Ricardo Pitts-Wiley pursues his dream of working on every play in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle

By Caitlin Howle

(left to right) Melanie Jones & Barbara Meek in Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, adapted and directed by Larry Arrick, 1975, photo by William L. Smith.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley is no stranger to the Trinity Rep stage. Beginning as an Acting Fellow in 1974, Ricardo was part of one of the first teams of young actors recruited by Adrian Hall, Trinity Rep’s first artistic director, to perform on stage and earn their membership in the Actors’ Equity Association, which Ricardo did two years later. Since then he has appeared in more than two dozen productions with his most recent appearance at Trinity Rep being 2001’s The Cider House Rules, directed by Oskar Eustis. Now he returns as Elder Joseph Barlow in August Wilson’s Radio Golf.

As Doaker with Rose Weaver in The Piano Lesson by August Wilson, directed by Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, 2001. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Ricardo’s experience with Wilson is deep. He has a personal goal to appear in or work on all of the plays in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle, ten plays set in each decade of the twentieth century — a goal he’s nearly reached. He says, “If there’s such a thing as a Shakespearean canon, there’s such a thing now as an August Wilson canon. If you understand the scope of the work, all the plays, the archetypal characters that he created, the consistency of style, the monologues, the great storytelling, the rhythm of his plays is very, very significant. Every role in Shakespeare that I’ve wanted to play, I’ve had the chance to do. Now, it’s the work of Wilson that I’d like to finish.”

As The Old African with Barbara Meek in Boesman and Lena by Athol Fugard, directed by Larry Arrick, 1977. Photo by Robert Emerson.

Ricardo has appeared in three staged productions of August Wilson’s work – Radio Golf will be his fourth. His work at Trinity Rep includes the 1987 production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, in the role of Levee, with Barbara Meek as Ma Rainey. He then played Jim Bono in Fences in the 1991-92 Season. He has also been featured in various roles within the show three other times at other theaters, including one directed by his son, Jonathan Pitts-Wiley. Ricardo’s last appearance in an August Wilson production at Trinity Rep was The Piano Lesson in the 2000-01 Season, where he was featured as Doaker. He has also appeared in staged readings of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Jitney, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, and King Hedley II. This, for those of you keeping track, means that he only needs Gem of the Ocean to have participated in the entire cycle.

As Mr. Fezziwig with Phyllis Kay in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, adapted by Adrian Hall & Richard Cumming, directed by Mark Lerman, 1999. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

For newcomers to August Wilson, Ricardo is the person you want to go to to explore what a play means and how it relates to the world. During Ricardo’s impressive career, he’s seen how each of the plays has come to fruition, but also how they have aged as time has gone by. To begin to dive into August Wilson, Ricardo notes, “It’s really very often Black communities in conflict with themselves. There’s an outside oppressive force, but we already know what that oppressive force is, so you don’t have to explore that very deeply. You deal with the conflict within the community and then, very often, within the house.” He also points out that Wilson’s work is not always about whom you think it’s about — it often involves a closer look at who is really telling the story. Ricardo has examined Radio Golf as closely as he can, looking at how the world has changed since 2005 when this, the final play in Wilson’s American Century Cycle, was first staged. “Writing about a Black mayor in Pittsburgh in this time frame may have seemed progressive then. Just look where we are now, Montgomery, Alabama just elected a Black mayor. The argument is less about the political impact of Black people or the political potential of Black people, but the value of neighbors and neighborhoods. Gentrification is not a new phenomenon to us now, but it is new in Radio Golf.”

As Uncle Tom with David Kennett & Monique Fowler in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: A History by Adrian Hall & Richard Cumming, directed by Adrian Hall, 1978.
Photo by Robert Emerson.

Ricardo now has the privilege of being a seasoned veteran when it comes to the stage, which is something, he believes, will help not only inform his character — but also his performance. He says, “Coming back into the mix, I’m curious to know how I can bring what I’ve learned to the table.” Ricardo talks about how he approaches a production now, juggling multiple hats as an actor, playwright, director, artistic director, and teacher, and says that what helps him prepare the most for a play is to “clear out his life.” He makes the play the focus, tying up loose ends in his life before getting into the rehearsal room so that he can devote himself to getting to know the role that’s in front of him. As for Elder Joseph Barlow, Ricardo says in preparation for this role, “I’m trying to find his heartbeat.” In addition to getting to work with Wilson’s text, there were two things that really excited Ricardo about this particular production. The first was the opportunity to work with director Jude Sandy. “Jude is a tremendous talent. When news of this production came out, I might have called [artistic director] Curt Columbus to say, ‘This is something I’d be interested in doing.’ I had never done that before.” The second reason? “It’s also about the chance to work with Joe Wilson, Jr.”

As Banquo with Timothy Crowe (left) in Macbeth by William Shakespeare, directed by Richard Jenkins, 1992. Photo by Mark Morelli.

Ricardo is more than an accomplished actor. He has also been at the helm of some of Rhode Island’s greatest theater projects, including Mixed Magic Theater, which Ricardo, and his wife of 43 years, Bernadet, founded in Providence in 2000. (The current artistic director is their son, Jonathan.) In 2017, this veteran of Rhode Island’s theater scene was honored with a Pell Award for Artistic Achievement.

We’re thrilled to see Ricardo Pitts-Wiley back at Trinity Rep and can’t wait to see what he does next.