The August Wilson Century Cycle
August Wilson’s plays look at the urban African American experience from the inside out. To put this same point as the man on the street might, Wilson "reversed the con" so that a culture that had been portrayed as despicable, and often laughable, could be seen as admirable with its everyday people possessing great fortitude and to be taken seriously. Through his alchemy, audiences shared the agony and exaltation of complex human beings traveling a rocky road out of slavery, through the long, punishing years of Jim Crow, and finally into the equality of hard fought for civil rights and, at the end, with more access to economic opportunity. In an extraordinary feat, the Pittsburgh born and raised high school dropout who educated himself by going to public libraries and reading the works of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin gave the American theater an epic cycle of lyrical plays on this theme, one for each decade in the 20th century, and every one of them with something wonderful to recommend them.
A set of the elegant, hardcover, slipped cased 10 volumes lined up in a box, The August Wilson Century Cycle, has been brought out by the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), in business since 1961 and coincidently originally situated in Pittsburgh. Started up by the Ford Foundation which recognized the new importance of regional theaters, the organization publishes "American Theatre" magazine among many other endeavors supporting non-profit theaters (in the 2005-2006 season the organization awarded approximately three million dollars to theaters and theater artists).
Wilson did not have the punishing Broadway experience other playwrights had, Eugene O’Neill, for one, thanks to the regional theaters. The Yale Repertory Theatre, the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, The Goodman Theatre in Chicago, among others, provided opportunities for Wilson to fine tune his dramas before they opened in New York. It was a system of getting a play up worked out by the director for most of the plays, Lloyd Richards, and carried on by Benjamin Mordecai, who in the last few productions had various roles in getting Wilson’s plays up, and by Wilson himself. Wilson dedicates the final play in the cycle, "Radio Golf," (1997) to Mordecai who produced it on Broadway, "who was there from the beginning - good company, a friend, a brother," as he did "Fences"(1957) to Lloyd Richards, "who adds to whatever he touches." You would be unaware of these dedications, and the others probably, unless you see the play in print, and, at least for this reader, they add considerably to an appreciation of Wilson, the person.
Wilson’s comments, as he sets the scene for a play, have a similarly engaging effect, a kind of welcome mat to his thinking. He is particularly forthcoming in his Note From the Playwright that prefaces his paean to the messianic role of black music in black life, the mystical, apocalypse-at-hanḑ certainly revelatory "Seven Guitars" (1948). He writes, "Despite my interest in history, I have always been more concerned with culture, and while my plays have an overall historical feel, their settings are fictions, and they are peopled with invented characters whose personal histories fit within the historical context in which they live."
Wilson continues, "I have tried to extract some measure of truth from their lives as they struggle to remain whole in face of so many things that threaten to pull them asunder. I am not a historian. I happen to think that the content of my mother’s life - her myths, her superstitions, her prayers, the contents of her pantry, the smell of her kitchen, the song that escaped from her sometimes parched lips, her thoughtful repose and pregnant laughter - are all worthy of art.
"Hence, "Seven Guitars."" The play introduces the King Hedley dynasty which is intricately tied in with Buddy Bolden, the New Orleans trumpet player considered by many jazz musicians to be the father of their music.
A knock at the door of 1839 Wylie Street begins "Gem of the Ocean" (1904), and the century cycle. This is the home of Aunt Ester, a healer of the troubled souls of her black "brothers and sisters," the children of slavery (which she experienced personally). No possible meaning of the address is probed in the ten plays although rhapsodic soliloquies abound and extravagant riffs are the order of the day. The thoughtful reader will likely pause, however, and perhaps recall that 1839 is the year of the mutiny aboard the Armistad slaver when Africans led by Cinque broke their chains and took over the vessel. When news of Aunt Ester’s death from "a broken heart" comes in "King Hedley, II," (1985), her age is estimated as 366 years by Stool Pigeon, described by Wilson as "The Hill’s spiritual and practical truthsayer." Do the subtraction to come up with 1619 as Aunt Ester’s birth date, the year generally regarded as the beginning of the chronicle of slavery in North America. You can’t see all the plays at once but as a reader of the entire cycle, you can get the sweep of them into your head. It’s a mighty panorama.