The Century Cycle
When August Wilson’s Century Cycle begins in Gem of the Ocean, the central issue for African-Americans is the transition from slavery to freedom, and what that freedom really means. As the cycle continues, Wilson tracks the black American experience in a country that is post-slavery in name only, with an emphasis on the importance of remembering a spiritual and cultural African history while being an American citizen.
While Wilson did not originally set out to write a 10-play cycle, he was always interested in examining what he believed were the key issues of each decade he happened to be writing about. To give you context for the cycle as a whole, here’s a quick look at each play in chronological order.
Gem of the Ocean:
Set in 1904. Citizen Barlow, like many other African-Americans traveling north in the years after the Civil War, arrives in Pittsburgh in search of purpose, prosperity, and redemption. Aunt Ester, a wise 285-year-old former slave, decides to help the young man on his life’s journey.
Premiered on April 28, 2003 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Played at Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and Huntington Theatre Company in Boston before opening on Broadway on December 6, 2004.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone:
Set in 1911. Seth and Bertha Holly run a boarding house in Pittsburgh and offer room and nourishment to the many wayward souls coming up from the South looking work and a new life after being mistreated, abused and even sometimes kidnaped by members of white society.
Premiered on April 29, 1986 at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven. Played at Arena Stage in Washington, DC before opening on Broadway on March 26, 1988.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom:
Set in 1927. As four African-American blues musicians wait for their famous lead singer Ma Rainey, they exchange off-the-cuff jokes and cutting-edge barbs. When the diva does arrive, tensions continue to mount, pushing the group towards its breaking point.
Premiered on April 6, 1984 at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven. Opened on Broadway on October 11, 1984. Only the second play by an African-American playwright ever produced on Broadway.
The Piano Lesson:
Set in 1936. A family heirloom piano becomes a source of conflict when sharecropper Boy Willie visits his sister Berniece in Pittsburgh. Boy Willie intends to sell the piano to buy land in the south where the Charles family once toiled as slaves, but Berniece refuses to give up the piano and the history it represents.
Premiered on November 26, 1987 at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven. Played at Huntington Theatre Company in Boston before opening on Broadway on April 16, 1990.
Set in 1948. Beginning with guitarist Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton’s funeral, the play flashes back a week to show how the penniless Floyd met his untimely demise in a quest to convince his ex-girlfriend and others to move to Chicago with him while he pursues a recording contract.
Premiered on January 21, 1995 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Played at Huntington Theatre Company in Boston before opening on Broadway on March 28, 1996.
Set in 1957. Troy Maxson becomes the first black garbage truck driver at work, but is still haunted by his inability to break the color barrier as a former baseball great in the pre-Jackie Robinson era. He struggles equally with injustice and his flaws as a father and husband.
Premiered on April 30, 1985 at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven. Opened on Broadway on March 26, 2987.
Two Trains Running:
Set in 1969. In spite of the political and social change that sweeps through the nation as the battle for civil rights intensifies, the employees and patrons of Memphis’ diner in Pittsburgh are too cynical or down-trodden to experience hope for the future or rage for the ongoing tragedies.
Premiered on March 27, 1990 at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven. Opened on Broadway on April 13, 1992.
Set in 1977. Regular cabs will not travel to Pittsburgh’s Hill District, so residents hustle to make a living as jitneys—unofficial, unlicensed taxi cab drivers. Cab company operator Jim Becker tries to fend off the demolition of his building as urban renewal rears its ugly head.
Premiered in October, 1982 at Allegheny Repertory Theatre in Pittsburgh. Underwent revisions and played at many regional theaters in the late 1990s before making its New York debut off-Broadway on April 25, 2000 at Second Stage Theatre.
King Hedley II:
Set in 1985. Ex-con Hedley tries to rebuild his life in the poverty-stricken Hill District by selling stolen refrigerators in order to buy a video store. His efforts soon prove to be as futile as his attempts to grow a garden in his back yard.
Premiered on December 11, 1999 at the Pittsburgh Public Theater in Pittsburgh, as a co-production between the Pittsburgh Public Theater and Seattle Repertory Theatre. Played at Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC before opening on Broadway on May 1, 2001.
Set in 1997. Successful politician and real estate developer Harmond Wilks, has plans to redevelop Pittsburgh’s Hill District in a move towards assimilation, and away from the historically black neighborhood’s spiritual heritage. One of the houses that will be torn down in the project is 1839 Wylie Avenue, where Aunt Ester once lived.
Premiered on April 22, 2005 at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven. Played at Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, Seattle Repertory Theatre in Seattle, CENTERSTAGE in Baltimore, Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, The Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton before opening on Broadway on April 20, 2007.