April 16, 2020

August Wilson’s Astonishing 10-Play Cycle

Centaur Stage Feature


By Barbara Ford

Although we are unable to bring you the scheduled production of August Wilson’s Fences due to the COVID crisis, we would like to share some of Wilson’s work in relation to the play to highlight the importance of the Black stories and lives he brought to life for the stage.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play is just one in a series of ten called the Pittsburgh Cycle, also known as the Century Cycle, which African American playwright August Wilson wrote between the early 1980s and the mid-2000s. The Cycle reveals the 20th century Black experience one decade at a time, and reflects the poetry in the everyday vernacular of Black America.  All are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District except for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which takes place in Chicago. The Cycle plays are not interconnected as in a serial, however some characters do appear in more than one play – for instance, as children of characters in earlier plays sometimes re-emerge as adults in later plays. Chicago’s Goodman Theatre was the first theatre to produce the entire 10-play cycle in productions from 1986 to 2007.

Wilson tapped into theatre’s power to bring communities together to bear witness to events and attitudes in order to raise awareness. In an interview for The Paris Review in 1999, Wilson said, “I think my plays offer [white Americans] a different way to look at Black Americans. 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.”  

Two years before his death in 2005, August Wilson wrote and performed his unpublished one-man play, How I Learned What I Learned. In it, Wilson revisits his days as a struggling young writer in Pittsburgh’s Hill District and how the neighborhood and its people inspired the Century Cycle plays.  

Watch The Making of The Piano Lesson.

Watch the The Piano Lesson on YouTube.

DecadeTitlePremiereAwards
1900Gem of the Ocean2003
1910Joe Turner’s Come and Gone1986NY Drama Critics’ Circle Award
1920Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom1984NY Drama Critics’ Circle Award
1930The Piano Lesson1987Pulitzer Prize, Drama Desk & NY Critics’ Circle Awards
1940Seven Guitars1995NY Drama Critics’ Circle Award
1950Fences1985Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award & Drama Desk Award
1960Two Trains Running1990
1970Jitney1982
1980King Hedley II1999
1990Radio Golf2005NY Drama Critics’ Circle Award

Fences has been cancelled due to COVID-19. The August Wilson play was scheduled to be presented at Centaur Theatre April 21-May 10, 2020. Centaur will be featuring information and conversations about the making of Fences.

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