By Caitlin Howle
August Wilson was an American playwright best known for his series of ten plays known as The American Century Cycle, each of which is set during a different decade of the 20th century. The last of this cycle is Radio Golf, which will be on the Trinity Rep stage beginning January 30. Sometimes referred to as the Pittsburgh Cycle, nine of the ten plays are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District area, with the outlier, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, set in Chicago. Some characters appear in multiple plays, aging and changing as time passes. Though the plays were not written in chronological order, they are listed here in the order Wilson intended them to be seen:
Gem of the Ocean (1900s)
Aunt Ester (think “ancestor”) is a 285-year-old former slave known as a teller of history and cleanser of souls. Citizen Barlow, a new arrival to Pittsbugh’s Hill District, needs Aunt Ester to help him with the guilt he feels for a crime he has committed. Citizen must make peace with what happened by taking the legendary slave ship, Gem of the Ocean, to the City of Bones — a place known only in myth. Through his ancestors he learns who he is and tries to lead others toward freedom after a tragic fire and misguided thoughts about slavery. Gem of the Ocean premiered at The Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 2003.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1910s)
Harold Loomis and his young daughter Zonia have returned to Pittsburgh to leave the poverty and Jim Crow laws of the South, where he was kidnapped and separated from his family by a bounty hunter named Joe Turner. Looking for Harold’s wife, Martha, the pair arrives at a Pittsburgh boarding house, where the story turns into an intricate tale of spirituality and dealing with a past that continues to haunt them. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone premiered at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway in 1988.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1920s)
This is the only play in the American Century Cycle not set in Pittsburgh. Ma Rainey is a blues singer in Chicago who knows that her music is being exploited to profit her white producers. She sees the blues as a way of understanding life, especially during this time of segregation and legal discrimination. Ma Rainey and her band members deal with the day-to-day frustrations of exploitation, especially with their music, and the story ends with no resolution, reflecting the challenges still facing many Black Americans today. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom opened in 1984 at Yale Repertory Theater and moved to Broadway’s Cort Theatre. A movie adaptation is set to be released in 2020 featuring former Trinity Rep actor Viola Davis.
The Piano Lesson (1930s)
During the aftermath of the Great Depression, the story follows the lives of the Charles family and their beloved piano. Boy Willie and his sister Berniece bicker constantly about whether or not to keep this heirloom, knowing that they could sell it, but that it also holds their family history. Its first staged reading was at the 1986 National Playwrights Conference and first production was at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1987. The show won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Seven Guitars (1940s)
The story begins and ends directly after the funeral of Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, an ex-con recently released from jail. Between these two bookends a series of flashbacks reveal how Floyd almost made it big as a blues singer until his untimely murder. The play shows just how hard it is to be an African-American man in a world that’s stacked against you. It premiered in 1996 at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.
Troy was once a star player in the Negro baseball league until he was arrested for an accidental murder he committed during a robbery. He now works as a garbage collector. His son Cory looks to shape a life for himself when Troy intervenes and potentially sabotages it. The play premiered in 1985 at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for drama, and a 2010 Broadway revival starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis was recognized with the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play, as well as acting awards for both leads. A 2016 film adaptation also featured Washington and Davis.
Two Trains Running (1960s)
This play focuses on the 1960s civil rights movement sweeping across Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Not everyone is convinced that this is what the community needs, and this is often the topic of discussion at Memphis’ diner, where the play is set, and where the characters in the play feel at home. When the local government, through a city renovation project, and a businessman want to take the diner from Memphis, he must make a decision about what community means during a time of great upheaval. This play premiered in 1990 at Yale Repertory Theatre.
In the 1970s no taxis will run to Pittsburgh’s Hill District, so residents must rely on jitneys, or unlicensed cabs. The story focuses on the lives of the jitney drivers at the station owned by Jim Becker. Jitney was written in 1979 and produced at the Allegheny Repertory Theatre in Pittsburgh in 1982. Wilson re-wrote the script in 1996.
King Hedley II (1980s)
One of Wilson’s darker plays, it tells the story of an ex-con trying to rebuild his life, focusing on King Hedley II as he tries to make money by selling stolen refrigerators. Throughout, the play examines how the rich seem to get richer and the poorer get poorer. The show premiered in 1999 at Pittsburgh Public Theater, and was a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in Drama.
Radio Golf (1990s)
This play focuses on real estate developer Harmond Wilks, who is determined to become the first Black mayor of Pittsburgh and is on a mission to revive his childhood neighborhood. As Wilks confronts his past, he is forced to examine how change can put his neighborhood’s history at risk. The production premiered in 2005 at Yale Repertory Theatre.
Ten of Wilson’s plays have been featured on Broadway, with numerous Tony Awards and accolades being given to multiple productions. Chicago’s Goodman Theatre was the first theater to produce all ten plays in the American Century Cycle, and, here at Trinity Rep, we’ve produced four of the plays, with Radio Golf being our fifth. We’re proud to continue the conversations about the Black experience in America that August Wilson instigated with his remarkable and moving body of work.