Published in KPBS On Air Magazine March 1991
“He’s got more titles than the Queen of England,” said La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Des McAnuff when introducing Lloyd Richards at a UCSD theater conference last year. “If this were Japan , he’d be considered a national treasure.”
Richards has certainly contributed his vast resources to the American theater _ as actor, director, innovator and administrator. Born in Detroit , he came to New York in 1948 as an actor, and played on and off Broadway, and on radio and television. In 1957, he was asked by Sidney Poitier to direct Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun”, becoming the first black director of a drama on Broadway. In 1968, he became artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. Ever a leader, Richards seems to gravitate to the position of President: for the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, the Theatre Development Fund and the Theatre Communications Group (the national organization for the nonprofit professional theater). He also serves on the National Council for the Arts.
Perhaps his highest profile has been as Dean of the Yale School of Drama and Artistic Director of the Yale Repertory Theatre, for the past thirteen years. (He plans to retire in June). But Richards started to become a theater-household name when he began his collaborations with August Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Richards has directed five World premieres of Wilson plays: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences” (for which he won a Tony Award for Best Director), “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson” and, most recently, “Two Trains Running”, which opens at the Old Globe Theatre March 14.
In these five plays, Wilson has been chronicling the history of black Americans in the twentieth century, decade by decade. In a telephone call crammed into his sardine-can schedule, Richards said of Wilson , “He has vision, and poetry. He’s exposing a part of black life in this country. His characters are valid. I know them, I recognize them. I heard them in neighborhood barber shops, on street corners. They talk religion, baseball, politics, philosophy. August must have heard them, too.”
Critical to the work of August Wilson , and to Richards as the caretaker of Wilson ‘s voice, are the oral tradition, the supernatural, the poetic and the musical. “I consider us both musicians,” Richards says, likening their collaborations to jazz jamming. “We interact and play off each other.”
Richards will talk freely about his past and about his work, but he has certain interview untouchables: He never counts honors or awards, grey hairs or years. And he never compares one Wilson play to another. “My business is to appreciate the work and try to reveal it, not to measure it against anything. That’s kind of like comparing your children. It’s very tough to create a work. You don’t run around telling the neighbors which one is better.”
““Two Trains Running” has already been to New Haven (Yale), Boston and Seattle . Critics in those cities were less reluctant to compare. Many considered it to be, as Richards did two months ago, a work in progress. They also called it candid, joyous, comedic, preachy, poetic, exciting, repetitive, frustratingly episodic, compelling, sensitive, pedantic and stunning.
To Richards, it reflects “the promise of America .” The play takes place in Pittsburgh , May 1968, a month after the slaying of Martin Luther King. “It was a time of social upheaval,” Richards explains, “but not everyone was in the middle of the struggle, although everyone was living with the consequences of it.” The characters are the regulars of a small cafe slated for demolition. They struggle to save the restaurant, while debating the bigger struggles of politics and civil rights. “All struggle is hopeful,” says Richards. “These people have a great deal of hope. The ability to achieve and triumph does not destroy the dream.”
There’s an old black expression, “There are two trains running, and neither one’s going my way.” The trains of the play’s title have been interpreted to mean life and death, black and white, African spirituality and American materialism, separatism and integration, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Wilson has said “There are always and only two trains running… Each of us ride them both.”
“Freedom is heavy,” intones Memphis , a character in the play. And, in a similar vein, Richards adds, “Creating an American theater based in cultural diversity can be hazardous, if not devastating.” But he continues to assert that “Cultural diversity IS the American Theater,” and he tries to bring a part of that to regional theaters all over the country. “My aim,” he says, “is to take these plays and share them with the nation.” San Diego has been treated to two prior visits of Wilson-Richards productions: “Joe Turner” and “The Piano Lesson”.
But now Richards is leaving Yale. What does that mean for the future? “I never talk about my next project,” he says, closing the conversational door. “I don’t know what I’ll do after I retire from Yale. I only know how to act, direct, produce and teach.”
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.