Evanston RoundTable, Oct. 10, 2013
The award-winning director and longtime Evanston resident Jonathan Wilson’s path into the theater world was unusual. In 1967 he was an undergraduate at the formerly all-female Rosary Hill College near his native Buffalo, N.Y. – one of two males among 1,400 co-eds, and one of the few African Americans. An English professor suggested he try out for a play in the theater program. “I said, ‘Theater, what’s that? Why bother with theater?’” he recalled recently with a laugh. “I was so preoccupied going to this all-female school, I hadn’t thought much about what I was going to do.”
What he did, once he got established as an actor and later a director, was go on to a highly distinguished career. He has directed 59 plays professionally and won two Jeff awards for best director. His productions of several of the plays of the legendary African American playwright August Wilson (no relation) were widely acclaimed. When Oprah Winfrey needed help preparing to audition for the movie “Beloved,” she turned to Mr. Wilson for coaching.
Mr. Wilson is now in his 37th year teaching drama at Loyola University, where he has directed some 45 student productions, and chaired the department for 10 years. His successor as chair, Sarah Gabel, called him “ a mentor to me when I started. He’s beloved by his students, and also a bit notorious,” she added. “He’s not afraid to tell them the truth. But he always nurtures them through the process of becoming better actors.”
She also said he was “very devoted to the mission of the university,” especially “knowledge in service to others,” noting that he had directed many programs – both in Chicago and around the country – for Facing History and Ourselves, a worldwide educational program that promotes democracy and combats racism.
One of Mr. Wilson’s most recent student productions at Loyola was Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” the 17th century classic comedy. Rehearsals were held in the school’s Newhart Theatre, and sitting there one afternoon with an assistant nearby, he watched closely as his actors brought to life the French Restoration play, no mean feat considering it is written entirely in rhymed couplets. Occasionally he would bark a suggestion: “Go. Go. Go with the lines. Faster. Pick it. Pick it up now!” Later he noted that pacing was still an issue. “Some parts of the play are very slow.”
Also sitting in the theater was Mark Lococo, Loyola’s Director of Theater and therefore ostensibly Mr. Wilson’s boss, though he found the notion highly amusing. “When I first got here I viewed Jonathan as a mentor,” he said. “I certainly respect what he’s built here.”
During a break in the rehearsal Mr. Wilson met with the cast to go over his observations, which were entirely from memory; he takes no notes. “We need to find the comic pace of the scenes,” he tells them. “When it’s animated, when you’re pressuring each other, it works. When you slow down and you’re not moving, it’s boring.”
Afterwards, Graham Henderson, a senior from Evanston who played Tartuffe, praised Mr. Wilson’s guidance. “He’s great to work with. He doesn’t say more than he needs to. You can take every comment he makes and use it.” He also pointed out that Mr. Wilson was “an incredible actor” and when a scene wasn’t working, he’d take all the parts and show the cast how to make them work.
Acting was Mr. Wilson’s first love, in college and afterwards, but he shifted to directing when he realized he could help other actors to “realize the playwright’s vision. The goal is to use all your resources to get as close to that realization as you can.”
Alfred Wilson (no relation), a professional actor who has worked with the director in “Great White Hope” by Howard Sackler and August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” at Pegasus Players, for which he won a Jeff Award, said, “He gives you the opportunity to create the character, then he helps refine it.”
Mr. Wilson’s experiences with the late August Wilson were among the highlights of his career. He met the playwright in 1991 while directing “Joe Turner Has Come and Gone” for the Goodman Theatre. “He [August Wilson] came in for the tech rehearsals. He was very warm, very supportive. I was nervous; he was a big name, even then. He told me he had only one problem with the show: the comic elements were coming out but the characters shouldn’t be played as comic characters. ‘Play them as real people,’ he said. He liked the work I was doing, and that was all I needed to hear. He gave me more confidence [directing his plays] because I knew he would support me.”
Later the playwright asked him to direct his play “Seven Guitars.” In all he has directed six August Wilson plays, two of them twice. “I went drinking with him after the opening of ‘Jitney’ in Houston,” he recalled. “We closed the place.” He was preparing for the opening night of Mr. Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” with the Pegasus Players in October 2005 when he was informed backstage that Mr. Wilson had died earlier in the day from cancer. “I was in shock. After the show we were hugging and crying. His work was about teaching black people about themselves. August was a black historian.”
That said, he considers Eugene O’Neill the greatest American playwright. O’Neill wrote some 50 plays, won four Pulitzers and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1937. Mr. Wilson has directed three of O’Neill’s plays – Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Desire Under the Elms and The Iceman Cometh.
Mr. Wilson says he considers himself a lucky man. He’s had a long and rewarding career doing what he loves to do, which is “teaching the skills I’ve learned to my students.”
His next two productions are “From the Mississippi Delta” at Loyola in February and “Saviour” at ETA in March.