BOSTON — Director Lloyd Richards had no idea that his first encounter with playwright August Wilson would mellow into a decade-long collaboration.
Richards was the first black director of a Broadway play, "Raisin in the Sun," in 1959. He has promoted the careers of actors Sidney Poitier and James Earl Jones over the half-century of his career in theater. He spent 12 years as artistic director of the influencial Yale Repertory Theatre and dean of Yale University's Drama School in New Haven, Conn., and while there, he helped hone the work of South African playwright Athol Fugard ("Master Harold ... and the Boys") and American John Guare ("Six Degrees of Separation").
But it was Richards's directorship of a program to develop new plays at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., that brought him into contact with an unknown black poet named August Wilson.
In 1981, Richards plucked Wilson's play "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" from a stack of submissions and invited him to attend the conference.
"There were characters [in the play] that were well delineated," Richards says. "And the things they were talking about, I believed. So the playwright, in a sense, was speaking for me as well as to me."
At the pre-conference weekend, "as is usual with the playwrights I don't know, I try and sense which one wrote which play," he says. "I was looking for the playwright who had written 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' and I didn't immediately find him. It was not obvious. I think it would be obvious now. [August has] changed. There's a much greater security of whatever the inner self was as a writer, but wasn't immediately discernible."
The description above suggests Richards's highly intuitive approach to his role as midwife to playwrights, and in particular to August Wilson.
The two men grew up in similar settings. Both have spoken of sitting at the feet of elders in their communities - Detroit and Pittsburgh - and hearing the wisdom and gossip of the town passed around. Wilson said in a 1990 Monitor interview that because black history is not written down, the oral tradition is "how the values of black culture are passed along."
Wilson's method of writing, as he described it, is to start with bits of dialogue, with street anecdotes and banter, and build characters out of the homespun of their own speech.
Richards's task in the collaboration is to help the playwright interconnect his characters. "They all have stories to tell," Richards says of the characters, "but they don't have stories that include them all."
Wilson's plays are not driven by plot like a more conventional piece of theater or film. They are more open-ended, and can sometimes present a challenge to direct. The endings are fluid and subject to interpretation.
For example, Richards took Wilson's fourth play, "The Piano Lesson," on the road for two years. He told the actors at the first rehearsal, "I will stage an ending, but we'll be working [on it]" throughout the tour. "So I redid it every place we went, always using the elements within the play. But it did not find its own conclusion for awhile."
Richards is such a small, unimposing, soft-spoken man, it's hard to imagine him giving orders to actors. He chooses words cautiously and deliberately, as if reluctant to part with them. But he also projects an aura of patient, steady resolve.
When he is asked, after all the time he and Wilson have logged together, if they ever reminisce about earlier plays, he shakes his head.
"Once you have really tackled a work and worked it through, you're beyond it. You may refer back to it, it may live with you, it may inform your future life, but you have gone beyond it.
"What makes my work with August possible is that there is a level on which we meet that is also a part of my background, and my sense of being. Those things are understood between us. There's not a lot of questions that I have to ask him."