“Everyone try to speak faster!” pleaded Stephanie Lynn Wilson to a cast of nine during the opening night intermission of her late 1980’s-era urban epic, A Wound in Time, on October 22, 2010. This weighty drama began at 7:00 PM, and the Nuyorican Poets Café where it was performed had their popular Poetry Slam at 9:00 PM. There were rumblings from the management that the lights and sound would be cut off if the play ran late. Blessedly, it was allowed to triumphantly conclude at 9:30 PM. For the rest of the engagement, the intermission was dropped, and everyone spoke faster.
Among the unheralded heroic talents I’ve encountered on New York City’s Off-Off-Broadway scene, the vivacious Stephanie Lynn Wilson was truly a major force. Ms. Wilson was Black, and as a playwright she strove to put people of color on the stage in her substantive and empowering material.
Her ambitious self-written, self-directed and self-produced edgy works recalled the spirit of John Cassavetes’ earthiness and resourcefulness. She also acted in some of these. Alas, like Cassavetes she left behind an archive of unrealized projects. Wilson died on August 21st, 2020, at the age of 67, following a years-long battle with cancer. In the summer of 2019, she started hosting a Manhattan public access television talk show, Confessions of the Creative Soul. On it, she wore a beret and sunglasses in tribute to the beatniks, played bongos, danced and interviewed “artistes.”
Stephanie was born in the Bronx on February 27, (Elizabeth Taylor’s birthday as she always like to state) 1953. Consumed with the desire to be an actor, she attended several local schools before studying at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She revered Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. To support herself she worked as an usher and bartender at several Broadway theaters. Along the way, she became a single mother and got sidetracked. Middle age was her golden age.
“I hope you’ll do it!” Stephanie said me on August 17, 2010, after we read from and discussed A Wound in Time. She had responded to my emailed picture and resume incited by her Playbill casting notice. The small but important role of a sensitive WASP cardiologist working at a Spanish Harlem hospital who falls in love with a troubled Latina nurse involved with an abusive boyfriend, would be a contrast to the comedic parts I often played. An Italian-American gangster, an outrageous gay man and a feisty ex-girlfriend were some of the other characters and the swirling flashback-laden plot was crammed with dramatic incidents including incest. It would be daunting to get something of this scope actually put on under the rocky conditions of Off-Off-Broadway. Still, how many times does a striving actor hear, “I hope you’ll do it!” Of course, I said yes.
This audition was held on plush chairs in the lobby of the Westin hotel on 43rd Street and Eight Avenue. Stephanie did not rent space, she embodied “guerilla theater.” A few weeks later, the cast assembled in that lobby for a read through. This ensemble consisted of a few performers she’d known and worked before and many whom she cast on instinct and availability from auditions. Molding this grab bag of actors of disparate training and some who were not the appropriate ages, into the complex characters she lovingly created and knew so well, sometimes proved contentious. Yet, she got it done and fulfilled her vision.
As a director, Stephanie did not believe in rehearsing separate segments of the play, which is typical, instead we always ran through the whole thing with ideally all of us there together. That’s how we got caught. 10 people camped out, emoting and gesticulating soon attracted the attention of hotel security guards who told us we had to leave. “I work on Broadway!” was Stephanie’s indignant and comically odd retort. The security guards reiterated their demand. So, we packed up.
From then on we rehearsed in the Sony Building’s spacious atrium on metal chairs and tables. There were weeks of drama as Stephanie clashed with our leading lady over interpretations, cast members not showing up and temperamental flareups. Opening night, it all came together. An emotionally unstable cast member threatened to quit during a later performance but relented. It was all a fabulous and memorable experience.
A Wound in Time had had a reading prior to this premiere production. It was her most personal work, and she would revive it several times over the years with different casts. She attempted to direct a film adaptation of it, which sadly remained unfinished when she died. Afterward, there were other plays she wrote, directed, produced and acted in Off-Off-Broadway. Blood Makes the Red River Flow was set in the 1820’s amongst Louisiana Creoles, Silk Stockings and a Bible took place in the 1940’s Harlem jazz world and The Grinder dealt with 1980’s Times Square prostitutes.
After living on Staten Island for a number of years, Stephanie moved back to Manhattan, in Murray Hill. We kept in touch after A Wound in Time. She was the wardrobe mistress for an Off-Broadway play, and she invited me to the opening and party afterwards at Sardi’s. Until this summer, when her illness progressed, she posted frequently on Facebook and Instagram. These were often videos of her dancing at clubs and just being her joyous self.
She always paid her actors at least a token amount. A month after A Wound in Time had closed, she was appearing in the Nuyorican Poets Café in a version of Julius Caesar set in ancient Africa. She put my name on the guest list. There amidst the production’s spectacle was Stephanie Lynn Wilson as The Soothsayer. Her face was chillingly made up with white powder, she had on a wild wig, wore a grass skirt and was topless. She was commanding, fiercely dancing while delivering verse in her melodious voice. I was sitting in an aisle seat and as she passed by, she handed me an envelope.
Link to Stephanie Lynn Wilson’s work: