In UniSon, a new musical by Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s resident ensemble Universes, a young apprentice is left with a box of poetry from an old mentor. That’s a bit how the show itself developed—except that the box of poetry at its genesis was filled with the words of playwright August Wilson.
Back in 1995, Universes cofounder Steven Sapp unexpectedly heard Wilson read his poetry at a gathering in Pittsburgh.
“When I actually heard this man, who I only knew as a playwright, reading poetry, I thought, ‘Wait a minute—he’s a real poet,’” Sapp recalled. In fact, Wilson had begun with poetry before taking on theatre. In the 1960s, he joined the Centre Avenue Poets Theater Workshop in Pittsburgh and went on to cofound Black Horizon Theater with poets from Centre Avenue. When Wilson died in 2005, the headline for his New York Times obituary called him “Theater’s Poet of Black America.”
Poetry read aloud—especially poetry written with a fierce sense of purpose—can deliver a message in a way no traditional play could, said Persley, who also acts and directs in regional theatre. A quick verse might swiftly and vibrantly deliver a message that would take pages of dialogue to convey. “When you have an urgency behind why you need to make your art, that’s going to be captured on the page,” Persley said. “When it’s enlivened through breath, that just is super exciting, for people to be able to feel it in their body. I think it helps people conne