The beauty of the late playwright August Wilson’s prolific canon is its immortality; his protagonists and antagonists live on in
perpetuity and–depending on the phase of life you encounter them– your interpretation too may evolve through the ages.
Under the direction of Derrick Sanders, one of Wilson’s protégés, a student at his knee as it were, Sanders is hailed as being among the youngest (if not the youngest) directors to helm the entire anthology: beloved as important historical reflections of black life in America.
Wilson (b.1945 – d.2005) authored Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (New York Drama Critics Circle Award), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (NYDCC Award), The Piano Lesson (Pulitzer Prize and NYDCC Award), Seven Guitars (NYDCC Award), Fences (Pulitzer Prize, Tony and NYDCC Awards), Two Trains Running (NYDCC Award), Jitney (Olivier and NYDCC Awards), King Hedley II and Radio Golf.
These works explore the heritage and experience of African Americans, decade by decade, over the course of the 20th century. His plays have been produced at regional theaters across the country and all over the world, as well as on Broadway. He received an Emmy Award nomination for his screenplay adaptation of The Piano Lesson.
Wilson received numerous fellowships and awards, including Rockefeller and Guggenheim Fellowships in Playwriting, the Whiting Writers Award, Heinz Award and the National Humanities Medal. Following his death in October 2005, the Broadway theater located at 245 West 52nd Street was renamed the August Wilson Theatre.
In 2004 and 2007, respectively, Sanders was assistant director of August Wilson’s world premiere productions of Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf on Broadway.
As the founding artistic director of Congo Square Theatre Company in Chicago, he directed numerous productions including Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which won Black Theatre Alliance Awards for best production and direction; Seven Guitars, which won Joseph Jefferson Awards for best production and direction; and the world premiere of Deep Azure.
A member of University of Illinois at Chicago Theatre Faculty, he organizes Chicago’s August Wilson Monologue Competition. He was named Chicago Tribune’s Chicagoan of the Year in 2005. In March, Sanders made his filmmaking debut at the Queens World Film Festival in New York City with the premiere of his short Perfect Day. He received his BFA from Howard University and MFA from University of Pittsburgh.
Recently, we spoke by phone, on his way to a FENCES performance–
Sandra Varner/Talk2SV: One’s interpretation of an August Wilson play may vary depending on when you see it and the path of life’s journey you’re taking…
Derrick Sanders: Yes, that’s exactly right. I will agree with that.
Talk2SV: It is said of you to be “the anointed one” when it comes to the continued success of August Wilson’s theatrical legacy. What say you?
Sanders: When I began my journey with August, he was already at the top of world culture; he was a Broadway darling, celebrated all across the world. My being able to meet him, connect with him and get to work with him was totally a privilege and my honor. For him to see something in me and say, I want to pass this information along to this guy was my honor.
I got an opportunity with the man; an opportunity to understand [the work] from his perspective. When I do an August Wilson play, it’s always a deeply personal experience, reflecting a story based on knowing where the story came from; where he was in his life. I knew what his intent was and what was going on around the production; so a lot of the work that I do has much to do with that relationship.
Talk2SV: Well, let’s move into discussing your handling of Wilson’s beloved and iconic characters in Fences. Specifically, Troy Maxson (Carl Lumbly) described as one of the greatest characters of American theater.
Troy has stepped up to the plate too many times in his life only to go down swinging. Shut out of the big leagues by prejudice, the former Negro League homerun king is now a garbage collector with little future. He tries to do right by his family, but when his youngest son Cory shows promise on the high school football team, Troy must come to terms with his past disappointments or risk tearing his family apart.
When I first saw the play years ago, I viewed Troy Maxson as a flawed character; in recent observance he seems more a tortured soul. Is he either or neither?
Sanders: Tortured soul… I would say restless soul. He’s tortured by his past and his experiences but, we all are on some level, aren’t we?
Talk2SV: This time around, in your presentation of Fences, Troy appears more of a jock; I never viewed him that way before.
Sanders: Troy is a jock…what do you mean by jock?
