AUGUST WILSON Teacher Information Packet

Page 1

August Wilson:


2018-19 SEASON




August Wilson:

Past, Present & Future AUGUST WILSON MONOLOGUE COMPETITION STUDY GUIDE Compiled and Written by:

JARED MICHAUD Dwight Hall Urban Fellow





contents LIFE & WORK

6 Biography

8 Timeline


The American Century Cycle


Other Work

24 Lessons


Major Themes



The End of Reconstruction


Jim Crow


The Civil Rights Movement


The Hill District


The Blues



54 Legacy 60

Wilson in Connecticut Other Resources/Articles/Sources

Look for this symbol to find discussion and writing prompts, discussion questions and classroom activities!


LIFE & WORK (Credit: The Estate of August Wilson)




ugust Wilson (1945 – 2005) was a visionary storyteller, incredibly dedicated to the craft of illuminating the joys and struggles of the African-American experience in the 20th century. His award-winning plays have been heralded as some of the most important pieces of dramatic literature that have come out of the last half century. Wilson’s rise to the Broadway stage begins humbly in Pittsburgh, where he faced both triumphs and tribulations as he moved himself outward and upward to international acclaim. Originally named Frederick August Kittel, Wilson was born in 1945 to an African-American cleaning lady, Daisy Wilson, and a white German immigrant baker, Frederick Kittel. Wilson was the fourth of six children and the oldest of the boys. He grew up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a community that resembled Harlem in Manhattan; it was a lively poor neighborhood that was racially mixed (though predominately black) and served as a hub of creativity and commerce. Wilson was primarily raised by his mother, after his father left her and their children, and they lived in a two-room, cold-water flat. Daisy Wilson was later remarried to David Bedford, and in 1958, the AfricanAmerican couple and Wilson moved to Hazelwood, a predominately white suburb of Pittsburgh. Wilson attended the St. Richard’s Parochial School and then later progressed to Central Catholic High School in 1959. Though Wilson was an incredibly gifted and creative student, he often struggled as a student. Where in one school he was very bored, in another he was racially bullied. In fact, in Hazelwood, his family was often the target of racial threats. He faced so much hostility and harassment that he was forced to transfer high schools twice in 6

just his first year of high school. In 1960, when Wilson was 15, he was accused of plagiarism on his paper on Napoleon by his teacher at Gladstone High School. It would be Wilson’s final draw with traditional schooling, causing him to drop out of high school. Wilson was undaunted by these experiences though, and remained steadfast in educating himself. Thus, he continued his education informally at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, where he would spend hours on end entrenched in books and pursuing his writing. For a while, he did this behind his mother’s back—she had no clue he had dropped out of high school. Before investing himself in the genre of drama, his mind was enraptured in poetry. He began to write his own poetry in the period of 1963-1965 when he bought his first typewriter for $20. He got the money from his sister Freda for writing a term paper for her. Though he never formally studied theatre, Wilson claims he learned everything he needed to know from the 4 B’s: the blues, the art of painter Romare Bearden, the work of poet Amiri Baraka, and the writing of writer/poet Jorge Luis Borges. His interest and foundation in poetry explains why Wilson once said, “The foundation of my playwriting

is poetry,” Besides poetry and his time at the library, much of Wilson’s informal education came from what he learned on the streets of the Hill District, soaking in the language of its people and the culture of his community. He spent lots of time in restaurants and barbershops, listening to people’s voices and stories. Not only was Wilson’s playwriting built on the foundation of poetry, but it also drew from the voices, histories, and experiences he learned from in the Hill District. It was around this time that Wilson changed his name from Kittel (his birth father’s last name) to Wilson (his mother’s maiden name). Taking his middle name as his preferred name, August Wilson was born. In the late 1960s, he embraced the Black Arts Movement and joined a group of poets, educators, and artists called the Centre Avenue Poets Theatre Workshop. This is where he met friend and collaborator Rob Penny, who would, in 1968, co-found the Black Horizon Theatre with Baldwin, a community-based Black Nationalist Theatre Company in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. Wilson taught himself how to direct and served as the resident director of the theatre company, while Penny served as the playwright-inresidence. The company produced many plays focusing on raising awareness about the AfricanAmerican experience. Not only did they produce work from great African-American artists and the black cannon, but they also drew on these works to create their own works. The theatre company dissolved in the mid-1970s. Wilson was still writing poetry though, and many of his poems appeared

Wilson claims he learned everything he needed to know from the 4 B’s: the blues, the art of painter Romare Bearden, the work of poet Amiri Baraka, and the writing of writer/poet Jorge Luis Borges. in journals such as Black World (1971) and Black Lines (1972). It was around this time that Wilson married his first wife, Brenda Burton, and also had his first daughter, Sakina Ansari Wilson (1970). In 1978, Wilson moved to St. Paul, Minnesota and focused more on playwriting. Before moving, he had already begun writing a musical western play. But it was in Minnesota that he would become a member of the Penumbra Theatre, led by his colleague Lou Bellamy, be hired as a writer for the St. Paul Science Museum, and then later receive a fellowship from the Minneapolis Playwrights Center (1980). It was here that he began writing Jitney, which is considered to be his first real play and was produced by Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Repertory Theatre in 1982. In 1981, Wilson married his second wife, Judy Oliver. Around the same time, Wilson began writing and working on the play that would change his life for a variety of reasons. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was accepted to and premiered at the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Connecticut in 1982. More important than the opportunity to present this play though was the relationship that he would form with Lloyd Richards, the renowned African-American director who also served as the dean of the Yale School of Drama and the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre. He was legendary for his impact on black theatre, and he would become one of the most important men in Wilson’s life, serving as a father figure, mentor,

and collaborator. Richards directed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which opened on Broadway in 1984 and was a critical and financial success. This play is what first showed August Wilson to the world and put him on the map. It also set a precedent for his partnership with Lloyd Richards, who would direct Wilson’s first six plays on Broadway. This experience set Wilson on a spree of writing plays about the African-American experience. After writing Jitney, set in 1971, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, set in 1927, and Fullerton Street, set in 1941, Wilson said he thought to himself, “I’ve written three plays in three different decades, so why don’t I just continue doing that?” This led him to continue writing plays in different decades about the AfricanAmerican experience, which would later come to be known as “The American Century Cycle.” He then wrote Fences, produced in 1985, earning a Tony Award for best play. Many plays followed after that (which can be read about later in The American Century Cycle section), and Wilson finally finished The American Century Cycle in 2005 with the premiere of Radio Golf at the Yale Repertory Theatre. Seven of these plays earned him the prestigious New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play. Two of them, Fences and The Piano Lesson, earned him a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. His plays have not only been wildly successful, but they have also left their mark on the American theatrical scene. In 1990, Wilson moved to Seattle, and in 1994, he met a costume designer by the name of Costanza Romero. In 1997, they got married

and Wilson received his second daughter, Azula Carmen Wilson. Wilson continued to write and earn accolades throughout his lifetime, including both the Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships. In June 2005, very shortly after the premiere of Radio Golf, Wilson was diagnosed with a severe case of liver cancer. He died just a few short months later on Sunday, October 2, 2005 at Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center. Wilson was 60 years old. Weeks before Wilson’s death, it was decided that the historic Virginia Theatre on Broadway would be renamed as the August Wilson Theatre. Sadly, Wilson passed away just two weeks before this was to happen. On October 16, 2005, August Wilson’s neon signature lit up the marquee of this Broadway Theatre, forever engraving his name in the American theatrical imagination. On February 17, 2006, African American Cultural Center of Greater Pittsburgh officially became the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. Wilson’s legacy lives on in these ways, as well as the countless productions of his plays on stage and even on film screens. Additionally, Wilson’s legacy and the importance of youth development lives on in the August Wilson Monologue Competition. AW august-wilson-the-ground-on-which-istand-august-wilsonbiography-and-careertimeline/3683/



Wilson’s life and work from year to year, sourced from The August Wilson Education Project.

April 27, 1945 Frederick August Kittel is born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the city neighborhood known as “The Hill.” The Hill is Pittsburgh’s Harlem, a hub of creativity and commerce and, in 1945, still racially mixed. His mother, Daisy Wilson, is African-American while his father, a German immigrant named Frederick Kittel, is white. He is one of seven children who will eventually be born to the couple, though Frederick would be absent for most of his children’s lives. 1959 A student at the predominantly white private Central Catholic High School, young Frederick is the victim of constant race-based bullying and abuse. He leaves Central Catholic for Connelly Trade School, where he feels unchallenged. He later transfers to Gladstone High School in the neighborhood of Hazelwood.

himself by spending his days at the nearby Carnegie Library. 1962 Wilson enlists in the U.S. Army but leaves after a year. 1963-1964 Wilson works a variety of jobs and begins writing poetry. He purchases his first typewriter and discovers Bessie Smith and the blues.

1976 Kuntu Repertory Theatre produces Wilson’s first play, The Homecoming, directed by Dr. Vernell Lillie. 1977 Wilson writes a western musical play, Black Bart and the Sacred Hills.

1965 To honor his mother, Frederick August Kittel changes his name to August Wilson. His biological father dies.

Penumbra Theatre Company’s promotional still for Black Bart and the Sacred Hills (Credit: Penumbra Theatre Company)

August Wilson’s mother, Daisy Wilson

1978 Wilson leaves Pittsburgh for St. Paul, Minnesota, with the help of his friend Claude Purdy. He is hired as a writer for the St. Paul Science Museum.

(Credit: The Estate of August Wilson)

Young Wilson

1968 Embracing a heightened black consciousness, Wilson co-founds the Black Horizons Theatre with colleagues Rob Penny, Sala Udin, Maisha Baton, Claude Purdy and others.

(Credit: The Estate of August Wilson)

1960 Now a tenth-grader, Wilson is assigned an essay on a historical figure. After being accused of plagiarizing his paper on Napoleon Bonaparte, the 15-year-old drops out of Gladstone High. He becomes a voracious reader and educates


1969 Wilson marries Brenda Burton. His stepfather, David Bedford, passes away. 1970 Wilson’s daughter, Sakina Ansari Wilson, is born.

1980 The respected Minneapolis Playwrights Center grants Wilson a fellowship. 1981 August Wilson marries Judy Oliver. 1982 Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Repertory Theatre stages Jitney. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a play about the legendary blues singer, is accepted by the National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Theatre Center in Connecticut.

1985 Fences, the story of a frustrated former Negro League baseball player, premieres at Yale Repertory.

1990 Wilson is named 1990 Pittsburgher of the Year by Pittsburgh Magazine.

1986 Joe Turner’s Come and Gone premieres at the Yale Rep.

Playbill for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Credit: Pittsburgh Public Theatre)

August Wilson meets Lloyd Richards, an African-American director who serves as the Dean of the Yale University School of Drama and the Artistic Director of the Yale Repertory Theatre. The two men forge a friendship that results in Richards directing Wilson’s first six Broadway plays.

1987 Fences opens on Broadway. Wilson wins his second New York Drama Critics Circle Award and his first Pulitzer Prize. The play goes on to gross $11 million during its inaugural Broadway season. 1988 Joe Turner wins the New York Drama Critics Circle Award after opening on Broadway. Wilson returns to Pittsburgh to lecture at the Carnegie Institute and appears on Bill Moyers’ “World of Ideas.” Yale Rep premieres The Piano Lesson. 1989 The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh awards Wilson its first ever high school diploma.

Lloyd Richards and August Wilson (Credit: The Yale Repertory Theatre)

1983 Wilson’s mother, Daisy Wilson, dies. 1984 Ma Rainey premieres at the Yale Repertory Theatre to critical acclaim, quickly moving to Broadway. The play wins Wilson his first New York Drama Critics Circle award.

Wilson’s Honorary Diploma


1990 Pittsburgher of the Year Magazine Cover (Credit: Pittsburgh Magazine)

The Piano Lesson opens on Broadway and wins Wilson his fourth New York Drama Critics Circle Award and his second Pulitzer Prize. Two Trains Running premieres. Wilson’s second marriage ends and he moves to Seattle, Washington. 1992 Two Trains Running opens on Broadway and wins the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best American play. 1994 Hallmark Hall of Fame produces a teleplay of The Piano Lesson starring Charles Dutton, Alfre Woodard, and Courtney Vance; it is filmed in Pittsburgh.

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh)

Wilson marries costume designer Constanza Romero. >


TIMELINE continued

1995 The Piano Lesson is broadcast on national television. Seven Guitars premieres. 1996 Seven Guitars reaches Broadway and Wilson is awarded his sixth NYDCC Award. Wilson writes “The Ground on Which I Stand,” his controversial essay on the need for black artists to maintain control over their cultural identity, and to establish permanent cultural institutions that celebrate the unique achievements of black theatre.

Goldberg as the title role in the 2003 revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

1997 Wilson participates in a contentious and widely publicized debate with theatre critic Robert Brustein on the funding of black theatre, color-blind casting and other topics.

(Credit: Joan Marcus)

Wilson’s daughter Azula Carmen Wilson is born to August and Constanza.

2003 Whoopi Goldberg appears on Broadway in a revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

1998 Wilson teaches playwriting at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

2002 Gem of the Ocean premieres in Chicago. London’s Olivier Award names Jitney the year’s best play.

2004 Gem of the Ocean opens on Broadway.

2000 Jitney is produced in New York. It is Wilson’s first play to be staged in an off-Broadway theatre. He is awarded his seventh NYDCC Award.

2005 Radio Golf, Wilson’s last play in the American Century Cycle, premieres at the Yale Repertory Theatre.

2001 King Hedley II opens on Broadway.

In June, August Wilson is diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and dies Sunday, October 2, in a Seattle


hospital. His funeral service is held at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, not far from his mother Daisy. On October 16 – just two weeks later – the Virginia Theatre on Broadway is renamed the “August Wilson Theatre,” in his honor. AW



lso referred to as “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” this collection of ten plays by August Wilson focuses on the African American experience in the ten different decades of the twentieth century. Nine of these plays take place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the neighborhood that Wilson grew up in, and the other one takes place in Chicago. Wilson did not originally intend on writing The American Century Cycle. After writing Jitney, set in 1971, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, set in 1927, and Fullerton Street, set in 1941, Wilson said he thought to himself, “I’ve written three plays in three different decades, so why don’t I just continue doing that?” On the following pages you will find information about each of the plays of The American Century Cycle, organized chronologically by the time the play is set.

