August Wilson: Completing the Twentieth-Century Cycle

August Wilson: Completing the Twentieth-Century Cycle

by Alan Nadel

Just prior to his death in 2005, August Wilson, arguably the most important American playwright of the last quarter-century, completed an ambitious cycle of ten plays, each set in a different decade of the twentieth century. Known as the Twentieth-Century Cycle or the Pittsburgh Cycle, the plays, which portrayed the struggles of African-Americans, won two Pulitzer


Just prior to his death in 2005, August Wilson, arguably the most important American playwright of the last quarter-century, completed an ambitious cycle of ten plays, each set in a different decade of the twentieth century. Known as the Twentieth-Century Cycle or the Pittsburgh Cycle, the plays, which portrayed the struggles of African-Americans, won two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, a Tony Award for Best Play, and seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards. August Wilson: Completing the Twentieth-Century Cycle is the first volume devoted to the last five plays of the cycle individually—Jitney, Seven Guitars, King Hedley II, Gem of the Ocean, and Radio Golf—and in the context of Wilson's entire body of work.

 Editor Alan Nadel's May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson, a work Henry Louis Gates called definitive, focused on the first five plays of Wilson's cycle. This new collection examines from myriad perspectives the way Wilson's final works give shape and focus to his complete dramatic opus. It contains an outstanding and diverse array of discussions from leading Wilson scholars and literary critics. Together, the essays in Nadel's two volumes give Wilson's work the breadth of analysis and understanding that this major figure of American drama merits.


Herman Beavers

Yvonne Chambers

Soyica Diggs Colbert

Harry J. Elam, Jr.

Nathan Grant

David LaCroix

Barbara Lewis

Alan Nadel

Donald E. Pease

Sandra Shannon

Vivian Gist Spencer

Anthony Stewart

Steven C. Tracy

Dana Williams

Kimmika L. H. Williams-Witherspoon

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“In this companion to May All Your Fences Have Gates, we have a timely addition to the growing scholarship on August Wilson’s works. The focus on the second half of the cycle presents certain problems, not least of which stem from the fact that Wilson’s plays were written ‘out of order,’ simultaneously pointing forward and looking back. In less capable hands, this aspect might be ignored and the plays studied decade by decade, in a linear fashion. This volume does not fall into that trap. Instead, Nadel and his colleagues address the location of each play within the larger context of the cycle, for the second half of the cycle and the entire collection alike. As a result, we see that almost any theme or motif within a single text finds echoes and reverberations in other plays, thus affording us a view of Wilson’s overall scheme and challenging future scholarship of any single play to embrace this holistic view of the cycle. No longer is it enough to say that Wilson wrote a play or plays: whenever we consider any of his plays we have to acknowledge the cycle. This book ensures that perspective, one that is unique in the history of dramatic literature.”—Kim Pereira, author, August Wilson and the African-American Odyssey

"In this carefully crafted volume, Alan Nadel pairs a variety of essays on the plays of August Wilson's century cycle. Among the many strengths of this collection is that the selections are well connected thematically without being repetitive and that the diverse interpretations are presented in a language and style that are easily accessible, even for general readers. At the same time, the multiplicity of meanings that can be derived from careful readings of the social, cultural, and historical contexts of the cycle will satisfy the most critical scholars."—Sandra Adell, author, Double-Consciousness/Double Bind: Theoretical Issues in Twentieth-Century Black Literature

Library Journal
August Wilson's "Twentieth-Century Cycle," also known as the "Pittsburgh Cycle," consists of ten plays that chronicle the African American experience by decade from the 1900s to the 1990s. This collection of essays is a companion to Nadel's May All Your Fences Have Gates, which focuses on the first five plays in the cycle (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, and Two Trains Running). Here, the spotlight is turned to the other five plays, which complete it (Seven Guitars, Jitney, King Hedley II, Gem of the Ocean, and Radio Golf). The plays are considered from a variety of perspectives and set in cultural, historical, and social contexts as well as within the entire cycle. Several of the contributors, including Nadel, are also represented in the earlier compilation. The substantial list of works cited supplies ideas for further reading and study of this seminal playwright. VERDICT Recommended for literature and performing arts students.—Carolyn M. Mulac, Chicago P.L.

