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.”
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.”
Jitney (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)