1900s Gem of the Ocean (2003) Premiere: 2003, Goodman Theatre, Chicago, directed by Marion McClinton; 2004, Broadway opening at the Walter Kerr Theatre, directed by Kenny Leon. Setting: 1904 in the Pittsburg Hill District, at 1839 Wylie Avenue Synopsis: Gem of the Ocean unfolds in the home of Aunt Ester, a wellknown 285-year-old wise woman of the town whose home has become a sanctuary for the troubled and lost. Onto the scene walks Citizen Barlow, a man who has fled from Alabama after indirectly causing another man’s death when he stole a bucket of nails. Citizen has come to Aunt Ester’s because of the tales he has heard of her soul-cleansing powers. We see Aunt Ester help guide him through a spiritual journey towards redemption and self-discovery. When an incident in the town causes the death of Solly, a former slave and conductor of the underground railroad who is dedicated to serving his people, we see Citizen step up and continue

Solly’s legacy, having discovered the importance of history and freedom. (Credit: StageAgent)

The original production of Gem of the Ocean at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. (Credit: Goodman Theatre)

Characters: AUNT ESTER: Her name sounds like the word “ancestor” and she is the connector between the African past and the African-American present. Her name suggests both Easter, the holiest day of the Christian calendar, and the biblical character Esther, Ahasureus’ queen and the heroine of Purim, a Jewish holiday, which celebrates the saving of the Hebrew people.

She is both the physical and the mystical link between present and past. Her home is a sanctuary where troubled people come to be cleansed of guilt and sorrow. Aunt Ester’s birth, approximately 285 years prior to when the play takes place, coincided with the arrival of the first shipment of African slaves in the English colonies. She is both the keeper and the transmitter of AfricanAmerican memory. CAESAR WILKS: Black Mary’s brother, a policeman, baker and land-owner. He is the villainous constable and venal slumlord in the play. His name means dictator or autocrat, which originated from the original Roman emperor, Julius Caesar. He is reminiscent of the plantation overseers of slavery times and represents the black-face authority who acts and speaks for the white world. BLACK MARY: The protégée of Aunt Ester, she is trying to learn the wisdom and ways of the old woman. While supervising Ester’s house, she serves her and washes her feet in a ritual reminiscent of the self-abasement of Mary, sister of Martha, at Bethany during the last days of Christ. CITIZEN BARLOW: The seeker and confessor in the play. A migrant from Alabama, his intent is to work in a factory, but he steals a bucket of nails which results in an innocent man drowning to avoid false arrest. He insists on seeing 11


Aunt Ester to confess his sin of black-upon-black violence. His mother named him Citizen “after freedom came,” but Solly Two Kings reminds him that to truly be a Citizen, he’ll have to fight to uphold freedom when it becomes a heavy load.

SOLLY TWO KINGS: A sixty-seven-year-old former slave and conductor on the Underground Railroad whose earlier name was Uncle Alfred. After slavery he changed his name to David and Solomon, two Biblical kings. A friend and suitor to Aunt Ester, he makes a career of gathering up dog excrement, which he calls “pure”, for manure.

Best Featured Actress in a Play. Setting: 1911, the Pittsburgh Hill District at Seth and Bertha Holly’s boardinghouse Synopsis: Seth and Bertha, a hardworking African-American couple, have a variety of eccentric people staying at their home, including an old, spiritual man named Bynum and a young musician named Jeremy. Bynum, an elderly “root worker,” claims he has the power to bind people together. Throughout the play, others arrive to stay: Mattie Campbell, a woman who is trying to get her boyfriend back, Molly Cunningham, a beautiful young woman who missed her train, and a mysterious man named Herald Loomis (and his daughter Zonia) who is looking to find his wife. The play’s title refers to Herald’s story of having been held captive by Joe Turner, a white man in Tennessee who pulled African-American men into slavery for a period of seven years. The housemates are filled with questions about Loomis, and Seth wants him to leave. Bynum helps Loomis discover that he needs to find his song in order to move on, and when Loomis’s wife, Martha, shows up at the door, he does just that.

(Credit: Huntington Theatre Company)

(Credit: StageAgent and

ELI: Aunt Ester’s companion bears the name of an Old Testament priest and mentor to young Samuel. As such, he is steady, reliable and maintains peace and security in Aunt Ester’s house. He was Solly’s comrade in his efforts on the Underground Railroad and for The Union Army.

For more information, read the play and check out the Huntington Theatre Company’s Study Guide. Gem-of-the-Ocean/#Synopsis

1910s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984) Premiere: 1986, Yale Repertory Theatre; 1988, Broadway opening at Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Directed by Lloyd Richards, and L. Scott Caldwell won a Tony Award for 12

Characters: BERTHA HOLLY: Seth’s wife of 25 years and 5 years his junior. She knows her place in the hierarchy of the boardinghouse, yet still has some say in the decisionmaking and will often voice her opinion. A very loving mother to the boardinghouse family. In the end, she tells Mattie that the only two things you need in your life are love and laughter; the things that she has had faith in and have helped her get by. HERALD LOOMIS: A resident of the boardinghouse. Having been enslaved by Joe Turner for seven years, Loomis has completely lost his way in life. An odd man that dons an overcoat and hat in midAugust, Loomis is 32 years old and a displaced slave searching for his wife. In the end he finds his song, an independent, self-sufficient song that he can sing proudly. MARTHA LOOMIS PENTECOST: Herald Loomis’s wife. She is about 28, very religious and a member of the Evangelical church. She left the South and her daughter behind. She does what it takes to ensure her self-preservation and remains a strong, self-sufficient woman until the end. RUTHERFORD SELIG: A peddler. Known as the “People Finder,” he is the only white character in the play. Selig is from a family that first brought Africans across the Atlantic to become slaves, but now he unites people by recording the names and places of all the people he peddles to.

From the Broadway opening of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. (Credit: Playbill)

JEREMY FURLOW: A resident of the boardinghouse, he is 25 years old. He represents a younger

generation seeking to find its identity as the first liberated slaves. Jeremy’s “blues playing” character is classified as a suave, artistic young man looking to make a quick buck and travel the nation. He is constantly seeking the attention of the women in his vicinity and tries to find the perfect girl for himself. SETH HOLLY: Owner of the boardinghouse in his early fifties. Born of free African-American parents in the North, he is set in his ways; never losing his composure and always running a respectable house. He even condemns other African-Americans that do not follow this kind of lifestyle. He is economically very capitalistic and does whatever is necessary to stay afloat; including working night shifts and odd craftsman jobs he can pick up from Selig. He understands his world on a very literal level, and doesn’t aspire to become more than he is. BYNUM WALKER: A rootworker in his late sixties. A “conjure” man staying with the Holly’s at the boardinghouse, Bynum is one of few characters that understands his own identity. Convinced of the fact that everyone has their own song, Bynum perpetuates the theme of identity and our constant search for it. REUBEN MERCER: A boy who lives next door. Reuben represents the repetitiveness of history. Even as an adolescent, Reuben is aware of his place in society, notices the spiritual differences of people around him, and decides at a very early age that he needs a woman to settle down with and marry. Many of the ideals that are seen in the adult characters of this play are instilled in Reuben and will repeat, the

good and the bad, as he grows into adulthood. MOLLY CUNNINGHAM: A resident. She is a good looking young woman of 26 who is strong and independent. Unwilling to let herself be told what to do by anyone, Molly is convinced that she will never return to the South and refuses be associated with anything that her old life entailed.

rise in the room, the situation between Levee and Cutler continues to heat, driving them to violence. When Levee is fired, he reaches his breaking point and stabs Toledo, killing him, and destroying both of their dreams for the future. (Credit: StageAgent)

(Credit: Huntington Theatre Company)

For more information, read the play and check out the Huntington Theatre Company’s Study Guide. Joe-Turners-Come-and-Gone/

1920s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982) Premiere: 1984, Yale Repertory Theatre; subsequent 1984 Broadway opening at the Cort Theatre. Directed by Lloyd Richards. Wilson wins his first of his seven New York Drama Critics Circle awards for this play. Setting: 1927 in a Chicago recording studio. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the only play in The American Century Cycle that doesn’t take place in Pittsburgh. Synopsis: Ma Rainey’s band members, Cutler, Toledo, Slow Drag and Levee, wait for her to show up to record their new album. As they wait, the band players banter and tell stories and jokes, but it soon becomes clear that there is an underlying tension between the impulsive young trumpet player, Levee, and the veteran players, Cutler and Toledo. Finally, Ma Rainey shows up with her lover, Dussie Mae, and her nephew, Sylvester, but the recording session is very behind, much to the dismay of her white producers. As tempers

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre. (Credit: William B. Carter)

Characters: CUTLER: Guitar and trombone player in Ma Rainey’s band, Cutler is also the leader of all the other instrumentalists. A loner type in his mid-fifties, he plays his music without embellishment—the same can be said for how he feels about life: he believes in getting things done quickly. MA RAINEY: Based on a real life Ma Rainey with a career in Blues Music in the 1920’s, Wilson’s character is praised as “Mother of the Blues.” She has the final word in everything regarding the band, making all the decisions. Not one to be disillusioned, Ma Rainey was always aware that her manager and producer were set on simply making money off of her. SLOW DRAG: As the slow-moving, yet talented bass player in Ma’s band, Slow Drag is a professional in his mid-fifties who is focused on his music. His name is the result 13


of an incident in which he slowdanced with women for hours in order to make some money. Critics have referred to the music that Slow Drag plays as being reminiscent of African music. LEVEE: The talented and temperamental trumpet player, Levee is the youngest member of the band, being in his thirties. He is a man who is confident with his appearance, especially when it comes to the expensive shoes he owns. Perhaps it’s because of his age that Levee is also the band member who wants to go off on his own and will begrudgingly play Ma Rainey’s music until he’s got his own band to do with what he pleases. He is frustrated, bitter, and is usually picking a fight with someone in the band. When he was only eight years old, he saw his mother raped by a gang of white men. TOLEDO: Toledo, in addition to being the piano player for Ma Rainey, also acts as the band philosopher. Literate and reflective, he discusses abstract concepts like racial memory and the plight of the black man throughout the play despite his band-mates’ misunderstanding of much of what he says. He believes that style and musicianship are important to a performance. Having been married with children, Toledo lost his family in a divorce. STURDYVANT: Overworked, pennypinching, and obsessed with making money, he is the white owner of the Southside recording studio where Ma Rainey makes her music. Because he is uncomfortable dealing with black performers, he communicated mainly with Ma 14

Rainey’s white manager, Irvin. Because of these reasons, he represents white exploitation of black music. (Credit: Huntington Theatre Company)

For more information, read the play and check out the Huntington Theatre Company’s Study Guide. Ma-Raineys-Black-Bottom/

1930s The Piano Lesson (1986) Premiere: 1987, Yale Repertory Theatre; 1990 Broadway opening at Walter Kerr Theatre. Directed by Lloyd Richards, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. Setting: 1936, Pittsburg Synopsis: The Piano Lesson centers on a family, more specifically, a brother and a sister. Boy Willie shows up at his sister Berniece’s home after having recently been let out of prison in Mississippi. Right away we see that he is trouble, and he and his sister Berniece begin arguing from the moment he shows up at her door. Boy Willie soon reveals that he is here to take their family’s old piano and sell it in order to buy back the land that their family had worked as slaves, but Berniece refuses to give it up. We see them grapple with the question of past vs. future as Boy Willie attempts to take ownership over their family history while Berniece fights to keep her family’s legacy alive. All the while, the piano acts as a constant reminder of the many ghosts of the past, good and bad, that haunt the lives of the family. (Credit: StageAgent)

The original production of The Piano Lesson at the Yale Repertory Theatre. (Credit: Gerry Goodstein)

Characters: AVERY: Thirty-eight years old, Avery is a preacher who is trying to build up his congregation. He is honest and ambitious, finding himself opportunities in the city that were unavailable to him in rural areas of the South. While fervently religious, he manages to find the time to court Berniece after her husband’s death. BOY WILLIE: Brother to Berniece, Boy Willie is a thirty-year-old brash, impulsive, and fast-talking man. He has an infectious grin and a boyishness that is apt for his name. His story provides the central conflict for the play in that he plans to sell the family piano in order to buy land that his family worked on as slaves. He feels it’s important he does this in order to avenge his father, who grew up propertyless—but not everyone in the family agrees. LYMON: Boy Willie’s longtime friend is a twenty-nine year old who speaks little, but when he does, with a disarming straight-forwardness. As he flees the law, he makes a plan to begin anew in the North. Eliciting

stories from the famiy’s past, Lymon proves a vehicle by which we learn about the family. He is also a big fan of women, and plays a part in helping Berniece move on from her husband’s death. BERNIECE: Berniece, Boy Willie’s older sister, is a thirty-five year old widow who blames the death of her husband three years prior, on her brother. She resents her brother’s bravado and chides him for his rebellious ways. She doesn’t want to sell the piano, but also has no intention of playing it. She has an eleven-year-old daughter, Maretha. DOAKER: Doaker is the tall, thin, forty-seven year old uncle to Berniece and Boy Willie. He has worked for the railroad his whole life—first laying rail and then as a cook. He functions as the family patriarch and the play’s oral historian, recounting stories, many about the piano’s history. The play takes place in the house that Doaker owns, and while he won’t take a side on whether to sell the piano, he does step in when things begin to get out of hand. WINING BOY: Doaker’s wily, carefree brother who shows up in town and stays with the family whenever he is a bit down on his luck. He used to play the piano and made his livelihood making music, but quit that life when he decided he no longer wanted to be an entertainer. Despite this, he is protective of the piano.