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Completing the Twentieth-Century Cycle


Copyright © 2010 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58729-875-2

Chapter One


Beginning Again, Again Business in the Street in Jitney and Gem of the Ocean

The foreboding presence of Herald Loomis that haunts Joe Turner's Come and Gone is explained, finally, in terms of spiritual, material, and historical deprivation. Loomis has been deprived of his song, his labor, and, most important for my purposes, his start. A start - a beginning - is a temporal marker, quite distinct, as Edward Said has made clear, from an origin (Said, 6), an important distinction in understanding the work of August Wilson, whose opus is steeped in multifarious temporalities. As I have noted elsewhere, for Wilson, it's all about time. It's about time, for example, that Memphis Lee reclaimed his land and that Boy Willie finally owned the land made fertile by the sweat of his ancestors. It's about time Troy Maxson finished his fence and Hambone got his ham and Risa found a man, and that Ma Rainey and Floyd Barton got to their respective Chicago recording studios; it's about time that Ma Rainey signed away her voice and that Levee got his chance to solo. And the difference between Levee's version of the blues and Ma Rainey's version is all about time. The play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, moreover, is about the time when the value of music ceased to be its performance and became instead the record of its performance.

At any given time, since the beginning of recorded time, the record separates a "before" from an "after." Troy Maxson, therefore, is not in the record books as a home-run hitter because, his friend Bono explains, "You just come along too early," to which Troy responds, "There ought not never have been no time called too early" (9).

And this is something Wilson proves when he brings into the second half of his cycle the play Jitney, a play he wrote that came along too early. Thus, like Troy Maxson, Wilson with Jitney was reconfiguring the before/ after relationship that informed his history by giving us the beginning of the cycle before it began. Because there are always two trains of thought running through his plays, however, Wilson also gives us, with Jitney, a culmination: the moment when the historical past represented in the cycle meets the present from which that history is recorded. From the moment of Jitney's inclusion in the cycle, all of Wilson's plays will take place roughly in the present day - meaning roughly in a moment contemporaneous to their writing - with the exception of Gem of the Ocean, the play that provides the cycle's alternative beginning. Written after the end of the century that it, in Wilson's dramatic world, begins, Gem of the Ocean, like Jitney, is simultaneously a culmination and an initiation, for the dramatic world of which Jitney is the first instance will give birth to Aunt Ester, while the historical trajectory initiated by Gem of the Ocean will lead us to the crumbling inner-city neighborhoods of the post-1960s, the world where human dignity must continually reinvent itself in the face of decaying and confiscated property.

Jitney, set in the 1977 jitney taxicab station in the Hill section of Pittsburgh, thus reenacts the antebellum conflict between human rights and property rights. Space here does not allow even a cursory investigation of the multifarious and profound ways in which this conflict is intertwined, in the first half of the nineteenth century, with the Gordian knot of transcontinental nationalism. A few obvious points must, however, be stressed. First, the Union, in order to expand, needed not only to acquire territory but also to convert that territory into states - states that would participate as equal members in the complex system of legal reciprocity that allows the unimpeded flow of commerce and secures the universal sanctity of ownership. This process of reciprocity, which composes the legal concept of comity, becomes dysfunctional when specific states have laws such as those surrounding slavery that directly contradict one another. To resolve this contradiction by invoking the rationale of states' rights requires another contradiction: that the federal government has to enforce those states' rights; that is, that the innate rights of states was dependent on the supplementary power of the federal government. Under the instrumentalist philosophy of jurisprudence that dominated in the first half of the nineteenth century, a virtual mandate arose to protect the commercial and economic interests of the nation, which meant that, as the legal resistance to slavery rose in the non-slave states, so too did the federal impetus to protect nationally the states' rights of slaveholding states. So strong, in fact, was this impetus that the decisions emanating from the strongly proslavery Supreme Court in the 1850s gave rise to fears in many - including Lincoln - that a pattern of decisions would lead to the de facto nationalizing of slavery.

As Kermit Hall succinctly points out, "As long as respect for the property interests of slave owners overshadowed the abhorrence of slavery, or concern for peaceful relations was greater than repugnance of the 'peculiar institution,' interstate comity, of course, could have provided a viable solution to the problems created after 1780 by the abolition of slavery in the North." But as the "property rights" of slaveholders came under increasing threat from the personal liberty laws of non-slave states, and as the principle of comity became more and more impracticable, interstate commerce became more and more fragile. That fragility extended, needless to say, to territories that not only created new sites of contestation but also threatened to alter the legislative balance. Thus national interests merged with slaveholding interests so long as those interests privileged property rights over personal liberty, and, even more important, so long as blacks - slave or free, South or North - remained silent and invisible in defining "national interests"; that is, in creating and delimiting the nation's public space.

