A small, round man with a graying goatee and a whisper-soft voice, Lloyd Richards has been called everything from "the theatrical Duke Ellington" to a "black Santa Claus."
He's also been described this way: "He's a big man but he don't act like a big man. . . . He can go anywhere and sit with his back to the door because he knows he ain't done nothing to no one. How many men can sit with their back to the door?"
That description comes from a skit presented last year at a benefit honoring Richards' retirement after 12 years in the dual -- roles of dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre. It was written by August Wilson, one of an impressive list of playwrights whose careers have been shepherded by Richards over the past three decades. Other names with which the director is invariably linked include the late Lorraine Hansberry and the South African writer Athol Fugard.
Richards' relationship with Wilson, however, is special -- closer, more formative, almost parental. Richards was not only the first to recognize Wilson's play writing ability a decade ago, but he has also directed the initial productions of all of his plays, including the current quadruple Tony Award nominee, "Two Trains Running," and "The Piano Lesson" -- winner of the 1990 Pulitzer Prize and the only Wilson play to have a post-Broadway tour. On Tuesday, "The Piano Lesson" begins a four-week run at the Mechanic Theatre, the final stop on its eight-month tour.
'The Piano Lesson'
Set in Pittsburgh in 1936, "The Piano Lesson" continues Wilson's decade-by-decade chronicle of the black experience in 20th century America. The play focuses on an heirloom piano, decorated with elaborate carvings that hark back to the days of slavery, and which becomes the subject of a heated argument between a brother and sister about the proper function of a legacy.
It seems appropriate that this play about a legacy also says a lot about the ongoing relationship between its director and playwright, as well as about Richards' approach to theater in general.
"The Piano Lesson" got its start in Waterford, Conn., in the summer of 1986 as a staged reading at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center's National Playwrights Conference, where Richards has served as artistic director since 1968. The O'Neill -- was also the place where Richards first identified Wilson's play-writing skills back in 1982 with a play set in a 1920s recording studio; the play, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," became Wilson's Broadway debut.
This doesn't mean there was an immediate spark between the two men, however. To the contrary, Wilson submitted scripts to the O'Neill for several years before "Ma Rainey" was accepted. Interviewed over the phone from his home in New York, Richards admits he doesn't remember those earlier efforts, but he does remember the source of the problem. "[Wilson] was a poet. He couldn't write dialogue," the director recalls. But he continues -- and the fatherly feeling behind his words is unmistakable -- "He was persistent, and I respect that."
When "Ma Rainey" crossed the older man's desk -- Richards refuses to reveal his exact age, but he is approximately a generation older than Wilson, who was born in 1945 -- the director felt an instant familiarity with the material. "The characters that he creates are people I know, people I've met. As a matter of fact, I used to go and listen to them as a young man," says Richards, son of a Jamaican-born carpenter, who immigrated to Canada and then to Detroit, where the young Richards grew up.
"I used to go to the barbershop on Saturdays," Richards continues, "and listen to the older men talk about sports and philosophy and politics. It was like sitting at the feet of the elders, and August's characters were in that barbershop."
An artistic partnership
For his part, Wilson, reached at his home in Seattle, describes the key to their artistic partnership this way: "He doesn't write for me and I don't direct for him." But then he gives an example that suggests a considerably deeper level of trust and understanding. "When I sent Lloyd the draft of 'Piano Lesson,' he called me up and he said, 'I think you have one too many scenes in here.'. . . And sure enough, I find a scene I can do without, and I take it out," the playwright explains. "To this day I don't know if we were talking about the same scene. He wanted me to go through there and find it myself. It's the way he works with actors, also -- letting them find what it is he wants them to find."
A similar example of trust characterized the search for an ending for "The Piano Lesson." Three weeks into rehearsals, Richards told the cast and playwright, " 'The Piano Lesson' does not have an end for this presentation. I will devise an end.' So I devised a finish for it, but we were conscious of the fact that we were in search of the real culmination of this work." The search continued as "The Piano Lesson" was produced at theaters in a half dozen cities -- with almost as many different endings -- before reaching Broadway in April 1990, with, at long last, the definitive ending.
This slow-cooking, production-sharing method of play development is a process Richards forged out of necessity when he was unable to find producers willing to mount a Broadway production of Wilson's second play, "Fences," which went on to win him the first of two Pulitzer Prizes.
Ironically, Richards faced almost the same problems at the start of his career, when he directed the original 1959 Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," a production financed by, as he puts it, "lots of little people." "Raisin" gave Richards a national profile as the first black director of a Broadway drama, but at the time, he recalls, "There had not been a play on Broadway about black life . . . So 'smart' money avoided the play, and 'smart' producers avoided the play." Three decades later, when he was looking for backers for "Fences," he says, "the same people said the same things . . . So we had to find another route."
Wilson's next play
Wilson is currently working on a new play, "Moon Going Down," about blues musicians in the 1940s. The script won't have a staged reading at the O'Neill this summer. The playwright submitted it, then decided it wasn't ready and withdrew it. Nor rTC does it seem likely that "Moon Going Down" will debut at the Yale Repertory Theatre, where all of Wilson's previous scripts premiered during Richards' tenure as artistic director.
Though the venues may change, the collaboration between Wilson and Richards will undoubtedly continue. "I'm just not interested in working with another director," Wilson says bluntly.
And, of course, these days Richards has more time than ever to devote to Wilson. In his first full year away from Yale, the director has worked on only two plays, both by Wilson -- the Broadway production of "Two Trains Running" and the touring production of "The Piano Lesson." That's not all he's been up to, however. He's also done some teaching at Princeton University; he recently completed a six-year term on the National Council for the Arts; and he's currently deep in the process of selecting scripts for this summer's session at the O'Neill. In addition, he and his wife of 34 years have given up their New Haven residence and moved into their New York townhouse full-time. He jokes that trying to combine two households into one was "the biggest job I've done in the last year."
Richards says he has had no contact with his Yale successor -- former Center Stage artistic director Stan Wojewodski Jr. "I have deliberately stayed away," he explains. "I feel and believe that he, or anyone going into that position, needs the time and space to create his own school."
And for the first time in years, Lloyd Richards is savoring the chance to do what he wants to do when he wants to do it. "The difference in my life is that now as I work, I can take that breath, take a moment, where for the past 12 years, 30 questions would appear and demand an urgent answer. Now," he says, with an audible sigh of relief, "I can select where my head goes next."
'The Piano Lesson'
When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Through June 7.
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.
Call: (410) 625-1400.