1940s Seven Guitars (1995) Premiere: 1995 Goodman Theatre, Chicago; 1996, Broadway opening at Walter Kerr Theatre. Directed by Lloyd Richards, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play. Setting: 1948, Pittsburgh Synopsis: Seven Guitars begins and ends directly after the funeral of Floyd ‘Schoolboy’ Barton. We then flashback to the week leading up to Floyd’s unusual death. We learn that Floyd has recently been released from jail and has become an overnight sensation with his record ‘That’s All Right.’ He comes back to Pittsburgh trying to convince his old love, Vera, to come with him to Chicago so he can become a star. We find out that Floyd has made a lot of mistakes, and he sets off on a journey to right his wrongs and prove to his community that he has changed. As soon as everyone is convinced and it seems as though things are finally going his way, Floyd is killed, and everyone’s world comes crashing down once more. Floyd, as well as the other men in the play, grapple with what it means to be a man, and all of the characters struggle with how to get ahead in a world that seems to be set against everything they are. (Credit: StageAgent)

FLOYD: Blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” returns to Pittburgh at thirty-five years old with a hit song and an opportunity to record a record back in Chicago. In the time since he recorded the initial song, Floyd has squandered the flat fee he received for recording, left his girlfriend (Vera) for another woman, was then left by the other woman, pawned his guitar, and spent ninety days in jail after being arrested while walking home from his mother’s funeral. After a year of trials and tribulations, Floyd wants to return to Chicago with Vera, his guitar, and a new sense of self. He is ready to “live with” not “live without.” Unfortunately, the lengths he’s willing to go, to make his dreams happen become his undoing. RED CARTER: He and Canewell are Floyd’s closest friends. He’s a drummer by profession, an expansive, laid-back fellow who can identify a rooster’s birthplace by the sound of his crow. VERA: Floyd’s ex-girlfriend and eight years his junior. She loves Floyd, but after he left her for another woman she is slow to trust him again. She may have had a relationship with Canewell in Floyd’s absence. She is good friends with Louise.

(Credit: Huntington Theatre Company)

For more information, read the play and check out the Huntington Theatre Company’s Study Guide. The-Piano-Lesson/

Characters: CANEWELL: He and Red Carter are Floyd’s closest friends. He’s an edgy, quick-tempered harmonica player, who’s tired of playing backup in life for Floyd. He made the trip with Floyd to Chicago the first time and regrets it. He loves Vera.

From the Broadway opening of Seven Guitars. (Credit: Playbill)

LOUISE: Is a hearty, buxom woman who, years earlier, allowed her man 15


to walk out peacefully in exchange for his pistol. Louise describes herself as, “forty-eight going on sixty.” Although she claims to have no interest in love, she has an attachment to Hedley. HEDLEY: an old man, not altogether right in the head, who has turned his back on the white world he loathes. He’s a believer in saints, spirits, prophets and the ghost of Charles (Buddy) Bolden, the legendary New Orleans trumpeter who died in an insane asylum. More than anything else, Hedley would like to sire a messiah.

and this causes a lot of turmoil and frustration, especially in his relationships. Wilson’s play deals with dreams deferred and what it means to be a man, as well as covering themes of family and loyalty. Most notably, we see a marriage that looks loving and successful at the outset begin to fall apart as Troy’s lack of self-respect starts to crumble everything around him.

compassionate matriarch of the play, Rose is a fair judge of character who hopes for a better future for herself, her husband, and her son. She has high hopes for Cory, and keeps on looking forward instead of romantically clinging to the past like her husband. She personifies the qualities of love, patience, and forgiveness—and has plenty of opportunities to exhibit all three.

(Credit: StageAgent)

CORY: The teenage son of Troy and Rose Maxson. A senior in high school, Cory gets good grades and college recruiters are coming to see him play football. Cory is a respectful son, compassionate nephew to his disabled Uncle Gabriel, and generally, a giving and enthusiastic person. An ambitious young man who has the talent and determination to realize his dreams, Cory comes of age during the course of the play when he challenges and confronts Troy and leaves home. Cory comes home from the Marines in the final scene of the play, attempting to defy Troy by refusing to go to his funeral, but Cory changes his mind after sharing memories of his father with Rose and Raynell.

(Credit: Huntington Theatre Company)

For more information, read the play and check out the Huntington Theatre Company’s Study Guide. Seven-Guitars/

A scene from the original production of Fences on Broadway. (Credit: Ron Scherl)

1950s Fences (1984) Premiere: 1987, Broadway premiere at 46th Street Theatre, directed by Lloyd Richards. It won multiple awards including a Pulitzer Prize for Drama; four Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Direction, Best Actor (James Earl Jones), Best Featured Actress (Mary Alice); and three Drama Desk Awards. Setting: 1957, Pittsburgh Synopsis: The play follows Troy Maxson, a 53-year-old man who struggles to provide for his wife and son in a time when slavery is over but the civil rights movement has still not come to fruition. Troy used to be an amazing baseball player, but was not able to make it to the Major Leagues due to the color of his skin. Troy has had to settle into the life of being a trash collector and barely scraping by, 16

Characters: TROY: The protagonist of Fences, Troy is a working class AfricanAmerican man who lives with his wife Rose and their son Cory. He works for the Sanitation Department as a trash collector. He is devoted to providing for his family and guaranteeing that his sons have better lives than he did. Having been a great baseball player in the Negro leagues, Troy was too old to join the Major leagues when they were finally integrated. It’s this experience, and several others from his past that color his outlook on life and his relationship with his sons. ROSE: Rose is Troy’s second wife who he married upon his release from prison. She is the mother of his youngest son, Cory. She is a 43-year-old housewife who makes time for her Church regularly. The

JIM BONO: Having served time together in prison, Troy and Bono became very close and remain best friends well out of their time spent in jail. Having seen Troy through thick and thin, Bono often serves as the voice of reason and perspective for Troy—especially when it comes to Rose Maxson. Despite having been friends with him for over thirty years, Bono’s concern for Troy’s marriage trumps his loyalty to the friendship. Bono himself is a devoted husband to his wife Lucille. LYONS: Troy’s son, fathered before

Troy’s time in jail with a woman Troy met before Troy became a baseball player and before he met Rose. Lyons is an ambitious and talented jazz musician. He grew up without Troy for much of his childhood because Troy was in prison. Lyons, like most musicians, has a hard time making a living. For income, Lyons mostly depends on his girlfriend, Bonnie whom we never see on stage. Lyons does not live with Troy, Rose and Cory, but comes by the Maxson house frequently on Troy’s payday to ask for money. Lyons, like Rose, plays the numbers, or local lottery. Their activity in the numbers game represents Rose and Lyons’ belief in gambling for a better future. Lyons’ jazz playing appears to Troy as an unconventional and foolish occupation. Troy calls jazz, “Chinese music,” because he perceives the music as foreign and impractical. Lyons› humanity and belief in himself garners respect from others. GABRIEL: Gabriel is Troy’s brother who suffered a head injury during World War II. Part of the effect is his nonsensical ramblings that actually touch on quite a bit of truth. He is sometimes convinced that he is the Angel Gabriel waiting for St. Peter to open the gates of Heaven. He is the wise fool, often knowing more about those people surrounding him than they know about themselves. Gabriel receives money from the government because of his injury, some of which Troy used to pay for the house where the play takes place. (Credit: Huntington Theatre Company)

For more information, read the play and check out the Huntington Theatre Company’s Study Guide. Fences/

1960s Two Trains Running (1990) Premiere: 1990, at Yale Repertory Theatre; 1992, Broadway opening at Walter Kerr Theatre. Directed by Lloyd Richards. Laurence Fishburne (Sterling) won a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for Best Actor in a Play. Setting: 1969, Pittsburgh Synopsis: Two Trains Running takes place in a restaurant run by a man named Memphis Lee. It is the 1960s, and the neighborhood is about to go through major economic development and gentrification. While we see a lot of the same themes in August’s earlier works (surrounding race, oppression, identity), we see how those themes are filtered through a more modern world that is in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. Malcolm X has just been killed, and the younger characters in the play, namely Sterling and Risa, are searching for who they are and where they fit in. Memphis has given up on trying to save his business from being taken by the government, but insists on getting the money he deserves. The colorful cast of African-American characters includes an old man who has gone crazy and can only say two phrases, a man who runs numbers (i.e. the lottery) for the people of the town, a young woman who cut up her legs to make them ugly so men would leave her alone, and a young man who recently got out of the penitentiary and just wants some money and a woman. A few of the characters from Wilson’s other plays are a part of this world, and hearing their names mentioned reconnects us to the roots of what it means and has meant to be an African-American in America. (Credit: StageAgent)

A scene from a production of Two Trains Running at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. (Credit: Jay Thompson)

Characters: MEMPHIS: Memphis Lee is a selfmade man whose values of hard work, diligence, persistence and honesty have been consistently challenged by the circumstances of his life. His greatest asset is his impeccable logic. He owns a restaurant that the city intends to demolish. He is determined to negotiate a fair price out of the demolition. He is confident in playing the White man’s game as long as he knows the rules. With little patience for those who preach the “black is beautiful” mantra— he claims it sounds as if those black people are trying to convince themselves. STERLING: A young man of thirty, he appears at times to be unbalanced, but it is a combination of his unorthodox logic and straightforward manner that makes him appear so. Only recently released from the penitentiary after serving some time for robbing a bank, Sterling is new to the scene of Two Trains Running. He is in search of work, and when he finds Memphis Lee’s restaurant and the group that hangs there it gives him the chance to seek advice from a colorful group of characters. 17


WOLF: He is a Numbers Runner— someone who carries the money and betting slips between the betting parlors and the headquarters or “Numbers Bank.” He enjoys the notoriety and popularity that comes with this work. While he manages to keep money in his pocket and a decent pair of shoes on his feet, his inability to find secure female companionship is the single failure that marks his life. HOLLOWAY: A retired house-painter, who, in his retirement, has become a self-made philosopher of sorts. He is a man who all his life has voiced his outrage at injustice with little effect. His belief in the supernatural has enabled him to accept his inability to affect change and continue to pursue life with zest and vigor. He is equally enraged by white men who exploit black men, and any black men who try to fight back. If anyone happens to come to him with a problem, he will send them on over to the oldest woman in town—an Aunt Ester—to sort it out. WEST: A widower in his early sixties, he is the owner of the wealthiest business on the block. West runs the funeral parlor across the street from the restaurant. His wife’s death has allowed his love of money to overshadow the other possibilities of life. It is his practical view of death that has earned him the title of perhaps the sharpest social observer in the play (Credit: Huntington Theatre Company)

For more information, read the play and check out the Huntington Theatre Company’s Study Guide. Two-Trains-Running/


1970s Jitney (1979) Premiere: 1982, Allegheny Repertory Theatre, Pittsburgh; 2000 premiere Off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre. Directed by Marion McClinton, the play won the 2001 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play and the 2002 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play. Setting: 1977, Pittsburgh Synopsis: Jitney takes place in in a gypsy cab station, during Pittsburgh’s period of so-called “urban renewal.” As the city tries to shut down businesses -- including the cab station -- to make way for new building, we meet five gypsy cab drivers struggling to survive. Wilson’s ensemble piece puts human faces to the process of gentrification seizing the United States, telling of the specific human struggles of Becker, Youngblood, Turnbo, Fielding and Doub as they cling to a nostalgic past, while reaching for an uncertain future. Becker, the owner of the cab station, descends into an emotional spiral when his son, Booster, comes out of jail, where he served time after murdering his ex-girlfriend who falsely accused him of raping her. Youngblood has saved up enough money to buy a house for himself, his girlfriend, and their two-year-old son, Jesse, but even this grand gesture fails to redeem him in the eyes of his girlfriend, Rena, who refuses to forgive him for his unfaithful past. Turnbo is an older man who is distressed with the manners of the young people today, especially those of fellow cab driver, Youngblood, and is obsessed with comparing their actions to those he remembers from his happier past. Recovering alcoholic Fielding, who used to

be a tailor, is waging an ongoing battle against his alcoholism, even as his continued drunkenness threatens his job. Doub is a Korean War Veteran, and a longtime jitney driver, who equates his time at war where ‘they never paid [him] no mind’ to the experiences he and his black colleagues have with white men today. Over the course of the play, all five of these men and the characters that come in and out of their lives pose questions about how we can heal past wounds and leap into a less-than-certain future. (Credit: StageAgent)

A scene from the first Broadway production of Jitney in 2017 at the Friedman Theatre. (Credit: The New York Times)

Characters: BECKER: A well-respected man who runs the jitney station. Sixties. DOUB: A longtime jitney driver and Korean War veteran. RENA: Youngblood’s girlfriend and mother of their young son. TURNBO: A jitney driver who is always interested in the business of others. BOOSTER: Becker’s son, recently released from prison. Early forties. SHEALY: A numbers taker who often uses the jitney station as his base.

YOUNGBLOOD: A jitney driver and Vietnam veteran in his mid to late twenties. (Credit: Huntington Theatre Company)

For more information, read the play and check out the Huntington Theatre Company’s Study Guide. Jitney/

1980s King Hedley II (1991) Premiere: 1999, at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre; 2001 Broadway opening at the Virginia Theatre (what is now the August Wilson Theatre). Directed by Marion McClinton, Viola Davis won a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for Best Featured Actress and Charles Brown won a Drama Desk Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play. Setting: 1985, Pittsburgh Synopsis: Often thought of as the most tragic of Wilson’s plays, King Hedley II is the ninth play in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle. The play follows King, an ex-con who is desperately trying to make $10,000 to open a video store by stealing stolen refrigerators. We also meet his mother Ruby, his wife, Tonya, his best friend, Mister, his next door neighbor, Stool-Pigeon, and Ruby’s ex-lover, Elmore. The play features characters from Wilson’s earlier work, Seven Guitars (Ruby and Canewell, known here as Stool-Pigeon) and mentions other characters from the rest of the cycle. King Hedley II is the son of Ruby and King Hedley I (known as simply Hedley in Seven Guitars), although the true identity of his biological father is unknown. The play takes place in the 1980s, a time of excessive violence amongst and against African-Americans.

