From August 26 through September 28, the full and complete “Century Cycle” reading of the works of playwright August Wilson will be free and available to the public through live webcast via the Estate of August Wilson, New York Public Radio (WNYC) and the Greene Space. For the first time in America, the general public will have full, free access to one of the most prominent playwrights and chroniclers of African-American culture the world has ever seen.
For 25 years, the works of the late August Wilson have graced theater stages across the country in regional, local and college theaters across the country; all but one appeared on Broadway to rave reviews. Just prior to his death in October 2005, the August Wilson Theater became the first Broadway Theater named after an African-American in the history of the Great White Way.
Heavily influenced by what he called “the four Bs—the blues, Amiri Baraka, Romare Bearden and Jorge Luis Borges”—August Wilson wrote 10 plays which chronicle the African-American experience during each decade of the 20th Century. As a playwright, he essentially became one of the greatest job creators for Black actors in the late 20th century. There’s an entire August Wilson family of thespians who have embodied and celebrated his works, many of whom are participating in this project as directors and actors.
Wilson’s work embodies the folk representation and protest politics oft debated by Alain Locke, W. E. B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. The Pulitzer-winning playwright believed that mainstream America needed to see the interiority of Black life, which revealed the depth of our humanity, and that Black people needed to heavily increase the manner and frequency with which we can see ourselves as art.
Here’s a brief guide to the first set of August Wilson readings being live-streamed for a 21st century audience:
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Before the debut of films such as Ray, Cadillac Records and Dreamgirls, August Wilson explored the relationship between Black blues artists like Ma Rainey and the record industry representatives such as Paramount Records. This play, about the day the “mother of the blues” and her band-recorded hit “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a must-see, especially for today’s recording artists. It also explores the legacy of White terrorism and its relationship to “black on black” crime. Erykah Badu, Ledisi and Angie Stone put us in mind of the type of artist Ma Rainey was, and she’s played by seasoned singer and stellar actress Ebony Jo-Ann, who never disappoints.
Fences: Denzel Washington and Viola Davis lit up the stage for a revival of Wilson’s biggest commercial hit on Broadway in April 2010. But it initially starred Courtney B. Vance (now a detective on Law and Order) and veteran James Earl Jones, about a former Negro Leagues baseball star who became a city sanitation worker, trying to become a driver on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. His son wants to play football, but his own bitter experience with racism causes him to want to limit his son’s options. The current attempts to curtail voting rights and the endless drama that emerges from professional sports makes Fences exceptionally relevant today. Initially portrayed by actress Mary Alice, now embodied by Regina Taylor, this play also includes one of the most epic ways a wife lets her husband know how she feels about his adulterous affair.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone: A mysterious man arrives in the city of Pittsburgh lost, in many ways. A victim of neo-slavery and the prison industrial complex, Herald Loomis (initially played by Delroy Lindo on Broadway) is gruff, dirty, embattled and in search of his wife (then played by Angela Bassett) and daughter after having been stolen in one of Joe Turner’s chain gangs for seven years. Loomis puts us in mind of anyone stopped and frisked, suffering from “the new Jim Crow” and seeking to find peace by reconciling with their past and finding their own songs.
The Piano Lesson: Our ancestors are waiting for us to figure out how we will hold onto the best aspects of our past and build a better future for our children. In Wilson’s play, a brother and sister go to battle over a family heirloom. Boy Willie (initially played by Charles Dutton) has come from the South so he can sell the piano and put his part of the proceeds into his business. But his sister Berniece (then played by Alfre Woodard) thinks the heirloom is far too important to sell and their enslaved relatives must be honored. In this corporate era, how should we determine what is for sale?
Two Trains Running: The year 2013 is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Freedom Summer. What do we do with the legacy of sharecropping and Jim Crow in the American South, especially with regards to Black farmers who lost (and/or were run off of) their land? Why are African-Americans reversing a part of the Great Migration to return to the South in the 21st century? Wilson’s play about liberty, justice, freedom, dignity, reparations and legacy in a small diner in Pittsburgh helps to explore some of these questions.
Before his untimely death, August Wilson provided a full cultural handbook and survival manual for Black America. Let’s make sure we read every page and get a renewed perspective on our lives so we can thrive in the 21st century.
Dr. Kimberly C. Ellis is a scholar of American and Africana Studies, who happens to be the niece of August Wilson. She is an expert on his works and gives lecture presentations and Teacher Trainings on his dramas. She can be reached at @drgoddess on Twitter and AugustWilsonforYoungMinds.com.