August Wilson: An Extraordinary Legacy Rooted in Pittsburgh’s Hill District

Beth Fhaner
 | Sep 18, 2017

Gem of the Ocean playwright, August Wilson.

Wilson's Inspiration: The "Four B's"

In a 1999 interview in The Paris Review, Wilson cited his major influences as being the “four B’s”: the blues was the “primary” influence, followed by the writer Jorge Luis Borges, the playwright Amiri Baraka and the painter Romare Bearden. He analyzed the elements each contributed to his art: “From Borges, those wonderful gaucho stories from which I learned that you can be specific as to a time and place and culture and still have the work resonate with the universal themes of love, honor, duty, betrayal, etc. From Amiri Baraka, I learned that all art is political, although I don’t write political plays. From Romare Bearden, I learned that the fullness and richness of everyday life can be rendered without compromise or sentimentality.” He added two more B’s, both African-American writers, to the list: the playwright Ed Bullins and James Baldwin. (Source: The New York Times)

Pulitzer prize-winning playwright August Wilson was a giant figure in the landscape of American theatre. When Wilson died in 2005, he left behind an extraordinary legacy with his powerful work, especially with his American Century Cycle, a series of 10 plays that offered a comprehensive look, decade by decade, at the heritage and experience of African Americans in the 20th century. A milestone in the history of black culture, the American Century Cycle lives on, with its plays continuing to be embraced by new generations of theatregoers.

“Heroic is not a word one uses often without embarrassment to describe a writer or playwright, but the diligence and ferocity of effort behind the creation of his body of work is really an epic story,” noted playwright Tony Kushner at the time of Wilson’s passing.

“The playwright’s voice in American culture is perceived as having been usurped by television and film, but he reasserted the power of drama to describe large social forces, to explore the meaning of an entire people’s experience in American history. For all the magic in his plays, he was writing in the grand tradition of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, the politically engaged, direct, social realist drama. He was reclaiming ground for the theater that most people thought had been abandoned,” said Kushner.

Wilson’s American Century Cycle plays are all set in a different decade, beginning with Gem of the Ocean in 1904 and concluding with Radio Golf in 1997. With the exception of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, all of the cycle plays take place in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, once considered the center of the city’s black culture and the place where Wilson was born and raised. In addition, all of the plays in the American Century Cycle—with the exceptions of Radio Golf and Jitney—were seen on Broadway, where they ​racked up an impressive total of nearly 1,800 performances in just a little more than two decades. Wilson’s work was also produced at many regional theatres across the country, as well as theatres worldwide.

Commenting on his Cycle plays, Wilson wrote in an article for The Times in 2000, “I wanted to place this culture onstage in all its richness and fullness and to demonstrate its ability to sustain us in all areas of human life and endeavor and through profound moments of our history in which the larger society has thought less of us than we have thought of ourselves.”

In Gem of the Ocean—a mystical story of freedom, justice and redemption—audiences are transported to 1904 Pittsburgh, where many former slaves and descendants journeying north find themselves at Aunt Ester’s door. As a renowned cleanser of souls claiming to be 285 years old, Ester provides solace, advice and healing. Citizen Barlow, racked with guilt over letting another man take the rap for one of his crimes, longs to be pure again, and Aunt Ester may be his only hope.

Don’t miss the opportunity to see the first play in Wilson’s American Century Cycle when SCR presents Gem of the Ocean on the Segerstrom Stage from Oct. 14 – Nov. 11. Gem of the Ocean will mark the fourth time SCR has produced one of Wilson’s American Century Cycle plays. SCR’s previous productions of Wilson’s work include Jitney (2012), Fences (2010) and The Piano Lesson (1999).

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