Touching many of the same themes that Wilson brings up in his other plays, King Hedley II explores what happens when black men feel worthless and black women feel forgotten. King spends a lot of the play scraping at the dirt, trying to plant seeds where nothing can grow: this becomes the perfect metaphor for his life as well as the general African-American experience of the time.

pregnant and wants to have an abortion because she does not want to bring a baby into this corrupt, crazy world, thirty-five. ELMORE: Sixty-six years old and an old hustler who has been carrying a torch for Ruby for more than 30 years. He exudes an air of elegance and confidence born of his many years wrestling with life. He knows the secret of King’s true patrimony.

(Credit: StageAgent)

STOOL PIGEON: A sixty-five year old harmonica player also seen in Seven Guitars. He is now a newspaper-collecting history carrier. (Credit: Huntington Theatre Company)

For more information, read the play and check out the Huntington Theatre Company’s Study Guide. King-Hedley-II/

Brian Stokes Mitchell and Viola Davis from the original production of King Hedley II. (Credit: Dilate World)

Characters: KING HEDLEY II: Thirty-six years old, he is the spiritual son of King Hedley from Seven Guitars. He is engaged in life and death struggles with a scar to prove it. The slash down the left side of his face has left him with a glass eye. He looks like a bogeyman at the crossroads. He spent seven years in prison and strives to live by his own moral code. RUBY: King’s mother and blues singer, sixty-one. TONYA: King’s girlfriend who is

1990s Radio Golf (2005) Premiere: 2005 at Yale Repertory Theatre; 2007 Broadway opening at Cort Theatre. Directed by Kenny Leon on Broadway. Setting: 1990, Pittsburgh Synopsis: The tenth and final play in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle, Radio Golf follows a black man named Harmond Wilks on his quest to revive his childhood neighborhood and become the first black mayor of Pittsburgh. Wilks, his wife Mame, and his best friend Roosevelt, have planned a redevelopment project that will bring a new high-rise apartment building and chain-stores to the old and devastated Hill District. Initially, Wilks envisions this as a great plan to restore his childhood home, but as the play progresses and he meets characters from 19


the past (Sterling Johnson and Elder Joseph Barlow), his eyes are opened to the possibility that what he thought would be a gift to the future might actually be hurting the district’s history. Harmond begins to fundamentally question his intentions, while Mame and Roosevelt try to keep him on the path he started, with little consideration for the ghosts of the past. (Credit: StageAgent)

Tonya Pinkins and Harry Lennox from the original Broadway production. (Credit: The New York Times)

Characters: ELDER JOSEPH “OLD JOE” BARLOW: Recently returned to the Hill District where he was born in 1918. Although ostensibly as


harmless as he is homespun, his temperament belies a life checkered by run-ins with the law and a series of wives. He sees and calls things plainly, requires little and seeks only harmony. HARMOND WILKS: Real-estate developer seeking mayoral candidacy. He grew up a privileged and responsible son of the Hill District and intends to bring the neighborhood back from urban blight through gentrification, while making a fortune in the process. He cares about the city of Pittsburgh, the neighborhood and its people, but is caught between what is politically expedient and what is morally and ethically just. ROOSEVELT HICKS: Bank Vice President and avid golfer, as well as Harmond’s business partner and college roommate. Roosevelt is preoccupied with his financial status and getting green time. He values the end result of a transaction more than the practical or spiritual virtues of a job well done. Had he any time for selfreflection, he might describe himself favorably as a consummate materialist and conspicuous consumer.

MAME WILKS: Harmond’s wife of more than twenty years and a professional public relations representative. She is focused on Harmond’s success, as well as her own, and is confident that she has the proper plan to achieve both. Firm, independent and ambitious, her love of and belief in her husband are tested by his struggle to stay focused and on message. STERLING JOHNSON: Selfemployed contractor and neighborhood handyman who robbed a bank thirty years ago. Sterling and Harmond attended the same parochial school as boys, but the economically disadvantaged Sterling chose in youthful recklessness to rob a bank rather than build one. Now an older, reformed pragmatist, Sterling finds pride in his work and in his independence. (Credit: Huntington Theatre Company)


For more information, read the play and check out the Huntington Theatre Company’s Study Guide. Radio-Golf/

OTHER WORK August Wilson also wrote other plays, unrelated to the American Century Cycle. They are as follows: • Recycle (1973) • Black Bart and the Sacred Hills (1977) • Fullerton Street (1980) • The Homecoming (1989) • The Coldest Day of the Year (1989) • How I Learned What I Learned (2002–03)

August Wilson on an early set for How I Learned What I Learned. (Credit: Pittsburgh Public Theatre)

How I Learned What I Learned A Look into Wilson’s Own Thoughts on His Life & Career


oward the end of his life, August Wilson embarked on a journey of writing an autobiographical solo show. The monologue memoir follows Wilson’s personal, provocative, funny and heartfelt story as a struggling writer in Pittsburgh’s Hill District and how the neighborhood inspired his cycle of plays about the African American experience. It explores his process of learning and growing and becoming a playwright, and it was first performed by Wilson himself in 2003. Since then, it has been restaged and performed

by actors such as Ruben SantiagoHudson (2013) and Eugene Lee (2016). This was Wilson’s first and only time performing, and he was actually quite nervous about it. Wilson confessed in a 2003 interview with The Seattle Times that performing was never something he wanted to do. “I don’t like getting up onstage,” he admitted. “I don’t like people staring at me.” To prepare for his stage debut, Wilson sought advice from veteran solo performers such as Whoopi Goldberg, whose self-titled show won her the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance in 1985. Goldberg’s suggestion to Wilson? “She said not to look at the audience,” Wilson recalled in The Seattle Times interview. “She said if you don’t do that you’ll be alright.” Theatre critic Zachary Stewart says, “It’s a loose collection of anecdotes told in no particular order. There’s the story of the brand-new Speed Queen washing machine his sainted mother won in a radio contest and how the station tried to cheat her out of it when they discovered she was black. Wilson recounts in lurid detail the brutal murder he witnessed outside a bar when one man insulted another man’s wife. (He also explains why nobody in the bar snitched on the killer.) We’re given a whirlwind overview of the crappy jobs Wilson had in his early twenties and the racist bosses who made those jobs intolerable. It feels like being invited into the mind of a master storyteller.” The play largely focuses on racism and Wilson’s own experiences with the matter: how it affected him and how it fueled him to do what > 21

OTHER WORK continued

he does. A New York Times review says, “Wilson was soft-spoken in person, but he never lowered the volume on his opinions, especially when it came to racism, which he describes in How We Learned as “an inheritance unworthy of our grandchildren, because it puts an encumbrance on their lives. Yet, these attitudes are still alive today.’” His mother, Daisy Wilson, is a frequent and vivid presence in the monologue. Her influence can be traced in Wilson’s lifelong, nonnegotiable insistence on respect, which led him to quit several jobs rather than accept the kind of slights to which black people were routinely subjected. The bigotry and

August Wilson and his friend/protégé Todd Kreidler at the opening of How I Learned What I Learned in Seattle. Kreidler served as the director and co-conceiver. (Credit: Mike Downing)


the need to push back against it is a constant theme in How I Learned What I Learned. Ultimately, the show provides “an opportunity to see, ‘Where do the ideas and attitudes of August Wilson come from?’” according to its director and co-conceiver Todd Kreidler. The show serves as a very helpful resource in trying to understand both the life of Wilson and how that led to his masterful American Century Cycle. Unfortunately, according to Stewart, “Wilson never officially committed How I Learned What I Learned to paper and was known

to change it nightly.” Thus, recent reincarnations of the solo show have used a script that is a transcription of an original audio recording. It is very likely he would have highly revised and refined the text for the New York presentation were he alive today. Instead, we have a verbatim record of what Wilson sounded like in 2003, causing Stewart to classify it as a “museum display of an unfinished work, an echo of a man and his words frozen in amber for all eternity.” AW (Credit: The New York Times, Theatre Mania, Pittsburgh City Paper, and the Huntington Theatre Company)

Create Your Own Biographical One Person Play Wilson had to spend a lot of time reflecting on his life in order to create this summative monologue on his early life. He also had to spend a lot of time staring at himself in a [metaphorical] mirror in order to understand who he was and why he had become that way. A solo show is a very unique form and style of theatre, and it often takes the role of some sort of biography. It may be very unlike any type of play that you have seen before, but many performers find it a very exciting task as an actor and as a human. It is a great tool for self-reflection and learning more about yourself as a human and as a performer. Below are some ideas about getting started on writing your own memoir monologue. Start by answering these questions: 1. What do you value the most in this world? What are your strongest beliefs? What experiences led you to this? 2. Who is someone who has had an immense impact on you? Was it positive, negative, or both? How are that person’s actions still affecting you today? 3. What makes you happy? Sad? Frustrated? Why? 4. What is one thing that you wish you could change about the world? Why? 5. What is one memory that you can’t seem to get out of your head? Describe it in detail and hypothesize why you think it is so salient in your thoughts? 6. Describe your family. What were your relationships like with them in the past? What are they like in the present? How do you think they are affecting your everyday life? Next, try to write an autobiographical “I Am” poem, following the format below and filling in the blanks. It doesn’t have to

rhyme if you don’t want it to, and it also doesn’t have to take this form. This poem is all about you, so you can make it whatever you’d like to! I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I

Am (Your Name Here) am… wonder… hear… see… want… am… pretend… feel… touch… worry… cry… am… understand… say… dream… try… hope… am… (Credit: Huntington Theatre Company)

With all of this foundation set, try an automatic writing, also known as free writing. Set a timer for ten minutes and write whatever comes to mind without stopping. Don’t be judgmental as you write and go back to fix anything. Write whatever comes to your mind and go with it. Editing will come later. Write about anything related to what you wrote above, or anything else important to you. Create some characters from your life and pretend you’re playing them. Or just tell a story. It can be whatever you like! Soon enough you’ll have your very own solo show, just like August Wilson!




nfortunately, the lack of written text for How I Learned What I Learned makes it difficult to learn directly from Wilson himself. Luckily, the Huntington Theatre Company has compiled a list of lessons that are presented in the show from their 2016 production.

“In How I Learned What I Learned, August Wilson shares a variety of stories from his life — things that happened to him, events he witnessed, triumphs and failures by his family and friends. Wilson saw the value in every one of these experiences and believed that there was something to be gained from each of them. Read the following life lessons from How I Learned What I Learned, and answer the questions at the end.” • The first thing you discover after leaving your mother’s house is that you gotta pay the rent. There’s a way under, around, or through any door. • Something is not always better than nothing. • And you look up and you find out that all them years you been living on your mother’s prayers and now you’ve got to live on your own. • August, you want to be a writer, right? Learn how to do it. Don’t be like Cy. Don’t try to push your spirit out through a horn that you don’t know how to play. Learn how to play the saxophone. • When you on a search, just possibly you can’t afford to leave any stone unturned. Most of them gonna turn up snails. But you still got to overturn them.

Limitation of the instrument. There ain’t nothing else I can do with this . . . I done it all. This is limiting me. I got to find another way to express myself. You can say the wrong thing to the wrong person at the right time and get away with it. But you cannot say the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time. He said, “You going through life carrying a ten-gallon bucket. And if you go through life carrying a tengallon bucket, you always going to be disappointed. Cause it ain’t never going to be filled . . . Don’t you go through life carrying no ten gallon bucket. Get you a little cup and carry that through life. And that way somebody put a little bit in it and you have something” . . . I have got it cut down to about a gallon bucket. But . . . it ain’t never going to get down to that little cup. See, and it ain’t never going to get down to that little cup because I deserve more. Take all your truths, all your empirical truths that you have learned in your life and do not try to place them in a hierarchy and decide which one is more important than the other. Because you don’t know. In order to do that you would have to measure one against the other. And any time you start measuring, what’s going to happen? You measure wrong. That’s common sense.” AW

Questions 1. Wilson learned many of these lessons from being around adults, family, and friends in the Pittsburgh Hill District. He watched and listened to their experiences in life. What lessons have your friends and family taught you? What are the biggest lessons that you’ve learned in life thus far? 2. What is the difference between knowing something and learning it? Which do you think Wilson did? How did he learn these lessons? 3. This play is one long monologue in which Wilson tells a variety of episodic anecdotes (short little stories). How might this structure help in sharing these lessons with the audience? 4. How do all of these lessons and stories work together to create a play? What do you think is the main lesson at the end of the show? 5. It seems as if Wilson wishes he could give some of these lessons to his younger self. We are so lucky to have access to them and to learn from them! What do you wish you could tell your younger self? How can we be thoughtful about our everyday actions so that we don’t wind up wishing we had lived our lives differently? Or is that just a part of life? 24

MAJOR THEMES Race & Race Relations This is the most central theme of all of Wilson’s work, especially the American Century Cycle. He was particularly interested in using playwriting to share the stories and lives of African-Americans. A large part of the African-American experience is pushing through pain on the journey to liberation and fighting for equality in the aftermath of slavery. Throughout the century of his plays, Wilson depicts multiple forms of racial How is this theme used in Wilson’s plays? Pick one of Wilson’s plays and write down some ways in which race and race relations are important to the storytelling. What is Wilson trying to say about this? Below are some ideas about how race and race relations relates to each of the plays in The American Century Cycle to get you started. •G em of the Ocean: Citizen Barlow’s unfortunate circumstances, the death of Solly • J oe Turner’s Come and Gone: Joe Turner and slavery, each of the guests’ stories •M a Rainey’s Black Bottom: violence, Ma Rainey and her producers •T he Piano Lesson: the family’s history with slavery •S even Guitars: Floyd’s struggle for success and ultimate demise, Hedley’s hatred • Fences: discrimination in baseball, pre-civil rights movement era difficulties (Jim Crow) •T wo Trains Running: Civil Rights Movement, Malcom X, Risa and Sterling searching for where they fit in • Jitney: violence, gentrification •K ing Hedley II: King’s difficulty to get his dreams realized, violence, King scraping at the dirt and trying to plant seeds •R adio Golf: Wilks as first black mayor and questioning the future while keeping in mind the history of African-Americans

discrimination. Even as progress is made, like the beginning of integration for professional baseball teams in Fences, the shadow of American slavery still presses down on the country. Wilson’s characters must deal with racism in America, and ultimately, they show what it means to be black in America.

