38 LLOYD RICHARDS: I can recall Sidney calling Lorraine and me to the stage at the end of the show, and there was a large ovation and whatnot, and I remember going to Sardi's afterward and walking into Sardi's and suddenly hearing applause. And I looked around to see whom the applause was for, and it was for me. That was, you know, your peers acknowledging your work, and that was an accolade and a very moving experience.

00:35:16 IRV DRASNIN: I mean at that time, did you see Raisin in the Sun as, one, this significant breakthrough and, two, as this monumental work in the American theater?

00:35:28 LLOYD RICHARDS: No. No, you don't look at it that way, you know. It is people later who recall it or make it history. You know, you have no sense of — it's just work, you know. It's a good play, and you get good people to do it, and you do the best you can, and it has nothing to do with making history. It has to do with making the work work, you know — creating a piece that works for you, works for me, and that all of the other things that happen from that are surprises.

00:36:05 ALICE WINKLER: He may not have had the perspective of time to know that it would make history, but he did know, back in 1959, that Raisin in the Sun was shaking the rafters.

00:36:15 LLOYD RICHARDS: We were in Philadelphia, and we had opened without anyone really being conscious that we were there. The third day — or fourth — we began to really have some lines at the box office. I happened to be standing in the lobby, and there was a very small, thin black woman standing in line, and she had a shopping bag, and I know what those shopping bags are about.

00:36:49 My mother used to carry one. And they were the badge of the housekeepers. Well, this was obviously one of those women. And she got up to the ticket booth, and she asked for a ticket, and she put up a dollar, and the ticket man told her, "That'll be four dollars and 80 cents." She said, “Four dollars and 80 cents?" He went, "Yes." She said, "Why is it four dollars and 80 cents? I can see Sidney Poitier around the corner for 95 cents."

00:37:23 She was obviously referring to the movie. He said, "Well, it's four dollars and 80 cents here." So she took her four dollars and 80 cents, which I knew was hard-earned, and she put it up, and she got her ticket, and she started to leave. And I stopped her, and I asked her, "Why are you paying four dollars and 80 cents and coming back tonight to see Sidney Poitier, who you could see around the corner for 95 cents?"

00:37:50 And she said, "Well, the word's going around in my neighborhood that there is something going on down here that concerns me, and I had to come find out what it was about." Now that's why I'm in the theater, to take those lives and to reveal them. Not just those lives, any life. I remember when we first did Fences, at Yale, at the Rep. My promotional manager, a wonderful woman, after a run-through — she had come to see a run-through, and so she sat with me afterward.

00:38:31 She said, "You know, I looked at the play, and I looked at that role that James Earl Jones is playing, and I said, 'You know, that's the man down the street. I know him. That's the man down the street.'" She said, a little further into the play, she said, “No, that's not the man down the street. That's my brother.” And a little further, she said, “No, not my brother. That's my father." She said, "At the end of the play, I said to myself, 'No, that's not my father. That's me.'"

00:39:08 And it's that kind of universality that stems from particularity that makes a work of value and reaches out beyond itself. Not by trying to reach out beyond itself but by reaching deeper into itself, to its own truth, and that's what's wonderful about theater for me.

00:39:33 ALICE WINKLER: That’s Lloyd Richards speaking to the Academy of Achievement in 1991, at the Yale School of Drama, where he served as dean and artistic director of the Yale Rep for twelve years. Lloyd Richards was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1993. He died in 2006 on his 87th birthday. Playwright August Wilson died eight months before him at the age of just 60.

00:40:01 Within weeks of his death, Broadway’s Virginia Theatre was renamed the August Wilson Theatre. This is What It Takes from the Academy of Achievement. I’m Alice Winkler.

00:40:17 Our hashtag is #WhatItTakesNow. Thanks to the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation for making What It Takes possible, and thank you for listening.


What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.