In Context: The American Century Cycle
Author: Katherine Monberg, Literary Associate
August Wilson’s American Century Cycle is a collection of ten plays that chronicle a collective century of the Black American experience, with each of the ten plays set in a different decade spanning the 20th century. Nine of the ten plays are set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, one of many connection points woven through the multiple narratives. Though the American Century Cycle is not connected into a single linear story, several characters or their descendants appear more than once throughout the ten scripts; the character with the most appearances is Aunt Ester, a “washer of souls,” who appears in various stages of life and reference in Gem of the Ocean, Two Trains Running, King Hedley II, and Radio Golf.
As a playwright, August Wilson was dedicated to cultivating social consciousness through the power of theatre, and the use of a medium through which a community could truly connect to invite an audience to bear witness to the state of the world around them, and their own place in the historical and contemporary social fabric.
In an interview with The Paris Review, Wilson stated that “my plays offer (white Americans) a different way to look at black Americans. For instance, in Fences they see a garbageman, a person they don’t really look at, although they see a garbageman every day. By looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this black garbageman’s life is affected by the same things – love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.”
Gem of the Ocean, set in the 1900s, premiered in 2003 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago before transferring to Broadway the following year. The play depicts 285-year-old Aunt Ester, a healer and a keeper of tradition, as she cleanses the souls of those who pass through her kitchen. She leads one new arrival, Citizen Barlow, aboard the legendary slave ship known as the Gem of the Ocean, to embark on a journey of spiritual redemption to the mythical City of Bones.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, set in the 1910s, premiered in 1986 at Yale Repertory Theatre before opening at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1988. The play depicts the lives of boardinghouse owner Seth Holly and his wife Bertha, as they meet and share living space with freed former slaves who have moved North after the Civil War, illuminating the ongoing racism and discrimination in the post-war United States.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, set in the 1920s, premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1984 before opening on Broadway later that year. The only play of the American Century Cycle set in Chicago, it describes the rising tension between members of blues singer Ma Rainey’s band, and the desperation entwined in limited and thwarted opportunities.
The Piano Lesson, set in the 1930s in the aftermath of the Great Depression, premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1987, and later opened on Broadway in 1990. Winner of the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, The Piano Lesson was inspired by a painting of the same name by Romare Bearden. The play depicts the lives of Doaker Charles and his household, interwoven with their various perspectives on the meaning and fate of the family heirloom piano.
Seven Guitars, set in the 1940s, premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 1995 before moving on to Broadway in 1996. Seven Guitars details the journey of blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton as he seeks to define his own humanity, self-acceptance, and self-understanding and to right past wrongs after signing a record deal. The play begins with a funeral, describing the previous events in a series of flashbacks; the stories of some characters in Seven Guitars would be later revisited in King Hedley II, set in the 1980s.
Fences, set in the 1950s, premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1985 before opening at Broadway’s 46th Street Theatre in 1987. Winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play, Fences focuses on 53-year-old Troy as he struggles to provide for his family as a garbage collector, years after being forced to abandon his dreams of becoming a professional baseball player due to the persisting color barrier in Major League Baseball.
Two Trains Running, set in the 1960s, premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1990, and transferred to Broadway in 1992. The play examines the social and psychological manifestations of urban blacks as their attitudes toward race evolve in mid-20th century America.
Jitney, set in the 1970s, premiered in 1982 at the Allegheny Repertory Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The play details the lives of the unofficial, unlicensed taxi drivers known as jitneys, as they hustle to make a living providing transportation to the Pittsburgh Hill District, where regular cabs will not venture. Violence threatens the community when the boss’s son, Becker, returns from prison.
King Hedley II¸ set in the 1980s, premiered at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre in 1991 and opened on Broadway in 2001. The play tells the story of ex-con King Hedley as he attempts to rebuild his life in Pittsburgh by starting a family and selling refrigerators, with aspirations to eventually buy a video store. Stories of several characters from Wilson’s earlier play, Seven Guitars, also weave throughout the narrative.
Radio Golf, set in the 1990s, is the final play in The American Century Cycle in both narrative chronology and authorship, which premiered in 2005 at Yale Repertory Theatre; August Wilson passed away between the play’s premiere and its opening at Broadway’s Court Theatre in 2007. The play details the story of Ivy League graduate Harmond Wilkes as he seeks to redevelop Pittsburgh’s Hill District after inheriting his father’s real estate agency, whose aspirations are interrupted by continuing forces of racism and privilege.