Dreams, Hopes, & Futurity In nearly all of Wilson’s plays, characters share their stories from the past but also their hopes and dreams for the future. This is an incredibly important part of Wilson’s work, because his characters are involved in creating a better world for themselves and for AfricanAmericans at large. Very few of his characters have given up and lost hope—they all imagine a world where it will be easier to be black in America. Many of their dreams are much less grandiose than this though, as most of them, like many people, have goals and dreams for themselves. Ma Rainey (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and Floyd (Seven Guitars) are trying to make it into the music world, Wilks (Radio Golf) is trying to create change as the first black mayor, King Hedley II (King Hedley II) is trying to open his own video store, cab drivers (Jitney) are trying to survive financially, Memphis (Two Trains Running) is trying to keep his business alive, Boy Willie (The Piano Lesson) is trying to buy back his family’s land, Loomis (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone) is trying to find his wife, and Troy (Fences) had tried to be a professional baseball player. A large point of contention for many of these plays is the characters having their dreams taken away from them. Many of the above characters struggle to have their dreams realized. In these struggles, Wilson highlights one of the fundamental issues of the AfricanAmerican experience: it is incredibly difficult to achieve the American Dream when you’re black. Of his plays, Fences most predominantly focuses on the destruction of dreams. The play explores how the damaged dreams of one generation can affect the dreams of the next generation. In the American Century Cycle, we see dreams as a fairly consistent theme and serving as a thru line for each generation. Wilson exposes how difficult it is for African-Americans to have their dreams realized, even after slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. He shows how cyclic this is to the African-American experience. 25

MAJOR THEMES continued

Below is a poem by Langston Hughes. Hughes is one of the most famous African-American poets and was the leader of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. This is one of his most famous poems and has inspired authors such as Lorraine Hansberry and Toni Morrison. Read the poem and then answer the following questions.


What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over— like a syrupy sweet?

Many of Wilson’s characters tell stories about the past. The history of African-Americans in America lurks in the back of the minds of many of the characters. Oftentimes, this isn’t by choice but instead it is necessitated by the fact that their history affects them every day through racism and discrimination. This complex history is linked to both duty and family because many of his characters feel obliged to create something better for the future. Wilson’s characters feel as if they have a duty to their family, their friends, or other things because roots run deep. There is a lot of pride in family and history for Wilson’s characters, despite the troubling past. Many families face challenges in the American Century Cycle, but ultimately Wilson highlights the importance of family, duty to family, and family history. In the American Century Cycle, these themes often serve as the motivators for his characters actions.


How does this poem relate to your favorite character in the American Century Cycle?

A variety of Wilson’s characters deal with death in some sort or another, and some characters are even ghosts! Mortality is a reigning force on all of his characters because they are reminded that they are only here for a short amount of time. Many of his plays, especially with Troy in Fences, view mortality as both a dark inevitability and our ultimate chance for peace. Wilson presents a nuanced vision of how short the human life is, and perhaps Gem of the Ocean contemplates this theme the most. The play focuses on Aunt Ester’s soul-cleansing powers and explores dealing with mortality in a way that leaves our souls clean. How do we come to terms with all that we’ve experienced in our life? Wilson and his characters are asking themselves this same question and using the very fact that they are mortal to motivate how they live their day to day lives.

What does it mean for a dream to be deferred?


Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?



Duty, Family, and History

What does Hughes mean when he asks “or does it explode?”

How have certain characters’ dreams in Wilson’s plays “exploded?”

Music plays a role in almost all of Wilson’s plays, largely because of the role that it played in his own life. You can read more about Wilson’s personal connection to the blues later in this guide. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and The Piano Lesson are two of Wilson’s plays that incorporate music the most. We also see musicians in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

and Seven Guitars. In all of these plays, Wilson uses a variety of different music traditions—the blues, boogiewoogie, the work song, the railroad song, and more—to show how embedded music is in the African-American diasporic tradition. Yet even in his plays that do not directly relate to music, Wilson is influenced by music in the way that he writes and creates characters. This displays the higher power that Wilson believes music contains. Music serves a large role in the resolution of many shows, such as Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson. In these shows, Wilson writes in a way that shows how much power music has in our lives: it can bring people together who have been looking for each other for a long time (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone) and it can also channel spirits of the dead (The Piano Lesson). Throughout Wilson’s work, music is depicted as a powerful medium through which humans can express themselves, solve problems, and sometimes even access the divine.

Etymology & Witnessing Etymology is the study of the sources and development of words and language. In the May/June 2003 issue of American Theatre magazine, August Wilson is quoted as saying that “anything you can name you can control and define; that’s what the power of naming is.” Historically, naming traditions have been particularly significant in African American communities because slaves brought to the United States were often stripped of their original names and forced to adopt their masters’ surnames. After abolition, it became common for former slaves to choose new names for themselves and their children. Many chose names with biblical or historical origins, or names that represented a person’s newfound promise of freedom. August Wilson’s own name has its roots in this tradition. Wilson was originally named Frederick August Kittel, Jr., after his white father, but after his father’s death Wilson chose to honor his mother and the African American culture to which he felt deeply connected by adopting his mother’s maiden name and refashioning himself as “August Wilson.”

on stage and has them tell their stories. Both naming and witnessing are meta-themes; that is, they are themes within the plays themselves, but also for Wilson as a writer. Wilson participates in them by creating these worlds and putting these characters on stage. Additionally, his characters make it a point to listen to each other’s stories and histories.

What’s in a Name?

Think of a character from one of Wilson’s plays. Why do you think they have this name? What is the meaning of their name? (You may need to research this.) How does their name relate to their life experiences? Or their personality? What is a stage name? Why do people choose stage names? Who is your favorite celebrity with a stage name? Is this related to the power of naming that Wilson speaks about? If so, how? What’s in a name? How does your own name match your personality? Do you have a nickname? If not, can you think of one that fits you well?


Wilson names his characters for very specific reasons (think of Aunt Ester, King Hedley II, Boy Willie, Ma Rainey, and more). Wilson fully embraces the naming tradition and so do many of his characters. To go a step further, Wilson also embraces witnessing, listening and validating others’ experiences. He puts black characters 27

THE WORLD OF THE PLAYS (Credit: The Estate of August Wilson)




econstruction was a period of time after the Civil War when the government tried to bring the country back together and incorporate former slaves into American society as actual citizens. The largest goal of Reconstruction was to secure the rights of black citizens. Yet even after Reconstruction “ended,” the country faced many problems economically, socially, and racially. All of August Wilson’s plays in the American Century Cycle exist in a world post-reconstruction and that has a huge impact on his characters and their histories. Read the summary below from the University of Groningen to learn more about the period after Reconstruction. To understand this information, it is expected that you have some background knowledge on the Civil War, slavery, and the American government at the time.

As time passed, it became more and more obvious that the problems of the South were not being solved by harsh laws and continuing rancor against former Confederates. Moreover, some Southern Radical state governments with prominent African-American officials appeared corrupt and inefficient. The nation was quickly tiring of the attempt to impose racial democracy and liberal values on the South with Union bayonets. In May 1872, Congress passed a general Amnesty Act, restoring full political rights to all but about 500 former rebels. Gradually Southern states began electing members of the Democratic Party into office, ousting carpetbagger governments and intimidating African Americans from voting or attempting to hold public office. By 1876 the Republicans remained in power in only three Southern states. As part of the bargaining that resolved the disputed presidential elections that year in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republicans promised to withdraw federal troops that had propped up the remaining

Republican governments. In 1877 Hayes kept his promise, tacitly abandoning federal responsibility for enforcing blacks’ civil rights.

A political cartoon illustrating the intimidation tactics used by southern Democrats after the Civil War, 1876. The South was still a region devastated by war, burdened by debt caused by misgovernment, and demoralized by a decade of racial warfare. Unfortunately, the pendulum of national racial policy

swung from one extreme to the other. A federal government that had supported harsh penalties against Southern white leaders now tolerated new and humiliating kinds of discrimination against AfricanAmericans. The last quarter of the 19th century saw a profusion of “Jim Crow” laws in Southern states that segregated public schools, forbade or limited African-American access to many public facilities such as parks, restaurants, and hotels, and denied most blacks the right to vote by imposing poll taxes and arbitrary literacy tests. “Jim Crow” is a term derived from a song in an 1828 minstrel show where a white man first performed in “blackface.” Historians have tended to judge Reconstruction harshly, as a

murky period of political conflict, corruption, and regression that failed to achieve its original highminded goals and collapsed into a sinkhole of virulent racism. Slaves were granted freedom, but the North completely failed to address their economic needs. The Freedmen’s Bureau was unable to provide former slaves with political and economic opportunity. 29

MAJOR THEMES continued

Union military occupiers often could not even protect them from violence and intimidation. Indeed, federal army officers and agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau were often racists themselves. Without economic resources of their own, many Southern African Americans were forced to become tenant farmers on land owned by their former masters, caught in a cycle

of poverty that would continue well into the 20th century. Reconstruction-era governments did make genuine gains in rebuilding Southern states devastated by the war, and in expanding public services, notably in establishing tax-supported, free public schools for African Americans and whites. However, recalcitrant Southerners

seized upon instances of corruption (hardly unique to the South in this era) and exploited them to bring down radical regimes. The failure of Reconstruction meant that the struggle of African Americans for equality and freedom was deferred until the 20th century -- when it would become a national, not just a Southern issue. AW (Credit: University of Groningen, American History)

President Rutherford B. Hayes The policies of Rutherford B. Hayes, America’s 19th president, began to heal the nation after the ravages of the Civil War. He was well suited to the task, having earned a steadfast reputation for integrity throughout his career as a soldier and a statesman. Hayes had a reputation for being upstanding, moral, and honest, despite the controversial election. Much of Hayes’s 1877 inaugural address was devoted to calming down the citizenry. He quickly announced plans for election reform and pledged his earnest desire to heal the rift between North and South. Though he had generally supported Reconstruction, which aimed to secure the rights of black citizens, Hayes came to believe that interventionist policies were breeding more hatred among southerners, preventing the nation from healing itself in the aftermath of war. One month after taking office, Hayes ordered federal troops out of the South, ending Reconstruction altogether and allowing the Democratic Party to sweep in and assert total dominance of the region. The Democratic hold on the South resulted in a complete denial of rights for blacks, including the right to vote, for nearly a century. President Rutherford B. Hayes

(Credit: History on the Net)

Read President Hayes’s 1877 Inaugural Address here:


In what ways can speeches, oratory, and public performance heal the masses and “calm down the citizenry?” What are some examples of how the president tries to heal the wounds of the country in his inaugural address? Can the theatre serve the same purpose as this address? Do August Wilson’s plays also try to bring about better relationships between whites and blacks? How so? What is the limit in the power of speech and performance? Can these forms of public expression change policy? Contemporary Connections Read this article, titled “Donald Trump and the End of Reconstruction,” by Nathan Cardon.

Can you think of other ways that this time in history is related to today? What does backlash mean? Can you think of characters in Wilson’s plays whose actions are affected by their complex feelings towards history and the past? Can you brainstorm ways to process the past without negatively affecting progress for the future? What can we learn from August Wilson’s plays about this very issue? 30



can ride in first-class cars on the railroads and in the streets,” wrote journalist T. McCants Stewart. “I can stop in and drink a glass of soda and be more politely waited upon than in some parts of New England.” Perhaps Stewart’s comments don’t seem newsworthy. Consider that he was reporting from South Carolina in 1885 and he was black.

Stewart had decided to tour the South because he feared for freedmen’s liberties. In 1868, with Amendment XIV, the Constitution had finally given black men full citizenship and promised them equal protection under the law. Blacks voted, won elected office, and served on juries. However, 10 years later, federal troops withdrew from the South, returning it to local white rule. And now, the Republican Party, champion of Reconstruction and freedmen’s rights, had fallen from national power. Would black people’s rights survive?

unchecked. True, many rural blacks lived under a sharecropping system little better than slavery. But Stewart noted many signs of change. He saw a black policeman arrest a white criminal. He saw whites casually talk with black strangers. “The morning light is breaking,” he told his readers.

After a few weeks on the road, Stewart decided they would. True, terrorism against blacks — lynching, rape, arson — ran

Men carry the coffin of Jim Crow through the streets to protest racial discrimination in 1944.

Stewart was wrong. Over the next 20 years, blacks would lose almost all they had gained. Worse, denial of their rights and freedoms would be made legal by a series of racist statutes, the Jim Crow laws.