In light of these legal disputes, the act of emancipation, by voiding the pending slavery-related cases, in effect precluded judicial affirmation of the primacy of human rights. In other words, emancipation was not a moment of liberation but a moment in which a formerly enslaved population was set loose in a world where human rights were usually contingent and property rights usually absolute. As the legal history of the last century-and-a-half has shown, property rights continued unabated to distribute and define liberties - so much so, in fact, that our laws now hold that a corporation can be treated as a person (Supreme Court, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pac. r. Co., 118 U.S. 394 [1886]), while people have fewer and fewer safeguards on the public regulation of their private lives. Therefore, to cite one of numerous examples, the massive corruption of subprime lending, as a regrettable trait of the private sector, falls outside the purview of prosecutors, while the Patriot Act enables the Department of Justice to scrutinize the sex lives of public figures.

From one perspective, emancipation could be viewed as the action that prevented the nation from grappling with the implications of giving legal primacy to property, because it removed from the docket the most cogent test of property rights: the case of chattel slavery. This was in part what Ralph Ellison meant when he argued that, in the antebellum period, the Negro represented the moral burden placed on the democratic ideals that justified, in Lincoln's succinct phrase, "a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." With the end of Reconstruction - what Ellison has called the counterrevolution of 1876 - the moral burden was not lifted; it merely went underground, became invisible.

That invisible world is Wilson's starting point, as it is manifest in every aspect of the jitney station, surrounded by vacant properties and empty lots that represent the lot of people who have descended from property - descended, that is, from a condition in which they constituted the capital that they were not allowed to acquire. Mark Twain summarized this dilemma concisely when Jim, referring to the $800 reward for his capture, says to Huck, "Yes - en I's rich now, come to look at it. I owns myself, en I's wurth eight hund'd dollars. I wisht I had de money, I wouldn' want no mo.'"

The historical conditions of Jitney thus become the starting point for Wilson's dramatic cycle examining the conditions of history that produced that start. David Krasner marks Jitney as the source of the Wilson dramatic opus, the play that "evolved into the 10-play cycle" (159). As such, the play shares with all the historical dramas that will follow the recognition that history has been full of false starts - the first of which was the start of slavery in the New World, which itself was the false start of capitalism, invested as it was in the primacy of property, the supremacy of the marketplace, the heroicizing of trade.

That start was concurrent with the birth of Aunt Ester, the matriarchal figure and spiritual leader whose presence informs the locale and sensibility of most of Wilson's plays written after 1992. Although her birth thus symbolizes the beginning of a specific Anglo-American economic practice, she was born in a very different place than that of the peculiar institution to which Wilson connects her birth. Her birthplace, we should remember, had to be Africa - not America - in that the practice of slavery was the necessary precondition for turning her from African into African American. Therefore, her African American identity was contingent upon a practice of slavery she did not initiate, but her initiation into slavery marked the beginnings of her African American identity. Once again, therefore, Wilson has doubled the beginnings. Aunt Ester marks the beginning of the peculiar institution that will culminate with the moment in which Gem of the Ocean will begin the chronology of plays that will dramatize the twentieth-century aftereffects of that institution.

If Aunt Ester marks the start of the slave trade, let me emphasize again that her origins, geographically and temporally, were elsewhere. She was a victim of the transatlantic traffic that subsumed her in an exchange system, subordinating her freedom and her identity to commercial interests that antedated her birth - commercial interests that mapped the New World as claimable property and the residents of the Old World as that property's managerial class. Thus began a set of special circumstances in which Africa became a way station in the flow of commercial traffic, never eligible, as America was, to assume its management. By the same token, as Krasner points out, Wilson's plays suggest that "to succeed, African Americans ... establish specific locations in which they can flourish" (160). This leads me to two initial points: one being that, in this sense, the jitney station is Africa, and the second, that Aunt Ester's home at 1839 Wylie is the jitney station.

