The following is an abridged transcript of highlights from a January 2024 discussion between former Trinity Rep company member and Mixed Magic Theatre founder Ricardo Pitts-Wiley; and his son, Mixed Magic Theatre Artistic Director Jonathan Pitts-Wiley. The family has a rich history of artistic collaboration, including some of August Wilson’s plays. Please note: this interview contains Fences spoilers.

The Wilson Way

Jonathan Pitts-Wiley: I was introduced to August Wilson when I was like 6, because my dad was doing Fences at the time. Just by growing up with him, I’ve been around several productions of August Wilson plays.  

The first play I directed in college was The Piano Lesson. Then, I directed Fences at Mixed Magic in 2013 with my dad and a staged reading of King Hedley II in 2022 … I will always have a certain affinity for The Piano Lesson, but part of that is because directing it was kind of my debut. But if I had to pick one August Wilson play to run with for the rest of my life? My introduction to August Wilson in terms of what I remember was Fences, so it’s a tie for me between that and Piano Lesson.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley: I’ve been associated with all of them in some way at least once … I think my first was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Because it was my first, Ma Rainey is the one I have the most affection for. But the best written of them is Fences

Rose Weaver as Berniece and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley as Doaker in 2001’s The Piano Lesson. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

JPW: Ma Rainey’s a great show too, but it’s hard to do well. That show can be incredible, but you have to have cats who can play the instruments. If they’re faking it, it looks really bad! [laughter]

RPW: I feel that just like Ma Rainey, The Piano Lesson needs a wide range of actors to do it well. I also think of all of Wilson’s female characters, Berniece in The Piano Lesson is the hardest role. She’s torn between rage and love, but also this sense of fairness. 

JPW: The Piano Lesson is one of the finest family dramas in the American theater canon. And I think people don’t appreciate it on those terms because it’s Black. People see a play about a Black family and think “Yeah, that’s a great piece of the Black American canon,” but don’t group it with the “American canon.” It doesn’t have to be either or! Yes, it’s an excellent part of the Black theater canon, but it’s also just a great family drama talking about legacy and heirlooms. And it’s a great snapshot of a time in American history.  

RPW: And like so many great writers, Wilson kept his plays compact. They happen in one setting over a short period of time. The Piano Lesson takes place over a week. And Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place in just one day! Fences probably covers the widest range of time, but a lot of that is because of the time skip between the fourth and fifth acts.  

JPW: And even then, the bulk of the action is over the span of several months. 

RPW: I think it could even be several weeks. When the play starts, Troy already knows he’s fathered a child with another woman.  

JPW: You were Troy, then Bono, then Troy again, right? 

Gustave Johnson as Troy Maxson, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley as Jim Bono, and Barbara Meek as Rose in Trinity Rep’s 1992 production of Fences. Photo by Mark Morelli.

RPW: Yeah. I was Troy at New Rep[ertory Theatre], then Bono at Trinity Rep, and Troy again at Mixed Magic. The first time, I was probably too young to play Troy. By the time I was at Trinity Rep, I was at a better age to do it, but I don’t think Barbara Meek [Rose in the 1992 production] and I would have been a great pair. 

Barbara Meek was a superior actor. She had such discipline for the theater. It could be the final night of a show where you go backstage to say hi to Barbara, and she’d still be studying her book.  

JPW: Barbara Meek is one of the finest actors to grace the American stage. She’s done more for the craft than most people will ever know. And that’s just the facts! 

Family Business

JPW: Working with family can be complex. Figuring out where work ends, and your personal relationship begins can be both gratifying and difficult. It’s a family drama every day! But not necessarily in a bad way.  

RPW: Two of the best plays I have ever done in my life; my son directed me in. Our production of Fences was spectacular. And King Lear was the hardest play I ever did.  

There’s a saying that you’re always either too young or too old to play King Lear. They say if you’re too old and aren’t strong enough to carry Cordelia in at the end of the play, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. I’ve seen productions where someone else carries her in, or she’s dragged in, but to me, Lear has to carry his daughter in to make that moment.  

So I’m going to carry our Cordelia, and I don’t think there’ll be a problem. But I go to pick her up and I’m like “Whoa!” Then Jonathan had me walk across the yard with her, since it was an outdoor production. I made it, but … [laughter] 

Jonathan Pitts-Wiley. Photo by Marisa Lenardson.

JPW: You got through it! 

RPW: When Jonathan first [became artistic director at Mixed Magic Theatre], his life was also evolving personally. He was getting married, having kids, and buying a house. Bernadet [Pitts-Wiley, Mixed Magic co-founder], Jonathan, and I were determined to make sure the problems we faced in building the company were not going to be passed on to him. But just when we thought we had hit the crest of that hill, COVID hit.  

