#AcademiaIRL – August Wilson’s Century Celebration of the Black Experience

Welcome back to the 255! We hope that all of our students are settling into the new semester. We are excited to kick off the Spring term with many interesting events hosted by the PHR/IS department. Be sure to check out our Instagram page to keep up with the goings-on of our Division. This week, in honor of Black history month, we wanted to highlight the incredible playwright, August Wilson. Wilson’s Century Cycle (a.k.a. the Pittsburg Cycle) tells the stories of African American experience throughout each decade of the 20th Century. We will also showcase the adaptation of his plays into films, headed by actor Denzel Washington. Let’s jump right in!

August Wilson was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1945. Wilson excelled as a student throughout his elementary and secondary education. After being accused of plagiarism in the 10th grade, Wilson dropped out of school and entered the workforce. Later in his life, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh honored him with the award of an “honorary high school diploma” based on his extensive presence at the facility. Wilson’s literary interests focused on black writers and history, highlighting the work of Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Arna Bontemps, among others. Wilson’s early writing career focused on poetry as he submitted entries to local newspapers and magazines and performed at bars and restaurants. He went on to co-found the Black Horizon Theater in 1968. His first works were performed at this theater, often times produced and directed by Wilson himself. Throughout most of the 80s, Wilson produced many of his famous plays such as Jitney, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Fences. Wilson’s work demonstrates the African American experience throughout the 20th century and focused on the examination of the human condition. Other themes in his works included questions of systematic racism, race relations, identity, migration, and discrimination.

As noted above, Wilson’s Century Cycle is composed of ten major plays that detail the African American experience in the 20th Century. All but one of the Century Cycle plays are set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, PA, an area that was historically consisted of black neighborhoods. Below is a list provided by the August Wilson Theatre Company as well as the corresponding decade in which the plays take place.

  • Gem of the Ocean – 1900s
  • Joe Turner’s Come and Gone – 1910s
  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – 1920s
  • The Piano Lesson – 1930s
  • Seven Guitars – 1940s
  • Fences – 1950s
  • Two Trains Running – 1960s
  • Jitney – 1970s
  • King Hedley II – 1980s
  • Radio Golf – 1990s

Not only did Wilson’s work focus on the experience of African Americans throughout U.S. history, but his storytelling abilities famously deter from Western, Euro-centric traditions. Upon his death in 2005 two of his plays, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Fences have been adapted to the big screen, expanding Wilson’s work beyond the Broadway stage. Actor/producer, Denzel Washington, has taken on the project of turning all Wilson’s Century Cycle plays into movie titles. In an interview with CBS News, Washington expressed his interest in continuing telling these stories by saying

This is perfect, you know? It’s not hard. It’s a joy, it’s an opportunity, it’s a privilege, really, to shepherd [this] material. You know, no pressure. The pressure’s not on me. The pressure is on the filmmakers.

– Denzel Washington, December 11, 2020

The Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning August Wilson has produced many iconic onstage performances starring actors like James Earl Jones, Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, and Samuel L Jackson. Viola Davis portrays the titular character Ma, in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which debuted on Netflix in late December 2020. In an interview, Davis expressed her gratitude and admiration for the work of August Wilson, by saying

I think he captures our humor as Black people. He captures our humor, our vulnerabilities, our tragedies, our trauma. And he humanizes us. And he allows us to talk.

Viola Davis, December 11, 2020

With the much needed, ongoing conversations about racism’s mark in U.S. society, the crucial impact of Wilson’s work to the arts and media is apparent. We encourage all of you to read and watch Wilson’s work. We look forward to seeing more movies in the Century Cycle Project released in the near future. Be sure to check out Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Fences on streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Max. Reach out to us on Insta and let us know your thoughts and takeaways. Lastly, we want to remind our readers to be kind, stay safe, and read books by Black authors!

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