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Reviving August Wilson’s Oeuvre, Play by Play

Chicago director Ron OJ Parson discusses his close relationship with the late playwright’s work

Photo: Joe Mazza

In-demand theater director Ron OJ Parson is fond of the work of August Wilson, who chronicled the black experience in 10 plays — one set in each decade of the 20th century. Parson has staged eight of them, in a total of 27 productions. His latest, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, set in a 1920s Chicago recording studio, premieres at Writers Theatre on February 6 ($60–$80).

You’ve staged Ma Rainey four times previously. How do you keep finding something fresh?

When you have new designers and new actors, that brings a different point of view. I’m hoping to get [jazz trumpeter] Orbert Davis to help me with some of the music. I want to record Felicia Fields, who plays Ma Rainey, so the preshow music is her doing the songs versus the old tapes of Ma Rainey herself.

What have you discovered about Wilson through so many stagings of his work?

When he wrote Ma Rainey, he was breaking into playwriting, and he was a poet. There’s a music in the language. What I try to do is to bring his spirit into the work, things that he talked about when he wrote the plays: ancestors’ voices talking to him, spirits talking to him, that kind of thing.

It feels like you’ve kind of developed an acting company of your own.

You know, in these plays, I do like to have people who have either done Wilson or have an affinity for it: Wilsonites. They know what I’m talking about; they know how to feel it.

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