Talk2SV: He was a good ballplayer who enjoyed the fringes of success. Were we to bring him into contemporary times: he had fame, relative fortune, women—he had moxie–but existed in the era of extreme racial segregation. He didn’t have opportunity to fully exploit the fringe by virtue of being black.
Sanders: I would say he was an athlete. He was also a man who is lost, out of his time but, everything that he learned about manhood he taught himself, basically. He went out on his own at age 14. A lot of his code and really his life’s experience are about aesthetics, the code of the man, and his own code. When he starts to betray his own code, that’s when he is in a dangerous situation, according to August’s world. Yeah, I think he was a man of sports but more than anything he was a self-made man. The type who are self-taught, a self-reared man; he didn’t have a mama, a daddy that was missing so that backdrop makes a certain kind of man.
Talk2SV: Could we, in some ways, loosely borrow from that description of Troy Maxson to parallel your present standing as an
acclaimed director? One who is moving away from apprentice to journeyman status, making your own imprint, when it comes to handling Wilson’s works?
Sanders: Yeah, I guess…
Talk2SV: Well, another way of asking might be, at some point in your career, are you moving away from being the person who learned from August Wilson to Derrick Sanders with his own imprint? Never taking away from Wilson, never divorcing yourself from him but at some point, move from under his identity.
Sanders: Oh, yeah, definitely. I bow down to the script that I’m doing in many ways. August was a teacher and a mentor; you bow down to your teacher. You say, ‘OK, I’ve learned a lot from you but all the ideas and the way I visualize the play and my understanding of the rhythm of the play are my own. They are my sensibilities; it’s not the way that August would direct the play. It is the way that Derrick Sanders sees it. But I always mark it with the sensibility I believe was August Wilson’s.
Talk2SV: Moreover, this time around, I found your Fences to be intriguing from the oft times Mano-a-mano stance Troy took with his son, Cory (Eddie Ray Jackson); resignation with his stepson, Lyons (Tyee Tilghman); melancholy with his brother, Gabriel (Adrian Roberts) and unflinching honesty with his best friend, Jim Bono (Steven Anthony Jones). On previous viewings, I was more sympathetic to Rose, Troy’s wife (Margo Hall).
Sanders: [laughs] Yeah, well, the play is partly that. I believe all the moral centers of August Wilson’s plays are found in his female characters because his mother was his moral center. He grew up in a single family household even though his rearing came from the men; his understanding of the world came from men but the moral center has always been his mother. You try to acknowledge that; Troy is a big man so the visceral natures of the men arguments make a deeper impact, sometimes. I understand how you could see that.
Talk2SV: The friendship between Troy and Bono showed more compassion this time around.
Sanders: Wow, that’s great. Well, black men get engraved into this idea of themselves and the world of them that in some ways goes missing in the game. The compassion and the heart and the love and the tough love are a part of many black men’s upbringing when it comes to an explanation of an absentee father. It’s not an excuse but it’s a responsibility; take responsibility for your own mistakes and live up to your own expectations. All those things are explained in this play.
Talk2SV: Yes, I made mental note. Troy made some poor choices but he was also a good provider who wanted to stand firmly as head of household; that’s why I think he’s so complex.
Sanders: Yeah, he is very complex, especially in today’s era. I truly believe there are some people who tend to want to shift blame,
they look for blame, and it’s never my fault. That said there are some who will admit to their missteps–are ashamed of them–and take responsibility. Troy is complicated but takes responsibility for his actions.
Talk2SV: Wilson’s plays really help me appreciate my father’s era: men of such potential but few opportunities.
Sanders: Exactly and that to me is a tribute to the men of that era; my father and my grandfather. It’s a tribute to those men; those silent suffering soldiers without opportunity.
The Marin Theatre Company and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre present, August Wilson’s FENCES through May 11, 2014. Tickets: $37–$58 (discounts available for seniors and ages under 30); Group sales, call (415) 388-5200, ext. 3302, marintheatre.org | (415) 388-5208 | email@example.com