Anyone who wants to jump headfirst into the history, legacy, and ideas of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle can do so right here at Trinity Rep! The virtual course 10 Weeks with August Wilson: The American Century Cycle begins on February 26.
Prior to each week’s class, students read that week’s script on their own time. In chronological order, the scripts are: Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Fences, Two Trains Running, Jitney, King Hedley II, and Radio Golf. During the class’s weekly meeting, participants discuss the time period each play is set in before diving into the show itself.
“As folks are waiting for class to start, I always play music from the particular decade that week’s play took place in,” Director of Community Engagement Michelle Cruz, who instructs the class, said. “So the beginning portion is usually a history lesson, through music, food, and just the history of the time, and discussing what was happening for African-Americans then.”
The class then discusses the themes of the show, looking at specific scenes and passages. As the class goes on, they also explain how all the plays in the cycle tie together, whether through recurring characters or overlapping themes.
So how did the class start at Trinity Rep? During the pandemic, Michelle decided to entertain herself by reading the entire American Century Cycle in chronological order. She wondered if anyone else would be interested in doing the same thing, so she and Director of Education and Accessibility Jordan Butterfield decided to create the course, especially after the success of our production of Radio Golf in early spring 2020. The first 10-week course began in January 2021 and sold out within days. Based on the high demand, a second session was added which ran April – June 2021.
“It was really nice to connect with people, especially at that point in the pandemic and in the winter,” Michelle said. “We had folks from New Zealand in the class. One gentleman was from Sri Lanka. There were lots of local folks too, including Louis Giancola, the chair of our Board of Trustees. And the age range was super cool, too. We had everything between a 16-year-old student, all the way up to someone in their 80s.”
After the success of the first two sessions and with August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean on stage this winter, it seemed natural to add another session.
With the concepts of Wilson’s work ranging from the lasting legacy of slavery to what it means to be Black in modern America, the Cycle is especially relevant today. Michelle said this should lead to plenty of thoughtful conversations.
“A lot of the themes are going to stay the same compared to the last time I taught this course, but unfortunately so much has transpired within Black America since I did that first class,” Michelle said. “And I can certainly add new things related to what’s been going on. There’s so many themes that are pretty prevalent in Wilson’s work that’s unfortunately still relevant today.”
In the spirit of Wilson’s work, some seats in the class will be reserved for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) students who may not have access to the course otherwise. In addition to providing a unique learning opportunity, Michelle said guaranteeing spots for BIPOC students will lift BIPOC voices and deepen the discussion on works primarily about the lives of Black Americans. These students will attend for free.
Michelle can’t wait to facilitate the conversations in this class, and see Wilson’s work live on stage once again.
“I’m looking forward to the fact that we can actually experience theater again,” Michelle confided. “It was hard talking about these plays, but with no option to actually go see them. It’s nice that people could come to Gem of the Ocean and say in the class ‘When I was there, I felt this, or I noticed that.’ We didn’t know when the theater was going open again last time, and a couple of folks said they’d come see these shows together once things opened up, since they bonded so much in the class.”
To register for the course, click here! If you enroll, we recommend that you purchase the play scripts from your local Black-owned bookstore. Visit https://www.cntraveler.com/story/black-owned-bookstores to discover Black-owned bookstores you can buy from online.