"Our own visions": August Wilson, Lloyd Richards, and the O'Neill--the making of Ma Rainey and a playwright
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In this dissertation I examine the creation of August Wilson's first commercially and critically successful play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and the essential roles of his mentor--director Lloyd Richards--and the O'Neill Theater Center in that creation. A three-part chronology gives detailed biographical sketches of the two men, including their work at the O'Neill Center and their similar familial backgrounds, as well as an overview of American theater in the twentieth century, with a special emphasis on African-American drama, placing Wilson's and Richards' work in context. Drawing on interviews and articles about these men and their working relationship, a close view is given of the in-depth revision that Wilson and Richards practiced on Ma Rainey and subsequently on the six plays that they produced together; revision began as soon as Wilson completed a draft of the play and continued well into rehearsals and even performances as each production travelled around the country, ending with a run on Broadway. After working together on the Ma Rainey script for almost two years after meeting at the O'Neill, Wilson and Richards staged the play first at Yale and finally on Broadway in October 1984. The many changes made to Ma Rainey between the time Wilson first submitted the play for consideration for the National Playwrights Conference at the O'Neill and the Broadway script was finalized reveal the profound influence of Richards in terms of overall structure, characterization, scope of stage directions, tone, and message, and other aspects of the play. The program that Richards shaped as artistic director of the O'Neill was focused on extensive rewriting within a workshop environment for playwrights; this approach was the foundation for the way he and Wilson worked together and made it possible for the playwright to realize ambitions that had eluded him. With Richards' genius for working with playwrights--his own original success was with Lorraine Hansberry and A Raisin in the Sun--and his powerful connections in the theater world, he was able to propel his discovery, Wilson, to become one of the most acclaimed American playwrights in history.