Time in is time out with things like that. If the COVID age lasted three years, that’s six years of time lost. That’s because whatever time it takes you to go into it, it takes just as long to get out of it. We knew the old way of theater wasn’t going to do it anymore. 

JPW: I think the value proposition of theater has to change. Even before COVID, we were competing with Netflix. Now we’re still competing with Netflix, but also people are out of practice going to live theater.  

I don’t think people appreciate the ways they’re experiencing reality virtually after the pandemic. We call it convenience, but what is the price of convenience? The exchange for convenience is disconnection. And this is not some harangue against technology. [Live] theater depends on people being present. 

RPW: [American Theater has] done a poor job in the last 25 years or so of the understanding the relationship between the artists and the audience. When I first got to Trinity Rep, [Founding Artistic Director] Adrian Hall would preach that the most important relationship in theater is between the actor and the audience. About 50 years ago, that relationship started to get unbalanced when academia and administration started to dictate the nature of theater. [Adrian’s] way of thinking is starting to come back around. The difference is the modern audience is no longer capable or willing to sit for three hours and watch a play.  

JPW: I don’t want to sit for a play for three hours! 

RPW: I don’t want to be in a play that’s three hours!  

JPW: When I direct a Wilson play, I’m like “Bro, we are going to move this thing along. We sprintin’.” Now, a sprint doesn’t mean we’re bulldozing important moments. 

RPW: Or ignoring important text. 

JPW: No, gosh no. You have to keep pushing forward. You hear the term “11 o’clock number” but – 

JPW and RPW (in near unison): I don’t want to be in the theater at 11 o’clock! [laughter] 

The Performance of Professional Sports

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley. Photo by Marisa Lenardson.

RPW: Professional sports are doing our job [as theater makers] better than we are. They have all the principles of the theater – the “actors” (players), the “director” (coach), the costumes, the set, the sound, the lights. What do they do that we aren’t doing anymore? 

Something happens live. When Tom Brady drops back, and Randy Moss is running to catch the ball and scores that touchdown, all 65,000 people in that stadium stand as one. You look at the person next to you and you say spiritually: “That only happened because we were here.” Whatever you paid for your ticket, you get paid back in that way. 

The theater I grew up in influenced me in the importance of that “impossible catch” in live theater. It isn’t the spectacle. It is the willingness to be spectacular.  

JPW: What’s great about theater is that the perfection changes every night. It’s never the same thing. I used to be an assistant lacrosse coach, and the overlap between sports and theater is much more than you’d think. You have these fleeting moments, but you also know when it’s happening.  

The same thing happens with theater. You can see the same production, same actors, but the worst thing you can do is be like “Hey, that moment was perfect on Wednesday night, do it just like that again.” Because it’ll never work! You can only appreciate perfection if you’re in the present.  

RPW: When I’m on stage, sometimes you can feel the moments coming. And when you feel it, I tell actors all the time: “Let, don’t make. Let the moment come to you.” 

JPW: And you as a fellow actor have to create a space for perfection to be possible. If you think you’re going to be a star at the expense of the ensemble, you’re gonna have a hard time, bro.  

RPW: Absolutely! I find a lot of young actors aren’t willing to “take the hit.” A lot of them don’t know what that is. 

I was in a production of Little Foxes with the late Richard Kavanaugh. He said something that was so racist, so vile —  

JPW: In character, right? 

RPW: As his character! But every show I had to get myself off stage without wanting to kill somebody because of that line. One day I’m backstage with Richard and he says, “Ricardo, it kills me every time I have to say that.” But we knew the scene depended on both actors “taking the hit,” because the audience values honesty, truth, and vulnerability of the performers. 

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley as Elder Joseph Barlow and Joe Wilson, Jr. as Harmond Wilks. By August Wilson. Directed by Jude Sandy. Set design by Michael McGarty and Baron E. Pugh, costume design by Yao Chen, lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker and sound design by Larry D. Fowler, Jr. Photo by Mark Turek.
Ricardo Pitts-Wiley as Elder Joseph Barlow and Joe Wilson, Jr. as Harmond Wilks in August Wilson’s Radio Golf, 2020. Photo by Mark Turek.

August Wilson’s Radio Golf, in my opinion, is not a great play. But Joe Wilson, Jr. and I were both willing to take the hit [when performed at Trinity Rep in 2020] … Jude Sandy was such a good director, and we had a perfect cast of talent and teamwork to make it into something special. That’s the ensemble effect, because everyone was willing to take the hit. 

And with Fences, if you have a company of actors who aren’t willing to take the hit? Baby, you got no play. 

Responding Audiences

RPW: A lot of people think the key moment of Fences is when Troy confesses [he impregnated another woman] to his wife. But I think it’s when Rose says she’ll take care of the baby. She didn’t ask for this, but she flips the script on him and now she is determining the outcome. That’s the brilliance of Wilson’s work: just when you think the moment is settled … now you have Cory and Troy fighting in the backyard. Troy and Rose have the big confession scene … and now Gabriel comes walking in! 

