Any longtime observer of New Jersey politics knows there’s a lot of drama there, and playwright Richard Wesley takes advantage of that in his new “Autumn,” which focuses on the relationship between an old-school big-city mayor and his young protégé. The play takes place in a fictional Northeastern city, not necessarily in New Jersey, but Wesley — a Newark native who now lives in Montclair — says it will feel familiar to Garden Staters.
The play will premiere at the Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick, April 23, and run through May 3. For ticket information, visit crossroadstheatrecompany.org.
Wesley, 69, is an associate professor of dramatic writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and has a long list of stage and screen writing credits going back to the early ’70s, though this is his first play since “The Talented Tenth,” in 1989. I spoke to him in early April.
Q: I know this is the first play you’ve done a while. Is it something you’ve been working on a lot of years, or have you written it fairly recently?
A: I’ve been working on it off-and-on. I made my first attempts at it shortly after I finished “The Talented Tenth.” This was back in 1990, 1991. But I also have a pretty strong career in film and television. And so I was working on a lot of projects, from that period up until about 2005, 2007, when I left film and TV, pretty much, and then came back to the play. Which was probably a good thing for me. I don’t think I was really ready to write this particular play in the early ’90s. I had some ideas but they weren’t really fleshed out, really thought through. But in more recent years, with all of the various events that have been happening politically, both inside and outside the black community — in the American community at large — I finally started to find what it is I’ve always felt I needed for that play.
Q: I couldn’t tell from the press material, but is the play set in a specific city?
A: No, it’s a fictional city. Any time in the first 25, 30 years of the 21st century. It certainly has influences that are obvious in it, that relate directly to places or events that we’re all familiar with. Growing up in Newark, born and raised … certainly people living in New Jersey will recognize certain phrases, fictional and nonfictional locales, that bear a resemblance to very specific locations in New Jersey, particularly Northern New Jersey.
In the stage directions, I identify it as a large Northeastern city. I don’t say New Jersey specifically.
Q: Have you worked with Crossroads before?
A: Yes, off and on for quite a while. “The Talented Tenth” had it New Jersey premiere at Crossroads. One of the founding producers, Rick Khan … Rick and I have known each other at least 30 years now. My wife and I are subscribing members of the audience there. And the late Hal Scott, also born and raised in New Jersey, taught at the Mason Gross School of the Arts down at Rutgers, and directed a lot of my plays early on, and did a lot of work at Crossroads as well.
Q: You said before there were certain events that inspired the play. Can you say some of those are?
A: Well, I think there were events that influenced it. Political scandals in the state, all the way back to (U.S. Senator) Harrison Williams, way, way back. Certainly Mayor (Hugh) Addonizio, Mayor (Sharpe) James, both of whom were mayors in Newark, Addonizio when I was in college, Sharpe James about 10 years ago. Just remembering the political races that involved James and (Cory) Booker. All these things have influences, I think. Just reading about the battle over the school system in the city of Newark, the upstate/downstate political tensions inside both the Democratic and Republican parties in New Jersey, and how that affects what goes on in the State Assembly. When I would read about those things, I would just take a few notes, and try to find a way to use that.
Q: Now, you’re not directing this production, right?
A: No, it’s being directed by Seret Scott, who is also a New Jersey resident. And at least three of the cast members are from New Jersey or living in New Jersey, currently: Michael Chenevert, Count Stovall and Jerome Preston Bates.
Q: Are you very involved in seeing what they’re doing, and giving your comments, and helping them shape the play?
A: Oh yeah. In the early part of the rehearsals, yes. But as time goes on I kind of back away from all of that. I think you have to give the actors and the director a chance to really work with the play, so having the playwright constantly hovering over their shoulders — “Don’t do this,” “don’t do that,” “don’t say this,” “don’t say that” — it gets in the way. But if they have a question, I’m always available to answer a question. If they’re having a problem with a particular line, I can make a line adjustment or something like that. But I don’t like to inject myself, too much, into the rehearsal process.
Q: Are you still a full-time professor?
A: Yes, I am. In fact, after we finish talking I’ll be on my way to New York. I have office hours today, and several students I need to sit down and talk with, about the scripts they’re writing, and also about their registration for courses in the fall.
Q: Is it frustrating that you devote so much time to teaching, and all that comes with it, or is it a good balance: That you can learn things that way, that you can then bring to your writing?
A: Well, I’ve been at it full-time now for 20 years, and I’ve found that it helps me be a better writer. Prior to my employ at NYU, I was a full-time freelance writer for at least 20 years, and enjoyed it immensely, but when you start teaching full-time, and you’re teaching young writers, you find that it’s advisable to re-learn, re-think some of the fundamentals that you’ve been employing as a writer. You find that your approach to writing has changed, simply because you’re around young people who have grown up under a completely different set of circumstances, and have absorbed and are using information and knowledge in a way that is unfamiliar. You have to adjust the way that you teach. You have to adjust, in some ways, the way that you think. I find it incredibly stimulating, being around a lot of these youngsters who are coming up now.
It’s kind of weird sometimes. You’re sitting in a classroom, and you realize you’re teaching someone who was born the same year you began teaching! And others … now I’m teaching a high school program, and some of those students were born in the year 2000. They’re literally as old as the century is. And they have no recollection of any of the major events of the 20th century. It’s all history to them. It’s not living history. They have to Google it all.
There’s something fascinating about that. It just requires a different kind of focus and attention. And now some of that is making its way into my writing. I wouldn’t have had that if I had never been a teacher.
Q: Do you prefer writing for the stage, than for TV and film?
A: I think it really depends on the idea that I have. I think at the end of the day, I feel pretty comfortable that almost any idea I have would probably fit onstage. That was where I was taught. When I went away to college, and began to study dramatic writing, I remember the chair of the theater department told me that almost any effect that you want to create can be somehow manifested onstage. The camera certainly allows you to capture reality in a way that the stage cannot. But when you’re onstage, it’s live actors, it’s an audience reacting viscerally to your work, in real time. And there’s just nothing that can duplicate that.