All Articles
February 10, 2021

August Wilson’s American Century Cycle: 10 Plays About the Black Experience in the 20th Century


August Wilson’s American Century Cycle is considered one of the crowing achievements of the American theatre. From 1982 to 2005, August Wilson penned ten plays that captured the Black experience in Pittsburgh throughout the 20th century. With one play representing each decade, these varied masterpieces earned Wilson two Pulitzer Prizes, multiple Tony Award nominations, a Peabody, and many other accolades.

In chronological order, here are the ten plays in Wilson’s American Century Cycle.

Gem of the Ocean, 1900s (US/UK)

Though written second-to-last in 2003, Gem of the Ocean kicks off the American Century Cycle in the year 1904. It begins on the eve of Aunt Ester’s 285th birthday. When Citizen Barlow comes to her Hill District home seeking asylum, she sets him off on a spiritual journey to find a city in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The Broadway run of Gem of the Ocean starred Phylicia Rashad and earned five Tony Award nominations, including Best Play.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, 1910s (US/UK)

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is set in a Pittsburgh all-Black boarding house in 1911. The play explores the lives of each denizen of the boarding house, who all have different relationships to the legacy of slavery and to the urban present. They include the proprietors, an eccentric clairvoyant with a penchant for old country voodoo, a young homeboy up from the South, and a mysterious stranger who is searching for his wife.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, 1920s (US/UK)

This cornerstone play — adapted in to a 2020 Netflix film starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman — honors the life of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the “Mother of Blues.” The year is 1927 and Ma Rainey is recording new sides of old favorite songs in a rundown studio in Chicago. Fiery and determined, Ma Rainey fights to retain control over her music while her cocky trumpet player, Levee, dreams of making his own name in the business. More than music goes down in this riveting portrayal of rage, racism, self-hatred and exploitation.

The Piano Lesson, 1930s (US/UK)

It is 1936, and Boy Willie arrives in Pittsburgh from the South in a battered truck loaded with watermelons to sell. He has an opportunity to buy some land down home, but he has to come up with the money right quick. He wants to sell an old piano that has been in his family for generations, but he shares ownership with his sister and it sits in her living room. She has already rejected several offers because the antique piano is covered with incredible carvings detailing the family’s rise from slavery. Boy Willie tries to persuade his stubborn sister that the past is past, but she is more formidable than he anticipated.

This touchstone work earned the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and five Tony Award nominations, including Best Play.

Seven Guitars, 1940s (US/UK)

In the backyard of a Pittsburgh tenement in 1948, friends gather to mourn for a blues guitarist and singer who died just as his career was on the verge of taking off. The action that follows is a flashback to the busy week leading up to Floyd’s sudden and unnatural death. Part bawdy comedy, part dark elegy, and part mystery, Seven Guitars was a Finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Fences, 1950s (US/UK)

This sensational drama centers around Troy Maxson, a former star of the Negro baseball leagues who now works as a garbage man in 1957 Pittsburgh. Excluded from the major leagues during his prime for being Black, Troy has grown embittered, straining his relationships with his wife and his son, who now wants his own chance to play ball. Revived in 2010 starring Denzel Washington in the lead role, the play originally starred James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson. Fences was yet another awards darling when it first premiered, earning the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and three Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Play, in 2010.

Two Trains Running, 1960s (US/UK)

Memphis Lee’s coffee shop is located in a Pittsburgh neighborhood on the brink of economic development. As the play unfolds, we follow the characters who hang out there: a local intellectual, an elderly man who imparts the secrets of life as learned from a 322-year-old sage, an ex-con, a numbers runner, a laconic waitress who slashed her legs to keep men away, and a developmentally disabled man who was once cheated out of a ham. With Chekhovian obliqueness, Two Trains Running reveals the simple truths, hopes and dreams of this group, creating a microcosm of an era and a community on the brink of change. Two Trains Running earned its place as a Finalist for the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Jitney, 1970s (US/UK)

During the 1970s, regular taxi cabs would not drive to the Hill District in Pittsburgh, so residents turned to unofficial and unlicensed taxi cabs called jitneys. The play follows one such company, owned by Jim Becker, on the day his son, Booster, is released from jail early after serving twenty years for the murder of his college girlfriend. When news comes in that the building the station is located in is to be condemned, the estranged father and son must learn to fight back and try to build bridges. This tender, tragic look into a turbulent time premiered in 1982, making it the first play of the Cycle that Wilson penned.

King Hedley II, 1980s (US/UK)

Peddling stolen refrigerators in the feeble hope of making enough money to open a video store, King Hedley, a man whose self-worth is built on self-delusion, is scraping in the dirt of an urban backyard, trying to plant seeds where nothing will grow. Getting, spending, killing and dying in a world where getting is hard and killing is commonplace are threads woven into this 1980s installment in the author’s renowned American Century Cycle. Drawing on characters established in Seven Guitars, King Hedley II shows the shadows of the past reaching into the present as King seeks retribution for a lie perpetrated by his mother regarding the identity of his father. Premiering in 1999, the play was a Finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Radio Golf, 1990s (US/UK)

A fast-paced, dynamic, and wonderfully funny work about the world today and the dreams we have for the future. Set in Pittsburgh in the late 1990s, it’s the story of a successful entrepreneur who aspires to become the city’s first Black mayor. But when the past begins to catch up with him, secrets are revealed that could be his undoing. The most contemporary of all August Wilson’s work, Radio Golf is the final play in his unprecedented ten-play cycle. Completed shortly after his death in 2005, this bittersweet drama of assimilation and alienation traces the forces of change on a neighborhood and its people caught between history and the 21st century.

To discover more from August Wilson, visit his collection in the US or UK.