The cast of August Wilson’s Fences. Photo by Mark Turek.

We had audience members yelling “Get out of here!” at Gabriel during that confession scene. Women especially tend to let out a huge “WHAT?!” when Troy says “I can’t give that up” about his mistress to his wife. So, what’s the difference between that, and Jayson Tatum shooting a three-pointer? It’s the participation of both the audience and the play that European theater kind of killed. 

JPW: I saw the play Social Creatures a few seasons ago. I have my thoughts on the play itself, but I do appreciate that it made me respond in some sort of way. You don’t have to like the play, but if it makes you respond, you’ve done something. Like I’ve been to plays where the play is just … occurring, in front of you. 

RPW: And it’s like the play is watching you as much as you are watching the play. 

JPW: One time I was at a show and was sitting next to another artistic director. The play is occurring, and there’s a point where the artistic director clearly did not care about the show anymore. Homie wasn’t even facing the stage! I ask, “You good?” And they’re like “Yeah, I just didn’t care about the show. Like at all.” 

RPW: My wife and I were at [the musical] Ragtime, and this young man sang a song so beautifully. I vocally responded, I cheered “Alright!” I could feel the rest of the audience go, “Oh God” when I did that, but I didn’t care, because he had moved me.  

Actors can’t let the audience take over the play, of course, but you can free them up. That’s why sports are doing it better than us, because they come in with the idea that you’re supposed to cheer, that you are a part of it, that you’ve come because you want to be free. That you should do that stupid [vocalizes the Kansas City Chiefs Tomahawk cheer] or sing “Sweet Caroline” when your team is winning. It makes you feel present, and it unites the crowd. 

JPW: You can live your whole life without leaving your house now. You can do everything online and get everything delivered. You don’t have to leave your crib unless you have a reason to do so. But the other day I was at the post office, and I ran into a friend of mine’s mom. In our postmodern humor, we always act like we don’t want to run errands because we don’t want to run into people. But the other side of that sometimes you run into people you fuck with, people with whom you have a pleasant, genuine, three-minute conversation. 

Ricardo and Jonathan Pitts-Wiley. Photo by Marisa Lenardson.

RPW: … Sometimes I forget he’s not a child anymore and then I’m taken aback by his language choices. [laughter] I’m still his dad! 

JPW: Meanwhile, he had me sitting in the audience for Only in America. If you aren’t familiar with the play, picture being like 10 and watching your dad play Clarence Thomas in all but name. This was in the wake of the Anita Hill trial, so my dad was assaulting and saying the most vile, explicit things about women. Even if I saw him now doing that on stage, I’d be uncomfortable! 

Afterward, my father would literally be walking down the street and random people would look at him dead in the eyes and say [deadpan] “I saw the show.” And that’s it. Then walk away [laughter]. Like my dad was a known person at that point. He had been doing theater for 20+ years and people had recognized him in public, but it was never anything quite like that. 

RPW: In the play, the woman he assaults is his secretary. Once, my actual secretary was in the audience. I see her the next day and she says, “We’re gonna have to redefine our relationship because I have never seen you act like that before!” On the other hand, my wife Bernadet saw it, and other women asked if seeing me like that made her uncomfortable. She said “No, because it just makes me proud that my husband is such a great actor.” This show was in North Carolina, so we were staying at a hotel. One night I’m headed to my room, and I come across six or seven women after a show. They went “There he is!” and I’m like “Ok, here we go …” but then they all hugged me! 

Ricardo and Jonathan Pitts-Wiley. Photo by Marisa Lenardson.

I realized … that’s what we’re missing in the theater now. That’s what Shakespeare’s time had. People let you know how they were feeling. If they were joyous, they’d let you know. If something made them angry, they’d let you know. We’ve kind of sanitized the experience of human emotion so much that we’re expected to “behave.” 

JPW: Yeah, totally. We’ve come to treat theater as this intellectual exercise above all else. And that’s just that’s so entirely wrong. 

RPW: Yeah, it is. So in turn, we culturally separate ourselves out of it based on that criteria.  

JPW: And when the culture of theater reflects that, it becomes an elitist institution. 

Something I think about all the time is how there are plenty of Indigenous languages that don’t have a word for “art.” But that’s because they don’t view art as this separate thing. They see it as woven into the fabric of everything we do. They see life as art. 

RPW: I remember a couple of years ago there was this one Muslim NBA basketball player [Hakeem Olajuwon] who was playing during Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims don’t eat sunrise to sundown. One reporter asked him “How can you play a basketball game when you haven’t eaten all day? And he said “I can do this because I honor my faith and the game at the same time. You’re the one who separates two things out.” The same goes for art and life.