August Wilson (1945-2005) left behind a body of nearly 20 plays, but a good deal of his life’s work consists of an incredibly ambitious project, one not really attempted by anyone else in recent memory, if at all. Wilson wrote a cycle, or a set of plays on a loosely related theme. Wilson’s theme is the cultural, historical, and personal experiences of the African-American in the 20th century. And he wrote one play expressing that for each of the 10 decades of the century. It’s called The Century Cycle for obvious reasons, but it’s also known as The Pittsburgh Cycle, as nine out of the 10 plays are set in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh, and in the traditionally African-American neighborhood of Hill District. Wilson didn’t write the plays of the Cycle in chronological order, and it isn’t a 10-part play; they aren’t sequels of each other, although they are connected.
While August Wilson is one of the most prominent and regarded playwrights of the last few decades (two of the Cycle plays won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama), your local playhouse probably hasn’t done one of Wilson’s plays in a while. It’s because Wilson demanded that only all-African-American theater companies or casts perform his plays. Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough of those operating right now. (Chicago’s Goodman Theatre produced all 10 plays between 1986 and 2007, the Huntington Theatre Company of Boston has done the full Cycle, and Wilson’s hometown Pittsburgh Public Theatre has finished the Cycle, too.) What all this means is that you’re going to have a far easier time reading Wilson’s works than you are getting to see them live. But they’re so rich in cultural history and musical language that reading Wilson’s plays provides a completely different level of understanding and enjoyment.
Gem of the Ocean (1900s)
The first play chronologically (but ninth written) follows Aunt Ester, a 287-year-old matriarch who brings two boarders into her Pittsburgh home in 1904: a former slave and Union Army scout, and a young man from Alabama named Citizen Barlow. It explores the difficult period after the Civil War in which slavery was outlawed but African-Americans were skeptical of the government’s progressive reforms. Aunt Ester is a mystical cleanser of souls, and she helps Barlow literally break free of his past.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1910s)
Taking its title from the chorus of an early blues song, Joe Turner (written in 1988) is set in another boarding house, run by Seth and Bertha Holly, who head up the nontraditional family of itinerant workers. The play is set against the backdrop of the Great Migration of the 1910s, when a vast number of descendants of slaves left the South for good in search of better jobs and better treatment in northern states.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1920s)
Wilson’s 1984 play is the only one in the Cycle not set in Pittsburgh. It takes place entirely within a recording studio as the hugely popular and influential blues star Ma Rainey is about to record some songs…if she can get her band to get it together. And if she can get the record company to not cheat her.
The Piano Lesson (1930s)
It’s 1936, just after the Great Depression, and two grown siblings named Boy Willy and Berniece can’t decide whether or not to sell the very old piano they’ve had to their family for decades (stories of which are richly detailed by their uncle). The piano has deep meaning that leaves the siblings in conflict—will Boy Willy sell it to buy land, or should they keep it as a reminder of their past? The Piano Lesson won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Seven Guitars (1940s)
Told in a non-chronological format, this play (written in 1995) takes place around the funeral of Floyd Barton, and the circumstances surrounding his death. Just out of prison but also a music star, he returns to Pittsburgh to mend relationships and atone for his mistakes. Things are going pretty good, until his life is violently cut short.
It’s a little bit about broken dreams caused by racism, as well as a discussion of how institutionalized racism prevents advancement in the workplace. The main character in Fences is Troy, a former baseball player who didn’t get very far into the pros because he played before the color barrier was broken; he’s now a garbage collector who can’t seem to get promoted to garbage truck driver. Wilson won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Two Trains Running (1960s)
It’s the very end of the ‘60s, and the Civil Rights Movement is winding down, and although laws have changed and progress has been made, life doesn’t feel too much different for the denizens of a Hill District neighborhood café. Malcolm X has been assassinated not long before, and the multiple generations of African-Americans clash in their outlook: for the older generation, it’s cynicism and pessimism, and for the younger group, it’s uncertainty.
In 1982, Wilson started the Cycle with this play—which suggested a lot more questions than it answered about the African-American experience. Like the rest of the Cycle, it’s a small, personal story that reflects little-reported history and the experience of millions. Demonstrating how the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s far from solved racism, Jitney is about unlicensed Pittsburgh cab drivers, or jitneys, operating in Pittsburgh’s Hill District…because the licensed cabs won’t go to that neighborhood.
King Hedley II (1980s)
Perhaps because it’s one of the most intimate, or perhaps it’s because it’s set in one of the most recent decades, King Hedley II is one of the most unnerving in the Cycle. Set in 1985 (and written in 1999), it’s the story of a man just out of prison trying to get his life together by selling stolen appliances to raise enough money to buy a small video rental store. It turns out that Reaganomics makes that goal virtually impossible.
Radio Golf (1990s)
The last play Wilson wrote—for the Cycle, and in his career—is also the last play in the Cycle chronologically. The plot tries to offer some closure, however ambiguous, to the loosely connected world of his plays. Aunt Ester returns as a spiritual figure, an important presence as two rich guys attempt to gentrify—and strip all character from—the Hill District, circa 1997. So, Wilson did get to see out his life’s great project. He witnessed Yale Repertory Theatre’s world premiere of the play in early 2005, a few months before he passed away. And just two weeks later, Wilson’s legacy was solidified when the Virginia Theatre on Broadway was renamed the August Wilson Theatre.