Book Review: August Wilson Play Cycle — Complete

The Theatre Communications Group is to be congratulated for making readily available one of the most colossal feats in American drama. For those who don’t want the entire “August Wilson Century Cycle,” the plays can also be acquired individually.

The August Wilson Century Cycle, by August Wilson, The Theater Communications Group, $200.

By Caldwell Titcomb

Although playwright August Wilson wrote a half dozen plays in the 1970s, his crowning achievement was a cycle of ten plays depicting the Black experience decade by decade through the twentieth century. The project occupied him from the early 1980s, and he finished the last play just before succumbing to liver cancer at the age of 60 in 2005.

The ten plays are usually referred to as “the Pittsburgh cycle,” since nine of them are set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where Wilson was born and grew up. One of them, however, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, takes place in Chicago. Consequently, a new designation has been proposed: The August Wilson Century Cycle. It is under this title that the Theatre Communications Group has just published the whole group as a handsome boxed set of ten separate hardcover plays, each with a fresh foreword by a writer or actor.

There is an overall 19-page series introduction by John Lahr, senior theatre critic for The New Yorker, who spent a good deal of time interviewing Wilson over the years. Lahr has done a fine job of explaining how Wilson portrayed the pulse of black folk “as they moved, over the decades, from property to personhood.” He provides considerable information about Wilson’s life and method of writing (usually standing up at a high desk) on legal pads.

It was Wilson’s custom to submit the plays to regional venues, which afforded him the opportunity for revisions, before they eventually arrived in New York. Four of the plays began as staged readings at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Connecticut; six of them received their first full commercial staging at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven. One of them, Jitney, played in ten cities before reaching New York. These new volumes print the casts and production data for the way stations and Broadway (though the Boston production of Two Trains Running somehow got overlooked).

The ten forewords, of widely varying length, come from six blacks and four whites. I present the plays here in order of the years portrayed, not in the order Wilson wrote them.

Gem of the Ocean (1904). Foreword (4 pp.) by actress Phylicia Rashad, who won a Tony nomination for her performance in this play. She calls the work “a hymn in praise of freedom and moral redemption, an ode to community, a song of love, a wellspring of wisdom, and a summons to critical thought and action.”

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1911). Foreword (2 pp.) by playwright Romulus Linney, who calls it “a searing stage experience” and a representation of “life at its most beautiful.” Many agree with Linney and Wilson himself that this is the best play in the cycle.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1927). Foreword (7 pp.) by Frank Rich, former chief drama critic of the New York Times, who writes: “For all the play’s digressional interludes and seeming plotlessness, its conflicts steadily build to a hugely theatrical climax.”

A scene from The Court Theatre's production of THE PIANO LESSON

The Piano Lesson (1936), winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Foreword (7 pp.) by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, who says that Wilson “teases from African American vernacular its most salient elements: loaded metaphor, nuance, clever use of the unsayable and the resonant spaces in conversational exchange.”

Seven Guitars (1948). Foreword (16 pp.) by Pultizer-winning playwright Tony Kushner, who calls this a “ vast, troubled, complicated drama.” In his extraordinary discussion, Kushner draws Biblical echoes and inferences about time, and fascinatingly surmises why the word “seven” is in the title when there are only two guitars on stage during the play.

Fences (1957), winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award. Foreword (7 pp.) by Columbia University professor Samuel G. Freedman, who knew Wilson and clarifies the autobiographical nature of the conflict between the play’s protagonist and his son. This is Wilson’s most popular work.

Two Trains Running (1969). Foreword (3 pp.) by Laurence Fishburne, who won a Tony Award for his performance in this play. He states that Wilson “unfolds his tale with great humor without stumbling into the frivolous….and confronts, head on, the quintessential issues of respect, identity, self-determination and freedom.”

(1977). Foreword (10 pp.) by writer and musician Ishmael Reed, who goes after a number of those who misunderstand Wilson’s work, especially critic Robert Brustein, who has never been an admirer of Wilson’s oeuvre. Reed states that “Wilson has to rank with Langston Hughes and Ernest Gaines as a writer – his ear was so good that his characters’ words could be set to music.”

King Hedley II (1985). Foreword (5 pp.) by Marion McClinton, who directed three of Wilson’s plays, including this one, and asserted that “Wilson shook the American theater until it finally began to part its eyes and see all of its invisible men and women….All of human history is in this play.”

Radio Golf (1997). Foreword (5 pp.) by Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who interviewed Wilson shortly before his death. He told her that he “had to in some way deal with the black middle class, which for the most part is not in the other nine plays.” She replies, “You are wild in ways that people aren’t even hip to….Within the lines of this play, you’ve made a place for the unconventional, the bit that does not traditionally fit, the outsider, the digression, the seemingly extraneous.”

The Theatre Communications Group is to be congratulated for making readily available one of the most colossal feats in American drama. For those who don’t want the entire Century Cycle, the plays can also be acquired individually.

(Reprinted from the Kay Bourne Arts Report)


  1. Galvanic Thomas on October 27, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    Nice try at trying to run something “profound” in your pathetic little “blog,” Marx.

    You and your bosom buddy Caldwell “Witgone” must have lost the rest of your marbles (all three of them) to devote space to an overrated, commercialized hack-playwrong like August Wilson.

    This is the lowest low blow yet. Do you think I have nothing better to do than spend my time correcting all the blatant errors of taste and discernment that you see fit to polute the internet with? I ought to start charging you admission to my beautiful brain.

    Wilson doesn’t float my boat. He doesn’t float my rubber ducky. If the truth be told, he couldn’t float a flea on an air mattress in Edward Albee’s pool on the fifth of July.

    Anyone who disagrees with my assessment is just a typical self-deluding, academic, pseudo-intellectual mental masturbator-swine who denies the true, enlightened pearls of wisdom I am tossing them.

