Richard Wesley: Newark is playwright's inspiration

By Michael J. Fensom | Inside Jersey
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on May 20, 2015

"As a writer, I've managed to capture, I think, that universal chord that connects with all people," says playwright Richard Wesley, a Newark native who now lives in Montclair.

 

RICHARD WESLEY'S career as a playwright began with a thunderous start in 1971, when he won a Drama Desk award for "The Black Terror." Since that breakthrough, Wesley has drawn inspiration from his hometown of Newark in writing for the stage ("The Mighty Gents") and screen ("Uptown Saturday Night"). Wesley is chairman of the dramatic writing department at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, and resides in Montclair. "Autumn," Wesley's latest play, debuted in April at Crossroads Theater Company in New Brunswick.

1. You were born in Newark in 1946 and raised there. How did Newark, at that time, ignite your imagination?

My imagination was fired very much then. We had access to so much. You could play around with military equipment in the junkyard near my apartment and see every sort of airplane in existence fly over your head into Newark Airport. When I got old enough — around the time I was in seventh or eighth grade — I'd take the bus into downtown Newark, all the way down Washington Street, to the main library. I loved going to that library and I still do. I'd go to the reading room on the second floor and read back editions of the newspaper. One of the last times I did this, I spent all my time looking at what happened on July 11 — that's my birthday — in different eras. I would read through old copies of the Newark Evening News, the Newark Star-Eagle and the Newark Ledger — the two papers that became The Star-Ledger — about events like the opening of Penn Station and the dredging of Newark Bay.

2. Considering that most people at East Side High in the late 1950s were preparing to join the still-vibrant manufacturing industry in Newark, how did you get into writing?

My first day in kindergarten was frustrating for me because my brother got to stay home and play with our electric train. Out of frustration one day, I asked my mother, "How long do I have to stay in school?" She looked down at me and said, "You'll be in school until you're 22." So, I knew very early on that my parents expected us all to go to college. I thought I was going into engineering. I wanted to be a Navy jet fighter pilot. But by the time I got to high school and started taking algebra, it was pretty clear flying was not in my future. Television had a profound effect on me. There were certain shows I watched over and over, and I realized one of the reasons I was attracted was the writing. I sat down, at one point in high school, and wrote out my own episode of "Twilight Zone" on notebook paper. I mailed it to California and never heard back. I'm sure that thing went straight into File 13.

3. Your first work after attending Howard University was a play, however.

In its brochure, Howard talked about offering courses in writing for television and motion pictures. But when I got there, I found out the film and TV courses were not being offered yet. I was disappointed, let's just say. I remember the chair of the drama department there, Owen Dodson, who would go on to become quite a mentor of mine, said, "Young man, if I can teach you to write for the stage, you'll be able to write for anything." He said it with such emphasis that I believed him. My first play, "The Black Terror," was a very hard-hitting political drama. I was very surprised when I got a call from Anthony Quinn asking me to rewrite these scenes in "Across 110th Street." I didn't do that job — though I should have. So I remain over the moon at my one and only chance to work with Anthony Quinn. I was 26, so I didn't really know any better. As I was told later on by a veteran of show business, you never turn down anything.

4. But you did start your screenwriting career about three years later, in 1974, with a comedy, "Uptown Saturday Night."

I got a really nice review in The New York Times that mentioned a play I wrote had a cinematic style. Sidney Poitier read that review and asked to see me. He pitched the idea of an all-star comedy picture that would bring together all these top-flight black comedians. But he didn't know the exact story. He put it to me that, if I could come up with a story he felt would work, I'd have the job. And I did. And he gave me the job. The story I fashioned became the basis of "Uptown Saturday Night." I was smart enough to realize that if I turned down Quinn and Poitier, I might not get a third opportunity.

5. Across the decades you've been writing, is there a common thread that extends through your work?

I certainly like to think that's the way I approach my work. Most of the characters I've written in plays and motion pictures have been black. A lot of that is because, in motion pictures and TV shows, I was specifically asked to address that. In the plays, it is an outgrowth of these being the people I know really well. But if I can capture the humanity of these characters, anyone from any background, racial or ethnic, who comes to see these plays is going to see something in these characters that is familiar, something that reflects their own understanding of life or how to live life. In that regard, as a writer, I've managed to capture, I think, that universal chord that connects with all people. Not just the black audience, but all audiences. That's always been my aim.

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