About the author:
Chuck Cooper’s soulful singing voice has delighted Broadway audiences since 1983, when he made his debut in Amen Corner. He went on to appear in Chicago, Caroline, or Change, Lennon, Finian’s Rainbow, Passion and The Life (winning a Tony Award) and has taught master classes at Yale, NYU and other colleges. Now, Cooper is making beautiful music as dandyish Wining Boy in Signature Theatre Company's acclaimed revival of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. Below, he recalls the moment he fell in love with the playwright's Pittsburgh Cycle of plays charting the experience of African Americans in the 20th century and reveals his dream of becoming a “Wilson warrior.”
My life in the theater can be divided into two parts: before August Wilson, and after. Before I knew of his work I could not define who I was as an artist. After encountering his plays, I knew what kind of artist I wanted to be. But I could not have imagined how long the fight to become that artist would go on. It has been a battle for me to evolve into an actor of August Wilson plays. It has been my artistic Iliad.
Prior to my exposure to Mr. Wilson’s work, I had been a working actor for a decade. Although I’ve acted in plays and performed Shakespeare in regional theater, the New York theatrical community came to think of me as a singer in musicals. In 1983, I made my Broadway debut in Amen Corner. Unfortunately this show did not succeed because the music lacked the authentic African-American voice of James Baldwin’s original play. I would have to wait for August Wilson to hear that music.
The trajectory of my artistic path was forever altered in 1987 when I was introduced to Fences. It was the first time I had ever heard the rich music of the African-American story on a Broadway stage. It was genuine. It was passionate. It was poetic. It was the voice of my mother and father, my aunts and uncles, and my ancestors. The fertile soil of August Wilson’s words blossomed latent seeds of memory in my blood.
My Iliad to perform an August Wilson play took twice as long as Achilles’. For 20 years I tried in vain to be cast in one after another of these incredible plays. So many times I lamented my failure. But when I look back at it honestly, I must say that I lacked the maturity and the craft to handle the material. This was my Achilles heel. I needed that time to hone my skills. I had to earn the authenticity his great plays require.
My career moved forward nonetheless. And in every engagement, I learned and grew as a theater artist. I went on to perform on Broadway the works of Neil Simon, Frank McGuinness, Stephen Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, Cy Coleman and Tony Kushner. Then, in 2007, director Seret Scott hired me to play Memphis in Two Trains Running at the Old Globe. Finally I ascended into the ranks of those who have performed our great African-American playwright August Wilson. It was near nirvana! What bliss to sing an August Wilson aria! I was no longer just a singer in musicals. I was an actor!
Last year, Ruben Santiago-Hudson hired me to play Becker in Jitney at Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ. And I’m ever so grateful to him to be playing Wining Boy now in The Piano Lesson at Signature Theatre. The lesson in August Wilson's The Piano Lesson has to do with the contradictions of legacy. What are we to do with our legacy? What is the balance between holding on to it, and moving forward from it? The friction of these contradictions is a crucible that forges an unbreakable chain from the past to the future.
I no longer lament the Iliad of my past. I’m grateful for it. Working on The Piano Lesson has taught me that the struggle of the past presents the path to the future. This is the gift of my Iliad and Mr. Wilson’s’ play. My goal is to perform all 10 plays in The Pittsburgh Cycle. I want to be a Wilson warrior! This will be my Odyssey, my coming home to the voices of my ancestors.
I am forever indebted to August Wilson for creating an enduring body of work that both challenges my artistry and affirms my humanity.