(Credit: Corbis)

“Jim Crow” was a derisive slang term for a black man. It came to mean any state law passed in the South that established different rules for blacks and whites. Jim Crow laws were based on the theory of white supremacy and were a reaction to Reconstruction. In the depression-racked 1890s, racism appealed to whites who feared losing their jobs to blacks. Politicians abused blacks to win the votes of poor white “crackers.” Newspapers fed the bias of white readers by playing up (sometimes even making up) black crimes. In 1890, in spite of its 16 black members, the Louisiana General Assembly passed a law to prevent black and white people from riding together on railroads. Plessy v. Ferguson, a case challenging the law, reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896. Upholding the law, the court said that public facilities for blacks and whites could be “separate but equal.” Soon, throughout the South, they had to be separate. Two years later, the court seemed to seal the fate of black Americans when it upheld a Mississippi law designed to deny black men the vote. Given the green light, Southern states began to limit the voting right to those who owned property or could read well, to those whose grandfathers had been able to vote, to those with “good characters,” to those who paid poll taxes. In 1896, Louisiana had 130,334 registered black voters. Eight years later, only 1,342, 1 percent, could pass the state’s new rules. Jim Crow laws touched every part of life. In South Carolina, black and white textile workers could not work 31

JIM CROW continued

in the same room, enter through the same door, or gaze out of the same window. Many industries wouldn’t hire blacks: many unions passed rules to exclude them. In Richmond, one could not live on a street unless most of the residents were people one could marry. (One could not marry someone of a different race.) By 1914, Texas had six entire towns in which blacks could not live. Mobile passed a Jim Crow curfew: Blacks could not leave their homes after 10 p.m. Signs marked “Whites Only” or “Colored” hung over doors, ticket windows, and drinking fountains. Georgia had black and white parks. Oklahoma had black and white phone booths. Prisons, hospitals, and orphanages were segregated as were schools and colleges. In North Carolina, black and white students had to use separate sets of textbooks. In Florida, the books couldn’t even be stored together. Atlanta courts kept two Bibles: one for black witnesses and one for whites. Virginia told fraternal social groups that black and white members could not address each other as “Brother.” Though seemingly rigid and complete, Jim Crow laws did not account for all of the discrimination blacks suffered. Unwritten rules barred blacks from white jobs in New York and kept them out of white stores in Los Angeles. Humiliation was about the best treatment blacks who broke such rules could hope for. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which revived in 1915, used venom and violence to keep blacks “in their place.” More than 360,000 black men served in World War I. The country 32

welcomed them home with 25 major race riots, the most serious in Chicago. White mobs lynched veterans in uniform. Black Americans fought back. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909, and the Urban League publicized abuses and worked for redress. Though they drew support from both races, these groups barely stemmed the tide. The 1920s and 30s produced new Jim Crow laws. By 1944, a Swede visiting the South pronounced segregation so complete that whites did not see blacks except when being served by them. But World War II changed America, inside and out. The link between white supremacy and Hitler’s “master race” could not be ignored. Jim Crow shocked United Nations delegates who reported home about the practice. “Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills,” said a government spokesman. “It raises doubt even among friendly nations as to the intensity of our devotion to the democratic faith.”

Protesters march against school segregation. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1948, President Harry Truman took decisive action to promote racial equality. He urged Congress to abolish the poll tax, enforce fair voting and hiring practices, and end Jim Crow transportation between states. Four Southern states abandoned Truman’s Democratic Party in protest. Then, as commander in chief, Truman ordered the complete integration of the armed forces. He did not wipe out racism, but, trained to obey commands, officers complied as best they could. In Korea, during the 1950s, integrated U.S. forces fought their first war. Back at home, when the new Eisenhower administration downplayed civil rights, federal

courts took the lead. In 1950, the NAACP decided to challenge the concept of “separate but equal.” Fed up with poor, overcrowded schools, black parents in South Carolina and Virginia sued to get their children into white schools. Both times, federal courts upheld segregation. Both times, the parents appealed. Meanwhile, in a similar case, Delaware’s Supreme Court ordered a district to admit black students to white schools until adequate classrooms could be provided for blacks. This time, the district appealed. The Supreme Court agreed to consider these three cases in combination with one other. In Topeka, Kansas, where schools for blacks and whites were equally good, Oliver Brown wanted his 8-year-old daughter, Linda, to attend a school close to home. State law, however, prevented the white school from accepting Linda because she was black. On May 17, 1954, at the stroke of noon, the nine Supreme Court Justices announced their unanimous decision in the four cases, now grouped as Brown v. Board of Education. They held that racial segregation of children in public schools, even in schools of equal quality, hurt minority children. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The practice violated the Constitution’s 14th amendment and must stop. To some, the judgment seemed the fruitful end of a long struggle. Actually, the struggle had just begun. (Credit: Constitutional Rights Foundation)

Who was Jim Crow? Was he a real person? Cover to early edition of Jump Jim Crow sheet music (circa 1832) with Thomas D. Rice pictured in his blackface role. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The term “Jim Crow” typically refers to repressive laws and customs once used to restrict black rights, but the origin of the name itself actually dates back to before the Civil War. In the early 1830s, the white actor Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice was propelled to stardom for performing minstrel routines as the fictional “Jim Crow,” a caricature of a clumsy, dimwitted black slave. Rice claimed to have first created the character after witnessing an elderly black man singing a tune called “Jump Jim Crow” in Louisville, Kentucky. He later appropriated the Jim Crow persona into a minstrel act where he donned blackface and performed jokes and songs in a stereotypical slave dialect. For example, “Jump Jim Crow” included the popular refrain, “Weel about and turn about and do ‘jis so, eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.” Rice’s minstrel act proved a massive hit among white audiences, and he later took it on tour around the United States and Great Britain. As the show’s popularity spread, “Jim Crow” became a widely used derogatory term for blacks. Jim Crow’s popularity as a fictional character eventually died out, but in the late 19th century the phrase found new life as a blanket term

for a wave of anti-black laws laid down after Reconstruction. Some of the most common laws included restrictions on voting rights—many Southern states required literacy tests or limited suffrage to those whose grandfathers had also had the right to vote—bans on interracial relationships and clauses that allowed businesses to separate their black and white clientele. The segregationist philosophy of “separate but equal” was later upheld in the famous 1896 Supreme Court decision “Plessy vs. Ferguson,” in which the Court ruled that the state of Louisiana had the right to require different railroad cars for blacks and whites. The “Plessy” decision would eventually lead to widespread adoption of segregated restaurants, public bathrooms, water fountains and other facilities. “Separate but equal” was eventually overturned in the 1954 Supreme Court Case “Brown vs. Board of Education,” but Jim Crow’s legacy would continue to endure in some Southern states until the 1970s. (Credit: Evan Andrews,

Read more about Jim Crow from the National Geographic: https://news.nationalgeographic. com/2015/08/150806-voting-rightsact-anniversary-jim-crow-segregationdiscrimination-racism-history/


JIM CROW continued

The New Jim Crow -- Contemporary Connections Read this article and interview from NPR and then answer the following questions to connect this with August Wilson’s work.

Legal Scholar: Jim Crow Still Exists In America Under Jim Crow laws, black Americans were relegated to a subordinate status for decades. Things like literacy tests for voters and laws designed to prevent blacks from serving on juries were commonplace in nearly a dozen Southern states. In her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, legal scholar Michelle Alexander writes that many of the gains of the civil rights movement have been undermined by the mass incarceration of black Americans in the war on drugs. She says that although Jim Crow laws are now off the books, millions of blacks arrested for minor crimes remain marginalized and disfranchised, trapped by a criminal justice system that has forever branded them as felons and denied them basic rights and opportunities that would allow them to become productive, law-abiding citizens. “People are swept into the criminal justice system — particularly in poor communities of color — at very early ages ... typically for fairly minor, nonviolent crimes,” she tells Fresh Air’s Dave Davies. “[The young black males are] shuttled into prisons, branded as criminals and felons, and then when they’re released, they’re relegated to a permanent second-class status, stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement — like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to be free of legal discrimination and employment, and access to education and public benefits. Many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind during the Jim Crow era are suddenly legal again, once you’ve been branded a felon.” On Monday’s Fresh Air, Alexander details how President Reagan’s war on drugs led to a mass incarceration of black males and the difficulties these felons face after serving their prison sentences. She also details her own experiences working as the director of the Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union Interview Highlights On the number of blacks in the criminal justice system “Today there are more African-Americans under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in Michelle Alexander (Credit: Michelle Alexander)


1850, a decade before the Civil War began. There are millions of African-Americans now cycling in and out of prisons and jails or under correctional control. In major American cities today, more than half of working-age African-American men are either under correctional control or branded felons and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.” On the war on drugs — and federal incentives given out through the war on drugs — as the primary causes of the prison explosion in the United States “Federal funding has flowed to state and local law enforcement agencies who boost the sheer numbers of drug arrests. State and local law enforcement agencies have been rewarded in cash for the sheer numbers of people swept into the system for drug offenses, thus giving law enforcement agencies an incentive to go out and look for the so-called ‘low-hanging fruit’: stopping, frisking, searching as many people as possible, pulling over as many cars as possible, in order to boost their numbers up and ensure the funding stream will continue or increase.” On President Reagan’s war on drugs “He declared the drug war primarily for reasons of politics — racial politics. Numerous historians and political scientists have documented that the war on drugs was part of a grand Republican Party strategy known as the “Southern strategy” of using racially coded ‘get-tough’ appeals on issues of crime and welfare to appeal to poor and working-class whites, particularly in the South, who were resentful of, anxious about and threatened by many of the gains of African-Americans in the civil rights movement.” On racial profiling “I think it’s very easy to brush off the notion that the system operates much like a caste system, if in fact you are not trapped within it. I have spent years representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality and investigating patterns of drug law enforcement in poor communities of color, and attempting to help people who have been released from prison attempting to ‘reenter’ into a society that never seemed to have much use to them in the first place. And in the course of that work, I had my own awakening about our criminal justice system and this system of mass incarceration. ... My experience and research has led me to the regrettable conclusion that our system of mass incarceration functions more like a caste system than a system of crime prevention or control.”

Questions How does Jim Crow exist in the plays of August Wilson? You can interpret this literally by the historic definition of Jim Crow, but also in terms of the “New Jim Crow” and the issues that Michelle Alexander speaks about. What does separate but equal mean? How do we see this concept come to life in Wilson’s plays? How do Wilson’s narratives and characters differ from the traditions of minstrelsy and blackface? Can his plays be thought of as a radical retaliation against those traditions that trivialized black individuals through performance? How and why? How does this impact your interpretation of your favorite Wilson character?




he civil rights movement was a mass popular movement to secure for AfricanAmericans equal access to and opportunities for the basic privileges and rights of U.S. citizenship. Although the roots of the movement go back to the 19th century, it peaked in the 1950s and 1960s. African American men and women, along with whites, organized and led the movement at national and local levels. They pursued their goals through legal means, negotiations, petitions, and nonviolent protest demonstrations. The civil rights movement was the largest social movement of the 20th century in the United States. It influenced the modern women’s rights movement and the student movement of the 1960s. The civil rights movement centered on the American South. That was where the African American population was concentrated and where racial inequality in education, economic opportunity, and the political and legal processes was most blatant. Beginning in the late 19th century, state and local governments passed segregation laws, known as Jim Crow laws; they also imposed restrictions on voting qualifications that left the black population economically and politically powerless. The movement therefore addressed primarily three areas of discrimination: education, social segregation, and voting rights.

The Brown Decision The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ushered in a new era in the struggle for civil rights. This landmark decision outlawed racial segregation in public schools. Whites around the country condemned the decision. In the South such white supremacist groups as the Ku Klux Klan and the Citizens’ Council organized to resist desegregation, sometimes resorting to violence. A primary target of supremacist groups was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Over the course of decades the NAACP had filed a succession of court cases, including Brown, and had assumed the lead in the national struggle against segregated education. The oldest established national civil rights organization, the NAACP also played an important role at the local level; blacks across the South organized branches to combat discrimination in their communities. One of the first attempts to comply with the Brown decision came in Arkansas’s capital city, Little Rock, in 1957. It was prompted in part by the work of the Arkansas NAACP and its president, Daisy Bates. When the local school board admitted nine black students to the city’s previously allwhite Central High School, white protests escalated into violence. As a result, President Dwight 36

D. Eisenhower dispatched federal troops to protect the black students. A later high-profile case involved Alabama governor George Wallace. In 1963 he attempted to block black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. The civil rights movement centered on the American South. That was where the African American population was concentrated and where racial inequality in education, economic opportunity, and the political and legal processes was most blatant. Beginning in the late 19th century, state and local governments passed segregation laws, known as Jim Crow laws; they also imposed restrictions on voting qualifications that left the black population economically and politically powerless. The movement therefore addressed primarily three areas of discrimination: education, social segregation, and voting rights.

The Challenge to Social Segregation By the time of the Little Rock incident, the nation had already become aware of the heightened struggle in the South. In 1955 blacks in Montgomery, Ala., organized a boycott of city buses in protest of the policy of segregated seating. Instigated by Rosa Parks, the boycott lasted 381 days; it succeeded in integrating the seating. It also led to the formation in 1957 of

the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), in Atlanta, Ga. This was presided over by a local black minister, Martin Luther King, Jr. As SCLC head, King would later become a central leader in the larger civil rights movement. A major incident in 1960 led to the founding of another important organization and expanded the movement’s participants to include college-age blacks. In that year, four students from the all-black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College initiated sit-ins at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. Students from other southern black colleges and universities followed with similar sit-ins, bringing about the desegregation of several hundred lunch counters. During the sit-ins the young protesters organized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

the city’s commissioner of public safety; he was chiefly responsible for Birmingham’s reputation as the “most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” King arrived in the spring of 1963 and with Shuttlesworth led nonviolent demonstrations. Connor’s use of police dogs and fire hoses against protesters, an act that remains infamous, helped awaken President John Kennedy’s administration to the need for civil rights legislation. Following Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon Johnson maneuvered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. Representing a major victory for African Americans, the 1964 legislation outlawed segregation in public places and prohibited racial and gender discrimination in employment practices.

