August Wilson's American Century Cycle, a Play-By-Play Review

By: Sep. 23, 2015
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As previously reported on BroadwayWorld, Denzel Washington will be producing the entirety of August Wilson's 10-play American Century Cycle for HBO.

Washington had been previously announced to be directing, producing and starring in August Wilson's FENCES, the play for which he won his Tony Award, for the cable network, along with his co-star and fellow Tony winner for the 2010 Broadway revival, Viola Davis. It will be followed by one play per year.

One of the great achievement in American theatre, Wilson's cycle consists of 10 plays depicting African-American life in the 20th Century, one play for each decade. All but one take place where the playwright grew up, Pittsburgh's Hill District. Although each can stand individually, together they paint a vivid portrait of a people confronting the obstacles of racism and their choice between assimilating into an established white culture or maintaining their history and heritage.

Stars like James Earl Jones, Leslie Uggams, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Phylicia Rashad, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Tonya Pinkins, Roscoe Lee Browne, Laurence Fishburne, Charles S. Dutton and Theresa Merritt have all appeared in original Broadway productions of August Wilson plays.

Who would you cast to play such iconic roles as Aunt Ester, Ma Rainey and King Hedley II?

Below are all ten plays listed in the order of the decade in which they're set. The date in parentheses is when the original production opened on Broadway, or, in the case of JITNEY, Off-Broadway.

GEM OF THE OCEAN (2004): Set in 1904, Wilson begins the cycle with a spiritual allegory that mixes the first adult generation of free-born blacks with their once-enslaved elders. Loaded with symbolism, the central character is the 287 year old "soul-cleanser" Aunt Ester. Born in 1617, the year Africans were first brought to this continent in slavery, she resides in a cathedral-like home in the Hill District at 1839 Wylie Avenue, the street number being the year of the Amistad revolt. A young man named Citizen Barlow comes seeking sanctuary for a recent crime, but Aunt Ester insists that the washing of the soul requires a continual connection to history and she takes him on a spiritual voyage aboard a ship made from her own bill of sale to experience the sacrifices of his ancestors.

JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE (1988): Set in 1911, at a boarding home owned by Seth and Bertha Holly, this play takes place in a time when great numbers of former slaves and their children were migrating to industrialized northern cities, competing with white laborers for blue-collar jobs. The title refers to a song recorded by blues artist W.C. Handy about the notorious brother of the governor of Tennessee, known for kidnapping freed slaves and forcing them to work on his chain gang. Herald Loomis, a new guest at the home, is searching for his wife after being separated for seven years while enslaved by Joe Turner.

MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM (1984): The only play in the cycle not set in the Hill District, it mixes fact and fiction at a 1927 Chicago recording studio, where the great blues singer Ma Rainey would record her classic, "The Black Bottom." Carrying herself with regal authority over her white producers, the demanding Ma Rainey knows she's worth nothing to them once they have her voice recorded. Wilson focuses on the four musicians hired to play for the recording, particularly the young and ambitious trumpet player, Levee, and the socially-conscious piano player, Toledo, who lectures on the black man's need to sustain his own heritage instead of wanting to assimilate into the white man's world.

THE PIANO LESSON (1990): Winner of the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the 1937 setting is a time when the Great Depression has only increased the influx of black workers to industrialized northern cities. The prized possession in the Charles family's parlor is a 137 year old piano, carved by their enslaved grandfather with images of their ancestors. Boy Willie Charles has an opportunity to buy the Mississippi land where their family members once work as slaves and wants to sell the piano for the money, but his sister Berniece won't stand for it.

SEVEN GUITARS (1996): Set in 1948, the play begins after the funeral of murdered blues singer, Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton, as six people reminisce about him in a series of flashbacks. A song he recorded had unexpectedly become a radio hit and the record label wanted him to come back to Chicago to record another. Up until that point his life had become a series of misfortunes and misjudgments and his effort to turn things around may have been what led to his demise.

FENCES (1987): Awarded the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, FENCES begins in 1957 and spans several years. Its central character, Troy Maxson, could have been suggested by Negro League baseball player Josh Gibson, considered one of the greatest in the game's history, but too old to play once the majors became integrated. Now a garbage collector, Troy is fighting to become the first black man in his company to drive the trucks instead of being regulated to loading them. Tensions arise with his wife because of his affair with another woman and with his son, who wants to go to college on a football scholarship. Troy refuses to sign the permission slip, trying to shield his son from the racism he faced in sports.

TWO TRAINS RUNNING (1992): Set in 1969 in a Wylie Avenue diner near the home of Aunt Ester, TWO TRAINS RUNNING takes place as the civil rights movement heats up in Pittsburgh. The place has seen better days and now the city's urban renewal program intends to seize the building for a buyout price in order to put up public housing. The owner, Memphis, is determined to get the price he deserves. Running parallel to his story is that of the mentally challenged customer nicknamed Hambone, who was hired to do a paint job for a neighboring market with the promise of a ham if he did a good job. Not satisfied, the owner gave him a chicken, but Hambone insists he deserves a ham.

JITNEY (2000): With Pittsburgh cab drivers refusing to go to the Hill District in 1977, the slack is covered by Becker's gypsy cab company. Just like with Memphis' diner in TWO TRAINS RUNNING, the city's urban renewal program plans to buyout the building and Becker is deciding whether or not to fight. The play is a collage of individual stories involving the cabbies. It's the only August Wilson play yet to be produced on Broadway.

KING HEDLEY II (2001): The bleakest play in the cycle, set in 1985, KING HEDLEY II takes place in a time when President Reagan promises his trickle-down economics plan will eventually help the poor, but violent crime and drive-by shoots dominate the local news. The title character is trying to rebuild his life by selling stolen refrigerators until he's saved enough to but a video store. The play's sorrowful climax comes with the news that Aunt Ester has died.

RADIO GOLF (2007): Set in 1997, RADIO GOLF is about rebuilding the Hill District with an eye toward preserving its history. Real estate agent Harmon Wilkes hopes to revitalize his childhood neighborhood, and boost his plan to be elected Pittsburgh's first black mayor, by building two high-rise apartment buildings anchored by high-end chain stores. The plans require the demolition of what used to be Aunt Ester's home at 1839 Wylie Avenue, abandoned for years. When he finds out that the property was put up for sale illegally and the owner has no intention of parting with it, Wilkes has to consider what really is best for his community.


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