Three generations of black, queer theater artists – actor André De Shields, 73; playwright Kevin R. Free, who is 50; and director Zhailon Levingston, 25 — are collaborating on a play about a black, queer character inspired by August Wilson’s Century Cycle.
From the very first Wilson play he ever saw, a community theater production of “Fences” in the early 1990s, Free has had the same two reactions to Wilson’s epic 10-play cycle, each play taking place in a different decade in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
“I love the productions I’ve seen, but have never really felt a part of the world,” Free says. “The Cycle is genius, beautiful and resonant, but it features no fictional LGBTQIA* characters.”
So Free set out to create one.
Earlier this month, “A Hill On Which To Drown” was presented as a work in progress at the Commons Café in Brooklyn, as part of En Garde Arts’ Uncommon Voices , a new developmental reading series. André De Shields starred as Ikoode Douglas, “the oldest, gayest, least magical magical negro ever,” as the script describes him, who at 99 and on his deathbed tells his life story to his longtime friend and sometime lover. The play begins in 1997, in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, and goes back in time, to each decade of his life, each scene punctuated by a song from the particular era. A blues singer, and then a cook, Ikoode lives a life of wonder, yearning and misery. “I was, you know, like they say now – ‘out,’ but not proud,” the character says at one point. “Pride goeth before a fall. I couldn’t afford to fall.”
“A Hill On Which to Drown” is on its sixth draft, and maybe only halfway to a full production. Free began writing it years ago with a question: “If a gay man were to be included in the events of the Century Cycle, who would he be? Who would he know? How would he have lived his life?”
Free’s early drafts placed his character, then called Balboa, directly alongside the situations and settings of Wilson’s plays. Free created his play as a solo show “because I was writing for myself to perform it…. It was my way of creating work for myself, which is something I’ve always done.”
He submitted the play to BOLD, a black women’s theater organization that was putting together a Black History Week for Actors Equity. Zhailon Levingston had been hired to direct the new play readings for that week. Levingston found Free’s play “beautiful.” He had had a similar reaction to Wilson’s work as Free had more than a decade before him:
“I was introduced to August Wilson when I was a teenager reading his plays. It was the first time I heard the sounds of my family come out of the mouths of fictional characters so musically. It was in one sense a brilliant reflection. On the other hand, once I got older I started to see the omissions. August was reflecting my family but not really reflecting me. My queerness was not a part of his cycle.”
Levingston asked De Shields whether he would be willing to star in it.
De Shields agreed. “I was impressed with Zhailon’s craft of cool head/hot heart, as he and I had recently worked on a TEAM project with Rachel Chavkin,” he recalls. And in the character of Balboa, ” I recognized a doppelgänger, the ghostly counterpart of my person.”
Free was elated, eagerly ceding the role he had written for himself to such a prominent theater artist “Andre’s casting was a bigger dream than I had ever dreamed. The play is Andre’s now!”
The three were pleased with what they did for BOLD. “I think immediately after the reading,” Levingston says, “we all felt that there was something to the play and something to the nature of the collaboration that felt very urgent and we decided to continue developing it.”
They did a staged reading the following month. “It was after the second and decidedly more evocative reading that I became irrevocably convinced that the play was neither benefiting from its cross references to characters in Wilson’s Century Cycle, nor was it advancing the author’s efforts for the inclusion of “fictional LGBQIA characters” in the broader canon of dramatic literature by non-queer African American playwrights,” De Shields observes. “With a radically transformed title and a much less derivative thematic arc, the long awaited metamorphosis of A Hill On Which To Drown took center stage” at The Commons Cafe this month.
“There’s still tremendous work to be done,” De Shields says. “However, in the collective embrace of We Three Kings” — meaning Kevin R. Free, Zhailon Levingston and André De Shields — “success looms on the horizon.”
Levingston sees their project as part of a resurgence of queer characters on stage. “To be able to participate in extending this new landscape of storytelling across three generations is thrilling.”
*Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Asexual