Voting Rights

By the mid-1960s, however, most eligible black voters Soon thereafter, many SNCC members joined forces in the South remained disfranchised. Following with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Founded World War II, African Americans initiated local in Chicago in the 1940s, CORE organized the efforts to exercise the right to vote but faced strong Freedom Rides of 1961. Black and white Freedom and sometimes violent resistance from local whites. Riders boarded Organized initiatives commercial buses in to enfranchise blacks Three activists lost their lives during the Washington, D.C., and climaxed with the Selma demonstrations, but in August 1965, embarked on a route Summer Project of through the South; President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. 1964. Popularly known their objective was to as Freedom Summer, test the 1960 Supreme it came under the Court decision Boynton v. Virginia, which had outlawed auspices of the Council of Federated Organizations segregation in interstate transportation terminals. Riders (COFO), which included the SCLC, the SNCC, CORE, were beaten, arrested, and in one instance had their and the NAACP. Targeting Mississippi, where in many bus burned. Nevertheless, the Freedom Rides were counties no blacks were registered to vote, COFO ultimately successful, prompting the U.S. Interstate launched a massive and largely unsuccessful voterCommerce Commission to enforce the ruling in Boynton. registration drive. White resistance was widespread and included several killings. (In one particularly notable The SNCC also organized local campaigns with NAACP case, three civil rights workers disappeared on June branches to win voting rights for blacks and to end 21, and their bodies were found on August 4; a federal segregation in public places. One community that made court convicted seven individuals in connection with the national spotlight was Albany, Ga. In 1962, King the murders in 1967, but the state of Mississippi did and the SCLC entered the Albany struggle. It failed to not prosecute the case until 2005, when one 80-yeargain significant results, however, and branded King with old man was convicted of manslaughter.) The votera humiliating defeat. registration effort did, however, capture the attention of many lawmakers, who began calling for federal votingThe nation’s focus then turned to Birmingham, Ala. rights legislation. Since 1956, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights had Such legislation was enacted following events in Selma, been leading the struggle against racial discrimination Alabama. King and the SCLC went there in February there. For decades, local blacks had faced a staunch 1965, hoping to boost a languishing voting-rights drive segregationist in the person of Eugene “Bull” Connor, 37


that had been organized by the SNCC and local blacks. After two failed attempts, King led an 87-km (54-mi) march from Selma to Montgomery. Three activists lost their lives during the Selma demonstrations, but in August 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

Black Power By this time, civil rights activists were turning their attention to race discrimination in the urban North and West. Many younger activists, discontented with the slow process of change, were also becoming more militant. The SNCC, for instance, in 1966 replaced its chair, John Lewis, with the more radical Stokely Carmichael. Carmichael expanded SNCC operations beyond the South and helped popularize the concept of «black power.» Advocates of black power favored African Americans› controlling the movement, exercising economic autonomy, and preserving their African heritage. Most controversial were the call for racial separatism and the principle of self-defense against white violence. These tenets were contrary to the ideals of more traditional activists who favored racial integration and passive resistance. A leading group within the blackpower struggle was the Black Panthers. Organized in Oakland, California, in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, it included among its members the activist and writer Eldridge Cleaver. Probably the best-known figure within the radical wing of the civil rights movement was Malcolm X. He initially


emerged from the Nation of Islam organization, also known as the Black Muslims, but later split from the group. By the mid-1970s, however, the blackpower movement had faded. It never gained the support of the larger African American populace.

The Movement Legacy As late as 1969, 15 years after Brown, only 1 percent of the black students in the Deep South were attending public schools with whites. After a series of legal cases in the late 1960s, the federal courts finally dismantled segregated schools. They required school districts to implement plans, such as school-district rezoning, that would bring black and white schoolchildren and faculty under one roof. In 1971 the Supreme Court upheld school busing as a viable means of meeting integration goals. By this time — after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968; the rise of black militancy; and discernible gains in black employment opportunities — the civil rights movement had begun losing momentum. Observers maintain that the movement has a mixed legacy. It produced major legislation that reformed American society. It opened up new political, social, and economic opportunities to blacks. Veterans of the movement, however, lament that it fell short of addressing the economic needs of poor Americans. (Credit: Davis, Jack E. “Civil Rights Movement.” Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Grolier Online, 2014.)




left Pittsburgh but Pittsburgh never left me,” Wilson once said. “I have a fierce affection for the Hill District and the people who raised me, who have sanctioned my life and ultimately provided it with meaning.”

One of Pittsburgh’s most historic areas is the Hill District, a collection of neighborhoods located northeast of downtown Pittsburgh. The city’s first black district, this uptown neighborhood was once a mecca of arts and culture, with a strong sense of community. It was known by many names: Little Harlem, Little Haiti and “the crossroads of the world.” However, it was all but lost to urban renewal in the 1950s.

Early History This city within a city was born of the marriage of two catalysts: the desire to have a better life and the demand for steel mill workers as men went off to fight in World War I. Recently-freed black men and women found a home in the Hill and quickly made it their own.

A colorful mural in the Hill District of Pittsburgh honoring August Wilson and his work. (Credit: AP Photo)

The Hill District was formed out of a piece of farmland that was once owned by a grandson of William Penn. The land was later subdivided by Thomas Mellon into smaller

A historic photo of the Hill District in the early 1900s.


the hill district continued

pieces which began the trend of settlement in the region. The area known as the Hill District was settled into three areas known as Haiti (lower hill), Lacyville (middle hill), and Minersville (upper hill). The area known as Haiti was where runaway slaves from the South settled. Lacyville and Minersville were inhabited by mostly German, Scottish and Irish immigrants between 1840 and 1880. After the 1880s more immigrants began to settle in the Hill District from central and eastern Europe. As the steel and related industries began to grow more and more immigrants from Europe settled in the area. Simultaneously southern African Americans migrated from the south with a promise of employment without segregation. Soon the Hill District became a culturally diverse community within Pittsburgh. The ethnic population ranged from Russians, Slovaks, Armenians, Syrians, Lebanese, Greeks, Poles, Chinese and Jews. Because mining and steel mills were among the largest employers almost all of population in the Hill worked in these areas. This time period in the Hill District’s history set a precedent for being culturally diverse while maintaining a strong community connectedness.

A Cultural Icon From the 1930s until the 1950s, the Hill District was known as the “crossroads of the world.” Music, art, culture and commerce thrived in Little Harlem. The Hill boasted the only all-black radio station, its own weekly newspaper (the Pittsburgh Courier), and a vibrantly active jazz scene. The photographer for The Pittsburgh Courier was 40

An original image of the Crawford Grill by Teenie Harris. (Credit: Charlie Teenie Harris)

Teenie Harris, whose work can still be seen today at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Neighborhood nightclub The Crawford Grill boasted such jazz greats as John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie. The owner of the club also owned one of Pittsburgh’s first and only negro league teams, The Pittsburgh Crawfords, which included famous players such as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. African-American entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker even opened a beauty parlor and school in The Hill. It seemed the Hill District was set to become one of the area’s strongest and most vibrant historical communities.

Declining Economy & Urban Renewal After World War II, the housing in the Hill was slated for redevelopment due to aging housing

conditions. The demolition of the Lower Hill in the 1950s and 60s was the largest rebuilding project ever attempted in Pittsburgh up to this point. The Urban Redevelopment Authority was able to undertake such a large project because of a new piece of legislation where funds were able to be used for commercial construction for the first time. Prior to this legislation the funds had to be used for residential construction to deal with the shortage of low-income housing that was a national issue at the time. The lower hill was considered a slum neighborhood although many considered it affordable housing and a “vibrant center of AfricanAmerican business, community institutions, and culture.” However, this process was not planned out well, and the lives of the local people were disrupted as the

renewal got under way. Over 8000 residents (as well as 400 local businesses) were displaced, and the area’s access to the downtown economy was cut off. A new arena and parking lot were built in an area that predominantly black families had once called home. The civil unrest and violence of the late 1960s added fuel to the fire, and soon The Hill had deteriorated into a shell of its former self. The project ultimately destroyed 1,324 buildings, and displaced 1,551 families and 413 businesses. This massive displacement of the African American community rippled out into other communities and was the largest in Pittsburgh history (eight times larger than the 2nd in Pittsburgh history.) By 1990, 71 percent of the community’s residents and a majority of its businesses were gone. Vacant lots and decrepit buildings replaced the colorful and vibrant Hill that had once been such an integral part of the city of Pittsburgh. After the demolition of the lower hill, the Hill District lost its connection to the downtown central business district and became isolated among the neighborhoods. The community started to spiral downward during this time and has yet to recover and be again what it was in the 50s and 60s. The crack epidemic of the 1980s hit the Hill District hard like many deprived African-American communities in America. The population declined as a result from approximately 50,000 in 1950 to 15,000 in 1990. The history of the region plays an enormous role in the character of the community today.

The Hill Today However, the story is far from over. These days, the Hill can be seen garnering local attention as residents both old and young strive to preserve its culture. Public interest groups are working diligently to restore the Hill to its former glory and bring the neighborhood’s residents out of poverty. A new grocery store was finally built in 2013, and both a YMCA and local library have recently joined the community. Newly renovated housing is being built all throughout the district, and a long restoration project is in the works for a historic jazz club. A charter school has also been opened in the area, with great success. As recently as June 2017, a pedestrian park was announced that will connect downtown with the Hill District and celebrate its unique and vibrant history. Despite the struggles of the past, the Hill District is looking toward the future — and we’re all a little bit brighter for it.

For more scholarship on African American urban history, particularly in Pittsburgh, we recommend perusing Trotter and Day’s Race and Renaissance: African Americans in Pittsburgh since World War II.

In what ways is the Hill District similar or dissimilar to the community where you grew up?

(Credit: Pittsburgh Beautiful and Margaret Gibbons)

Have you seen communities change over time? What effect does it have?

Read and view photos in this article about “The Death of a Dream” in the Hill District:

The Hill District became known as a hub of AfricanAmerican culture. Why do you think neighborhoods and places like the Hill District are so important to people’s identity? pittsburghs-hill-district-dream_b_1669867.html

Check out this article to read more about a new reimagined Hill District:


the hill district continued

Wilson’s Hill: A Map (Credit: The August Wilson Education Project)

August Wilson’s great theatrical epic is made up of ten plays, each set in a different decade of the twentieth century, which together dramatize the comedy and tragedy, passions and aspirations of African-American history and culture. All but one of the plays are imagined to take place in Mr. Wilson’s native Hill District, where he primarily lived until he was 33. This map identifies locations that are both fictitious and real. This map is based on a map of the Hill District from 1923 that hangs in the August Wilson Room in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Hill District Branch on Centre Ave.

Map research provided by Pfaffmann + Associates. Site research courtesy of August Wilson: Pittsburgh Places in His Life and Plays by Laurence Glasco, Ph.D. and Christopher Rawson, Ph.D


1. Gem of the Ocean (1904) Aunt Ester’s house, 1839 Wylie Avenue. The most important location in the Pittsburgh Cycle is a faded mansion from the nineteenth century. In Radio Golf, it is described as a “Federalist brick house with a good double-base foundation” with a staircase made of “Brazilian wood with a handcarved balustrade.” 2. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1911) Seth and Bertha Holly’s boarding house, Webster Avenue. The play gives no address, but there are references to “up on Bedford” and “down on Wylie,” and Herald Loomis is seen “standing up there on the corner watching the house…right up there on Manilla Street.” 3. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1927 - Chicago) A recording studio in Chicago, Illinois. “Ma Rainey” was the first of the ten plays to go on Broadway, in 1984. Asked why it is the only play not set in Pittsburgh, Mr. Wilson said, “I was from Pittsburgh, so I thought I needed a more important city.” 4. The Piano Lesson (1936) Berniece and Charles Doaker’s house. The only clue to its location is that Berniece and Avery take young Maretha on a streetcar and drop her at the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House (now Hill House) on their way Downtown. So it must be somewhere east of there. When The Piano Lesson was filmed here for TV in 1994, Shadyside’s Alder Street stood in for the Hill of 1936. Among the many sites in the Hill District mentioned in the play is Diamond’s Five and Ten on Centre. 5. Seven Guitars (1948) Backyard of the house shared by Vera, Louise, Floyd, and Hedley, 1727 Bedford Avenue. This is where Mr. Wilson was born and lived with his family until just before his thirteenth birthday, where his mother and the neighbors would bring out chairs and a radio and play cards. Wilson’s childhood home is now on the National Register of Historic Places. 6. Fences (1957 - 65) Troy and Rose Maxson’s backyard, 1712 Bedford

Avenue. There is no address in the play, but Troy Maxson is based partly on boxer Charlie Burley, who lived at 1712 Bedford. At another time, this house was also the residence of Wilson’s maternal grandmother. 7. Two Trains Running (1969) Memphis’ Diner, on Kirkpatrick between Wylie and Centre. The diner is based on memories of Eddie’s Diner at Wylie and Kirkpatrick, which is nearby, along with Lutz’ Meat Market (Centre and Elmore) and the West Funeral Home (moved from 2216 Centre to 2215 Wylie in 1970). Late in the play, the address given is 1621 Wylie, to honor Mr. Wilson’s mother, who lived her final years at 1621 Bedford. 8. Jitney (1977) Jitney station, southwest corner of Wylie and Erin. This is the site of one of the Hill’s largest jitney stations, and its actual phone number appears in the play. 9. King Hedley II (1985) Backyard of house shared by Ruby, King, and Tonya, 1621 Bedford Avenue. When Mr. Wilson was in Pittsburgh working on the 1999 premiere at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, he said the play was set in the backyard of his mother’s last home at 1621 Bedford. 10. Radio Golf (1997) Bedford Hills Redevelopment office, in a storefront on Centre Avenue, around the corner from Miss Harriet’s chicken joint. That would most likely be in the business district near Devilliers. Harmond Wilks has his real estate office at the corner of Centre and Herron, and he plans to put his mayoral campaign headquarters “in Reese’s old wallpaper and paint store up on the corner of Centre and Kirkpatrick.” 11. Original Carnegie Library 12. Original West Funeral Home 13. Eddie’s Restaurant 14. Irene Kaufmann Settlement House (Hill House) 15. Freedom Corner


THE BLUES What is The Blues? On a lonely night in 1903, W.C. Handy, the African American leader of a dance orchestra, got stuck waiting for a train in the hamlet of Tutwiler, Mississippi. With hours to kill and nowhere else to go, Handy fell asleep on a hard wooden bench at the empty depot. When he awoke, a ragged black man was sitting next to him, singing about “goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog” and sliding a knife against the strings of a guitar. The musician repeated the line three times and answered with his instrument. Intrigued, Handy asked what the line meant. It turned out that the tracks of the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad, which locals called the Yellow Dog, crossed the tracks of the Southern Railroad in the town of Moorehead, where the musician was headed, and he’d put it into a song.