    So fuck off, you bathering, Harvard’s ass-kissing, pissant, mentally degenerate retards! Give up your forged critic’s licenses and go back to cleaning out the toilets at the Loeb!

  2. Galvanic Thomas on October 28, 2007 at 9:52 am

    Well, since no one seems to have the testicular fortitude, as it were, to answer my last brilliantly witty and insightful post, I’m going to have to (long sigh) do all the heavy lifting myself once again.

    Thought you could trick me into giving up the high ground, eh? I’m going to get the last word on this even if no one else is talking.

    Doesn’t anyone on this pus-oozing cyberspace pimple realize that this “August” Wilson person’s pseudo-historial “dramas” have been broadcast on the VERY SAME tabloid trash network that has been trying to convince us, for YEARS AND YEARS now, that vampires and giant mutant chickens are living in the middle of New York City?

    These pompous Wilson-pals are, in fact, the same low life pill pushers that bring us the incoherent burblings of a race of prancing, pear-shaped, pastel-colored humanoids that have working TV sets instead of instestines. What better unintended metaphor, I ask you, for the complacent, excrement-producing bureacracy of the American cultural establishment?

    Guilt by association you ask? No way. My exclusive brand of numerology (U.S. patent 9,458,243) shows definitely that “August Wilson” has the same snark value (25 3/16) as that notorious Brit-toff art critic cum aristo-fraud, “Sir Kenneth Clark,” a man so preciously “educated” by sloth-ridden Brit-academics that he couldn’t even spell “civilization.”

    And that’s not the only phoney thing in the name, as it were. “August” Wilson you say? August? What’s wrong with May or June, I ask you, or even good old November? Isn’t there just a TOUCH of fin d’ete nostalgia mixed up in this?

    Well, hmmm?

  3. Thomas Garvey on October 29, 2007 at 7:24 am

    I suppose imitation is the highest form of flattery – but doesn’t that require at least a half-decent imitation? I hope no one has been fooled into thinking this pathetic creature – “Galvanic Thomas,” in his/her current form – speaks for me. Although I will say that this strange shape-shifter, vexed to nightmare as it were by the Hub Review, has perhaps finally found a role at a blog that routinely posts from “anonymous sources.”

  4. Galvanic Thomas on October 29, 2007 at 12:53 pm

    Imitation? Imitation?! Oh, my God, no, no, mille fois no. One does not IMITATE the Great Garvey. To such a giant, I am but the Evening Star, twinkling faintly in his afterglow.

  5. Thomas Garvey on October 29, 2007 at 1:24 pm

    Well, you got that much right.

  6. Galvanic Thomas on October 29, 2007 at 6:52 pm

    Bravo, bravo, bravo Great Sir! And congratulations on Sir’s brilliant post on the purification of the blogisphere. Once again, the Great Garvey speaks out to the Universe!

    One can see how your brilliant insight, infallible judgments, and scintillating style, oh Sir, has engendered so much jealousy and envy from corrupt, superannuated, and much inferior critics, all of them no doubt on the take from the Shadowy Forces you so despise and seek to reveal in all their shame. Let their pathetic words fall off you as so many stepped on ping pong balls!

    There are those who say the Great Garvey is rude and overbearing. There are those who say the Great Garvey disrespects the opinions of others. There are those who say the Great Garvey drones on and on, spewing out gratuitous insults and generally ignoring the standards of civilized discourse and good taste. There are even those who (cover your ears, kind Sir) who have had the temerity to call the Great Garvey the “Energizer Bunny of Bores.”

    But I say fie, feh, and poppycock! I say slander, character assassination, and libel! I say Genius needs no Emily Post! Genius needs no Gloria Vanderbilt! Genius needs only an occasional Jackie O. to edit its latest book of Winsome Witticisms and Infallible Insights for Viking.

    Genius alone can walk out free and unfettered into the bright light of day! Genius needs no apologist and no ornament. Genius secretes its own sun screen.

    Ever Onward into the Sun!!

  7. Thomas Garvey on October 29, 2007 at 8:03 pm

    I do really like “Genius secretes its own sun screen,” btw (although I’m not really sure what it means). You are getting a little scary, though. And the thing is, honey, there are also those who say you don’t have to read my blog if you don’t want to . . .

  8. Galvanic Thomas on October 29, 2007 at 8:33 pm

    Oh, but I do want to read your blog, great sir! I do! I wish nothing better from life to sit at the feet of Sir and soak up Sir’s wisdom!

    Such brilliance, all those paragraphs after paragraphs after paragraphs after paragraphs, flowing like clear spring water from the Source of Wisdom itself, hardly touched at all by the polluting thoughts of others. Often indeed I have thought of adding my own lowly thoughts to yours, but I did not dare. It would have been tossing dirty stones into the Limpid Pool of Wisdom.

    So with Sir’s gracious permission, I will be spreading the word to blogs across America about the Great Garvey School of Criticism. I will write always under my own name, of course, but will always credit my great mentor as my ispiration and my only ideal.

    Long live the Great Garvey!

  9. Galvanic Thomas on October 29, 2007 at 8:46 pm

    Oh, and by the way, I have been told that “Muffy” was so crushed by the scimitar-like words of the Great Garvey that pointed out her pathetic and foolish errors that she has given up her Harvard career and entered the Convent of Our Lady of Perpetual Kvetching in East Rahway, New Jersey. There she will endure a novitiate of 30 years, during which she is forbidden to speak, and throughout which she must endure the endless criticism of her fellow nuns on her vanity, her appearance, her shoddy thoughts, her slovenly habits, and her choice of television entertainment. Such a fitting fate, Sir will agree, for one who has so insulted gracious Sir!

    Long live the Great Garvey!

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