The Century Cycle

Playwright August Wilson reveals the history of a neighborhood

The 20th century was one of the most well documented periods in history due to the explosion of new media, with news, radio, photography, film, television and the internet capturing millions of stories. How the last century will be remembered depends on how complete a history we hold on to, filling in not just events, but also daily life and relationships, ideas and virtues. In the quest to chronicle the last century, one of the greatest contributors was August Wilson.

A playwright, Wilson wrote a cycle of ten plays, collectively titled either The Century Cycle – because each play takes place in a decade of the 20th century – or The Pittsburgh Cycle – because the action of most of the plays takes place in that city’s Hill District – that chronicle the changing social and historical landscape of black America over 100 years. With each decade he dramatized, Wilson captured a piece of untold American history and brought it to life with cadence, style and flow that are authentic to their time and place but unmistakably of the world of August Wilson. It is a world he observed growing up in the Hill District watching his neighbors struggle for dignity and security in a constantly evolving country.

When he started writing the first play he didn’t have an epic undertaking in mind. The plays came to him out of order, first the 70s, then the 20s and the 50s; he wrote the first three before he realized what they would eventually add up to. As he said in an interview just after completing the final play in the cycle, “I was taking one decade at a time… I never had to worry about what my next play was going to be.” There is no linear thread that runs through all ten plays, no single character or family to follow, and the plays don’t pick up where the previous one left off.

Rather, the Cycle tells the story of a changing neighborhood, impoverished but vital. About more than the characters that inhabit his world, Wilson’s plays are rich with the feeling of community that characterized the tightly settled early urban black neighborhoods. They are about living right on top of friends and enemies. They chronicle the changing lives of a people on the move, sometimes on their way up and other times getting dragged down. Wilson’s Hill District and the individuals who reside there are defined by a relentless struggle: for a decent job, a nicer home, a better way of life, reconciliation with the past, possibility for the future, or the simplicity of a meal, a place to sleep or someone to love.

Wilson’s words expanded the definition of a country that, for so long, marginalized or ignored the stories of African Americans. “I think my plays offer (white Americans) a different way to look at black Americans,” he said in an interview in The Paris Review in 1999. “For instance, in Fences they see a garbage man, a person they don’t really look at, although they see a garbage man every day. By looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this black garbage man’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.”

August Wilson was born in 1945 in the Hill District. In his childhood he was called Freddie, named Frederick August Kittel by his absent, alcoholic German father. He identified more with his African-American mother, Daisy Wilson, a fierce woman who raised her six children to be as strong-minded as she was.

It was the people Wilson observed and studied in the neighborhood – the men’s animated conversations in barbershops, the cigar store or coffee shop on the corner and the women pausing to gossip on their way to the white neighborhoods where they worked as domestics or bickering in backyards while they prepared dinner – who were the raw materials absorbed and reformed by the playwright.

Dropping out of school in the tenth grade and choosing his middle name and Daisy’s maiden name as his own, August Wilson invented himself. Infused with the determination of his mother, the education provided by the local branch of the Carnegie library and the truth found in a 78rpm Bessie Smith blues record he bought for a nickel at St Vincent De Paul’s, he became the man who would write the characters of his youth into infamous and gritty life in his plays.

Wilson said, “Before I am anything, a man or a playwright, I am an African American. The tributary streams of culture, history and experience have provided me with the materials out of which I make my art.” Inspired by the work of artist and writer Romare Bearden, Wilson’s plays are a vibrant collage of fact, faith and fortune using musicality, language and rhythm. He educated himself with books and music, but also by paying attention to the struggles of his elders and tapping into the mythology of the American Dream. Historical accuracy and strict reality give way in favor of a deep exploration of emotional truth. Language lilts and chops through the complicated dynamics of relationships heavy with the weight of the past.

In an essay published in The New York Times in 2000, Wilson wrote, “I wanted to place this culture on stage 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 movements of our history in which the larger society has thought less of us than we have thought of ourselves.”