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December 15, 2016

American Stage on Concluding August Wilson’s Epic Century Cycle


“August Wilson’s Century Cycle is an achievement unmatched by any of the other great American playwrights (O’Neill, Williams, Miller, et al). By staging Joe Turner, Wilson’s most mysterious and also favorite play, American Stage joins a small group of national theaters to bring the cycle’s turbulent tragicomedy to completion.”

— Christopher Rawson, Pittsburgh critic and Wilson scholar

In 2007, American Stage produced its first August Wilson play, Gem of the Ocean.  In January 2017, the professional theatre company will have accomplished what only a handful of other theatre companies in the world can claim when they produce Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, completing the entirety of August Wilson’s seminal American Century Cycle.

The commitment to the cycle was initiated by the company’s former artistic director, Todd Olson. “It fast evolved from ‘the biggest risk of the season’ to the most sought-after production we did all year,” explains Olson. I became the new Producing Artistic Director of American Stage in 2015 during the closing week of Radio Golf.  Since then I’ve had the great pleasure of producing Jitney and am preparing to embark on our final Cycle production, Joe Turner.  As an artistic director who inherited Wilson’s Century Cycle I feel extremely fortunate to be in a position to see it to its conclusion.  My appreciation for the beauty and authenticity of Wilson’s voice has deepened immensely and I am exceptionally grateful to be a part of a community which has embraced this body of work so fully.

The twn-play canon explores African-American history in the 20th century, with all but one (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where Wilson grew up. While the plays were not written in chronological order, each represents a different decade in the last century, with many recurring characters. “My plays are ultimately about love, honor, duty, betrayal,” Wilson said in an interview in 1996. All nine of the plays on Broadway received Tony Award nominations for best play and two won Pulitzer Prizes.  Jitney, the only play in the cycle not to have made it to Broadway will be given its debut at The Manhattan Theatre Club later this month.

Here is a look at American Stage’s ten-year journey:

2016-17 Season:  Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (Opens January 20, 2017)
Premiere: 1986, Yale Repertory Theatre; 1988, Broadway opening at Ethel Barrymore Theater.

Set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911, the ensemble play includes characters who were former slaves and examines the residents’ experiences with racism and discrimination.

Awards: L. Scott Caldwell won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play

2015-16 Season:  Jitney
Premiere: 1982, Allegheny Repertory Theatre, Pittsburgh; 2000 premiere Off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre.

Set in an unofficial taxi station threatened with demolition in 1977, Jitney explores the lives and relationships of drivers, highlighting conflicts between generations and different concepts of legacy and identity.

Awards: 2001 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play; 2002 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play.

 2014-15 Season:  Radio Golf
Premiere: 2005 at Yale Repertory Theater; 2007 Broadway opening at Cort Theatre.

Set in 1990 Pittsburgh, this play concluded Wilson’s Century Cycle and is the last play he completed before his death. The home of Aunt Ester (the setting of the cycle’s first play Gem of the Ocean) is threatened with demolition that will make way for real estate development in the depressed area. Investors include Harmond Wilks, who wants to increase his chance of becoming the city’s first black mayor. History and legacy challenge personal aspirations and ideas of progress.

2013-14 Season: Two Trains Running
Premiere: 1990, at Yale Repertory Theatre; 1992, Broadway opening at Walter Kerr Theatre.

Set in 1969, the play revolves around a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which has suffered a long economic decline. The restaurant owner, Memphis, worries what will happen when the city comes to claim the building through eminent domain. A young activist, Sterling, tries to organize protests and rallies that can help save the restaurant, but Memphis is not so supportive.

Awards: Laurence Fishburne won a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for best actor in a play.

2012-13 Season: The Piano Lesson
Premiere: 1987, Yale Repertory Theater; 1990 Broadway opening at Walter Kerr Theatre.

Set in 1936, during the aftermath of the Great Depression, the play follows the Charles family in the Doaker Charles household. A brother and a sister have different ideas about what to do with their piano, a family heirloom. Sell it to purchase land their enslaved ancestors once toiled upon, or keep the piano, which includes carved depictions of two distant relatives.

Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.

2011-12 Season: Seven Guitars
Premiere: 1995 Goodman Theatre, Chicago; 1996, Broadway opening at Walter Kerr Theatre.

Set in 1948, blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is newly freed from prison when he’s asked to sign a record deal after a song he recorded months before becomes a surprise hit. He struggles to right wrongs and make his way back to Chicago. Black manhood is a theme of the play and a rooster is used in to symbolize it.

2010-11 Season: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Premiere: 1984, Yale Repertory Theatre; subsequent 1984 Broadway opening at the Cort Theatre.

Set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the ten-cycle play not set in Pittsburgh), Ma Rainey examines racism in the history of black musicians and white producers, and the themes of art and religion.

Awards: Wilson wins his first of his seven New York Drama Critics Circle awards for his plays.

2009-10 Season: Fences
Premiere: 1987, Broadway premiere at 46th Street Theatre.

In 1957, Troy Maxson, a former Negro Baseball League player, is a bitter man in his 50s who works as a garbageman. His frustration and disappointments in life affect his wife Rose and son Cory, who like his father, is a gifted athlete.

Awards: Pulitze
r Prize for Drama, four Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Direction, Best Actor (James Earl Jones), Best Featured Actress (Mary Alice), and three Drama Desk Awards.

2008-09 Season: King Hedley II
Premiere: 1999, at the Pittsburgh Public Theater; 2001 Broadway opening at the Virginia Theatre.

Set in 1985, an ex-con tries wants to support a family and aims to get the money to open a video store by selling stolen refrigerators. The play features some characters from Seven Guitars.

Awards:Viola Davis won a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for Best Featured Actress; Charles Brown won a Drama Desk Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play

2007-08 Season: Gem of the Ocean
Production Premiere: 2003, Goodman Theatre, Chicago; 2004, Broadway opening at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

Set in 1904, the play features a man whose small crime has had deadly consequences for another man. Feeling guilty, he comes seeking the spiritual healing of Aunt Ester. A recurring character in Wilson’s plays, Ester claims to be 285 years old and is the kind matriarch of her household in Pittsburgh.

Established in 1977, American Stage ( is a professional, nonprofit theatre company in St. Petersburg. FL. For more articles in the Century Cycle Series, click here.