Signature Theatre Company: A season of August Wilson

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When African-American playwright August Wilson suddenly passed away this year at the age of 60, it was a great loss to the American theatrical community. Wilson left a definitive mark on American theater, especially through his recent 10-play series that captures African-American life from the 1900s through each decade of the 20th century. Audiences now will have the opportunity to see three of the internationally renowned playwright?s most profound pieces during the Signature Theatre Company?s 2006-2007 season.

Every year for the past 15 years, the company has picked one playwright?s works to present over the course of its entire season. This year?s season, which runs from July 31 through the spring of 2007, will feature Wilson?s Seven Guitars (July 31-September 23), Two Trains Running (November), and King Hedley II (February 2007). The plays represent the 1940s, ?50s and ?60s, respectively, and depict the Black experience in America during those decades.

The choice of Wilson presents ?a very unique situation,? says James Houghton, founder of Signature Theatre Company, because the company always works with living playwrights for its season. Although Wilson did pass away this year, Houghton actually worked closely with the playwright for three years in planning The August Wilson Series. ?He was very excited about this and delighted to be part of it. He walked through the theater, with our display boards featuring past shows, and felt a great sense of pride knowing that he would be a part of what we do. We had many meetings and hours of planning, so this is something he felt quite passionate about,? Houghton says.

Wilson was anxious to do Two Trains Running and King Hedley because he felt they had room to be discovered by a new audience, Houghton says. ?Seven Guitars from the ?40s, that comes right out of the blues music, which was a huge influence on August. It makes sense to present that when representing a portion of his body of work,? he says.

In celebration of its 15th season, the company is offering an unprecedented deal: tickets to all three productions may be purchased for a mere $50, $15 for each play, plus a $5 service fee. The idea of seeing three of August Wilson?s most powerful plays for only $50 is almost unimaginable. Gem of the Ocean, the last August Wilson play seen on Broadway, starring Felicia Rashad, commanded $45-$85 per ticket.

?These plays will be presented for the first time at an affordable rate and in an intimate setting. It will be a whole new audience introduced to the work in such a way that it will really come alive. It?s such an important thing that we all gather together to celebrate August. He was one of the fierce voices of the American theater. Then that $15 ticket price makes it possible that almost all of us can get together and experience this incredible American poet,? Houghton says.

Anyone who has seen an August Wilson play likely would agree that it is a riveting, thought-provoking experience. Although at first you may not get all the subtle messages contained in the play, those messages increasingly become clear as you mull the play over.

?I want the audience to fully comprehend the significance of August. He was by far a crucial American voice and accomplished such a contribution to the American canon. I want them to get turned on by his work,? Houghton says.

The plays will be presented at The Peter Norton Space, the company?s home, at 555 West 42nd Street, New York City (between 10th and 11th avenues). Tickets, including the $50 package, can be purchased in person at the Signature box office, by calling 212-244-PLAY, or online via the company?s Web site at www.signaturetheatre.org.