Let's start with Aunt Ester's home, as it reconfigures the way station that is Africa at the start of a century that has rid itself of slavery's issues but not of its vestiges and implications. One in a line of lost souls - think of Sterling and Memphis in Two Trains Running - Citizen Barlow will thus visit Aunt Ester's house in order to get his start. But to go forward, Barlow will have to go back. Like Loomis and all of the Wilson characters who have had their song stolen, he will have to go back because if he does not find his start in the past, he is likely to confuse it with his finish. For this reason, Barlow, using a boat made out of Aunt Ester's bill of sale, will travel again the Middle Passage, this time not as a superficial crossing of the sort registered in a shipping corporation's commercial log, but one that takes him under the surface to the sunken City of Bones in a manner that confronts the slave trade by invoking the combination of African and Christian traditions and rituals that characterized the postbellum African American church. "For Barlow," Harry Elam explains, "going to the City of Bones is a ritual act of cleansing in which the spiritual, the political and the historical all combine" (Gem 84).

In this way, Gem of the Ocean is our initiation into the forces that produced the world from which Wilson initiated his historical cycle. But, notably, Gem of the Ocean is an initiation written in retrospect and also a retrospective condensation of the properties of capitalism that produced the unresolved confusion of human rights and property rights, a confusion all too extensively - albeit not exclusively - operating in the interest of racial privilege. That condensation starts with the Middle Passage, the re-experiencing of which becomes essential to Barlow's initiation rites. In this construction, Gem of the Ocean is positioned not as the initial play of the cycle but as the culmination of a journey that must be compulsively re initiated. Since Barlow's departure point is the New World, however, he does not so much repeat as retrace the Middle Passage. He takes it backwards, in other words, so that he may take it back in both senses of the phrase: to retract it, and also to use it to find his path back to the present moment - the present place of departure for him, for the twentieth century, and for the Wilson cycle.

The scene of death by drowning, which the City of Bones memorializes, also returns us to the start of Gem of the Ocean in that the play begins when Citizen Barlow attempts to see Aunt Ester so he can expiate his guilt over causing the death of Garret Brown. Brown had jumped into the river because he was falsely accused of stealing a bucket of nails actually stolen by Barlow. Rather than be punished for a crime he did not commit, Brown chose to stay in the water until he drowned. Brown did this, as Aunt Ester explains to Barlow, because, he had said, "I'd rather die in truth than to live a lie. That way he can say that his life is worth more than a bucket of nails" (45). Aunt Ester thus sees Brown's decision as replicating the Middle Passage's disruption of the slave trade's economic logic. Brown was, in effect, refusing to allow his body to enter into an exchange system that could equate it with property.

This is the exchange system that Caesar advocates in the play, when, as constable, he justifies shooting a boy for stealing a loaf of bread: "He was a thief! He was stealing. That's about the worst thing you can do. To steal the fruits of somebody else's labor" (36). A quintessential capitalist, Caesar describes at length the legal and semilegal ways he accumulated capital, clearly differentiating stealing from conning or swindling. Thus, the fact that he never stole anything in his life justifies his killing a man for stealing bread; at the same time Caesar sees his own overcharging for bread as a public virtue:

Yeah, I sell magic bread. Got a big sign that say you only have to eat twice as much to get twice as full. And I charge one and a half times as much for it. You don't understand I give the people hope when they ain't got nothing else. They take that loaf of bread and make it last twice as long. They wouldn't do that if they didn't pay one and a half times for it. I'm helping the people. (36; emphasis added)

In making this distinction, Caesar seems to be refuting directly the Marxist doctrine that property is theft by turning Christ's miracle of the loaves into a capitalist parable, wherein not the bread but the profit from selling it is the magic multiplication Caesar's enterprise produces. This perverted miracle perpetrated against black people turns the miracle of capitalism into a black magic and Caesar into a form of antichrist, one who insists that the law is everything.

Figured this way, we can say that Caesar represents the state; that is, the law that makes Barlow free - that allows him to be a citizen. But as a constable, Caesar also rules the street, the public thoroughfare, the means and ways of traffic and transaction, the social and economic space where Citizen Barlow is citizen in name only. As Barlow explains, when he left Alabama only four weeks earlier, "They had all the roads closed to the colored people. I had to sneak out." These roads, closed at the beginning and at the end of the play, make the free black no longer the property of a specific master, but the universal property of the state.


Excerpted from AUGUST WILSON Copyright © 2010 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Alan Nadel is the Bryan Chair of American Literature and Culture at the University of Kentucky, where he teaches literature and film. He is the editor of May All Your Fences Have Gates (Iowa, 1993) and the author of Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon (Iowa, 1991), Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism, and the Atomic Age, Flatlining on the Field of Dreams: Cultural Narratives in the Films of President Reagan's America, and Television in Black and White America: Race and National Identity.

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