W. C. Handy, known as the “Father of the Blues” 44

It was, Handy later said, “the weirdest music I had ever heard.” That strange music was the blues, although few people knew it by that name. At the turn of the century, the blues was still slowly emerging from Texas, Louisiana, the Piedmont region, and the Mississippi Delta; its roots were in various forms of African American slave songs such as field hollers, work songs, spirituals, and country string ballads. Rural music that captured the suffering, anguishand hopes-of 300 years of slavery and tenant farming, the blues was typically played by roaming solo musicians on acoustic guitar, piano, or harmonica at weekend parties, picnics, and juke joints. Their audience was primarily made up of agricultural laborers, who danced to the propulsive rhythms, moans, and slide guitar.

copies of “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith, the first black female to record a blues vocal. This unexpected success alerted record labels to the potential profit of “race records,” and singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith began to introduce the blues to an even wider audience through their recordings.

Mamie Smith from her historic album “Crazy Blues.”

Ma Rainey

In 1912, Handy helped raise the public profile of the blues when he became one of the first people to transcribe and publish sheet music for a blues song—”Memphis Blues.” Eight years later, listeners snapped up more than a million

As the African-American community that created the blues began moving away from the South to escape its hardscrabble existence and Jim Crow laws, blues music evolved to reflect new circumstances. After thousands of African-American farm

Bessie Smith (Credit: Edward Elcha/Michael Ochs Archives

(Credit: WikiMedia)

workers migrated north to cities like Chicago and Detroit during both World Wars, many began to view traditional blues as an unwanted reminder of their humble days toiling in the fields; they wanted to hear music that reflected their new urban surroundings. In response, transplanted blues artists such as Muddy Waters, who had lived and worked on a Mississippi plantation before riding the rails to Chicago in 1943, swapped acoustic guitars for electric ones and filled out their sound with drums, harmonica, and standup bass. This gave rise to an electrified blues sound with a stirring beat that drove people onto the dance floor and pointed the way to rhythm and blues and rock and roll. In the 1940s and early 1950s, the electrified blues reached its zenith on the radio, but began to falter as listeners turned to the fresh sounds of rock and roll and soul. In the

early 1960s, however, as bands like The Rolling Stones began to perform covers of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, aspiring white blues musicians in the United Kingdom helped resuscitate the genre. In the process, they created gritty rock and roll that openly displayed its blues influences and promoted the work of their idols, who soon toured England to wide acclaim. Although happy to be in demand as performers again, many veteran blues musicians were bitterly disappointed by seeing musicians such as Led Zeppelin get rich by copping the sound of African American blues artists, many of whom were struggling to survive. Today, 100 years after W.C. Handy first heard it, the blues no longer commands the attention it once did; to many young listeners, traditional blues—if not contemporary blues— may sound as strange as it did to Handy. But if they listen closely, they’ll discover a rich, powerful

history of people who helped build America and created one of the most influential genres of popular music. (Credit: PBS)

Listen as the blues progresses in history from the hollers of the field to some of the hot new artists of today in this very comprehensive mixtape. This is a musical journey that is both educational and enlightening.

August Wilson & the Blues Many of Wilson’s plays concern characters interested in music (see “Music” in Major Themes). Additionally, the way in which Wilson writes seems to be heavily influenced by the blues. In 1996, when Seven Guitars premiered on Broadway, Playbill published the following story to highlight the impact that the blues have made on Wilson. A production photo from Seven Guitars, presented as a revival at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2016.

(Credit: Yale Repertory Theatre)

August Wilson and the Power of Blues WILSON PREPARES TO PLAY “SEVEN GUITARS” Special Feature BY SHERYL FLATOW MAR 22, 1996 In Seven Guitars, which opens at Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre March 28, playwright August Wilson tells the story of a blues musician who dies just when he might be on the verge of making it to the big time. Beginning in 1984 with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the first of his cycle of plays to be produced on Broadway dealing with the experiences of black Americans in the twentieth century, and continuing on through Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running and now Seven Guitars, Wilson has enriched the theatre with riveting works in which most of the characters are heard singing the blues figuratively if not necessarily literally. 45

the BLUES continued

Set in 1948, the play unfolds you’re coming from and what your The blues are so much a part of in the backyard of a rooming responses are. The conventional Wilson’s soul that they have shaped house where some friends have play moves along from plot point him as a playwright. The musicality just returned from the funeral of to plot point. In my plays the plot inherent in his work springs, at Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (Keith points are buried in the language, in least in part, from his passion for David). Most of Seven Guitars is the development of the characters. this art form. “I chose the blues an extended flashback recounting But they have to be there; otherwise as my aesthetic,” Wilson says. “I Floyd›s final days. you’d never arrive at the end.” create worlds out of the ideas and the attitudes and the material in the The play has been seen in Chicago, Wilson also uses language as a way blues. I think the blues are the best Boston, San Francisco and L.A. en of conveying a sense of the moment literature that blacks have. It is an route to Broadway. In the Boston in time in which a play occurs. expression of our people and our Herald Iris Fanger wrote that Seven Each of his plays takes place in a response to the world. I don’t write Guitars”is ready to be termed an different decade in this century, about the blues; I’m not influenced American classic.” and it is largely through a few wellby the blues. I am the blues.” chosen words, rather than historical The soft-spoken Wilson is also Wilson, a two-time recipient of the details, that the period emerges. a lyric poet and consummate Pulitzer Prize (for Fences and The storyteller, whose bluesy plays are Piano Lesson), has had propelled by language. a fascination with words Most of his vivid “I don’t do any research other than listen since he began writing characters have the poetry as a teenager. gift of gab, and as they to the blues,” says Wilson. “That tells me sit around talking and everything I need to know, and I go from there.” “It was through writing poetry that I discovered talking and talking their the power of language, compelling, humorous that you could make things happen “I don’t do any research other than and honest conversations lure with language,” he says. “Language listen to the blues,” says Wilson. audiences into their world. On the became a way of concretizing “That tells me everything I need to surface very little seems to happen thought.” know, and I go from there. That’s in a Wilson play, which has led true of every play, even the one in many people to conclude that he is When Wilson was 20 he sent off 1911 [Joe Turner]. What do I know not much concerned about plot. But three poems to a magazine, certain about 1911? Not much. I know anyone who listens carefully soon that the editor would be dazzled they had horses instead of cars, realizes that so much is happening, by his work. “Three days later the so I made sure I had a couple of as emotions, ideas, philosophies, poems came back in the mail, no references to horses. And they used outlooks and beliefs tumble forth. letter, no nothing,” he says. “And words like ‘fella’ and ‘reckon,’ which “I get it all the time, that I don’t I immediately said, ‘These must they wouldn’t say in 1948. I’m not care about plot,” Wilson says. not be any good.’ So I set out to even sure they said that in 1911. “That’s not correct. The language learn how to write poems. It was To my ear that’s the way it would and conversation are the plot. Some nine years before I sent out another be, but it doesn’t matter whether or people say my plays are formless. poem, because I was determined not I’m getting the period exactly. But my plays could not exist, could that they weren’t going to come My plays are ultimately about love, not work, if they were not plotted. back. I haven’t sent out that many honor, duty, betrayal. They’re not If you are looking for a certain kind since then, but they’ve always been about 1911 or 1948.” of play, then what I write is not a published.” ‘real’ play. But that’s based on what Seven Guitars, directed by Wilson’s you understand a play to be. I’m It was in 1965, the year that Wilson long-time collaborator Lloyd sure Picasso came up against the became serious about his poetry Richards, takes place in Pittsburgh, same thing. People looked at his writing, that he also discovered the playwright’s hometown and work and said, ‘What is that? That’s the blues. “I was a poor man, and the locale for most of his plays. not really art.’ It depends on where 46

I bought a record player at a thrift shop for three dollars,” he says. “It only played 78s. The thrift shop also had 78 [rpm] records for a nickel apiece. I would go there every day and buy maybe ten records. I did this for months and had about 2,000 records. They were a virtual history of thirties and forties popular music. “One day in my stack of records I saw this odd-looking, typewritten yellow label. I put on this song called ‘Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine,’ by Bessie Smith. And I heard this woman’s voice that was so strikingly different than anything I’d ever heard. I was stunned, and I listened to it again. And I listened to it again. I listened to it 22 straight times. And I said, ‘This is mine.’ I knew that all the other music I’d listened to wasn’t mine. But this was the lady downstairs in my boarding house she could sing this song. And I began to look at the people in the house in which I lived in a new way, to connect them to the record, to connect that to some history. I claimed that music, and I’ve never looked back.” To hear from Wilson himself about the value of the blues and the impact that it had on his writing, watch this video interview he did with Bill Moyers: https://vimeo.


How does the history of the blues interact with the power of the music itself? Why does Wilson think the blues is such a powerful inspiration for writing plays?

DIY August Wilson Monologue Find a song from the blues, preferably one from Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, or Mamie Smith. Think about what the song is conveying. What are the lyrics talking about? Could there be another, deeper message in their subtext? What emotional qualities does the music itself have? What does the singer’s voice sound like and how does that make you feel? Using this information, write a monologue for the main character in this song. What do they have to say to the world? What are they thinking? What sorts of things bother them, excite them, and keep them up at night? It can be anything, as long as you try to use the song for inspiration – just like August Wilson did! ***Alternatively, if you would like a challenge, pick a monologue from one of Wilson’s plays and try to find a blues song that complements it. Try to match emotional qualities and maybe even you can find a song with lyrics that match text in your monologue.

Use this video excerpt from August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand and the following supplemental materials as a teaching or learning resource, brought to you by PBS LearningMedia.

And listen to this interview he did with Marcie Sillman from the National Public Radio: https://www.npr. org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1700922


For a written interview with Wilson from the African American Review, see: pdf?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents


WILSON LIVES ON (Credit: The Estate of August Wilson)




onnecticut was a place where Wilson grew as an artist and developed many of his plays. His time at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and the Yale Repertory Theatre were crucial to the success of his work, and perhaps most importantly, to his relationship with director Lloyd Richards.

The Eugene O’Neill TheatER Center The Launchpad of American Theater, the O’Neill is the country’s preeminent organization dedicated to the development of new works and new voices for the stage. Founded in 1964 by George C. White and named in honor of Eugene O’Neill, four-time Pulitzer Prize-winner and America’s only playwright to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, the O’Neill has launched some of the most important voices and works in American theatre and has revolutionized the way new work is developed. From its campus in Waterford, Connecticut, the O’Neill has been home to more than 1,000 new works for the stage and thousands more emerging artists. Writers, directors, puppeteers, singers, students, and audiences alike take their first steps in exploring, revising, and understanding their work and the potential of the theatre they help create. All focus remains on the writer and script: Performers work with simply rendered sets and costumes, script in hand, revealing for the first time the magic of a new play or musical, puppetry piece, or cabaret act.

August Wilson at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. (Credit: Eugene O’Neill Theater Center)

Scores of projects developed at the O’Neill have gone on to full production at theatres around the world. Work first performed at the O’Neill has gone on to regional theatres, Broadway, film, and television. Students and professionals who have honed their skills at the O’Neill can be 49


The campus of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. (Credit: Eugene O’Neill Theater Center)

seen in these venues every day across the nation and world. Others work as playwrights, directors, stage management, administration, and hundreds of other roles that the public never sees but are nonetheless essential to every production. August Wilson spent a lot of time at the Eugene O’Neill Theatrer Center and many of his plays developed and began there. It was also where he met his longtime collaborator and mentor, Lloyd Richards. Read this article from BroadwayWorld to get a sneak peek into his time there. BWW-Exclusive-August-Wilson-inWaterford-20150302

August Wilson and Lloyd Richards at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. (Credit: Eugene O’Neill Theater Center)


BWW Exclusive: August Wilson in Waterford by National Theatre Institute Mar. 2, 2015 Tony- and Pulitzer-winning playwright August Wilson developed six plays at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, Seven Guitars, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, and Two Trains Running. In celebration of the PBS American Masters documentary “August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand”, RISK AGAIN! shares excerpts from The O’Neill: Transformation of Modern American Theatre: “Few would deny that August Wilson belongs in the front rank of such figures as Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee. The plays that make up his Century Cycle -- all but one of which take place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District -- offer a sweeping account of the journey of African-Americans over ten decades, one play set in each decade. Wilson consistently credited the National Playwrights Conference (NPC) with giving him the opportunity to find his place. The O’Neill also introduced him to the person he needed to develop his gifts to their fullest [NPC Artistic Director Lloyd Richards]. Critic John Lahr speaks for many when he says, ‘I think Lloyd’s collaboration with August is, along with [Elia] Kazan’s with Tennessee [Williams], the great collaboration of the twentieth century.’” “Wilson’s submission for 1982 was just one of several hundred that arrived in envelopes without

recommendations. Jean Passanante remembers when Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom began to separate itself from the rest of the pack. ‘Every play would get one reading by a freelance reader, and then if it got a certain rating, it would go on to a second reader, and then, if the second reader liked it, it would be brought to Lloyd’s attention, and he would determine that it would be sent to the selection committee. Probably about thirty or forty went to that selection committee. There was some debate about the play. It wasn’t a shoo-in. My sense was that it was possible that it hadn’t been read completely by some of the people because it looked like a telephone book -- it was huge, and the typeface was very small.’ Set in Chicago in the 1920s, the play presents Ma Rainey, a reallife blues singer, and (invented) members of a band assembled for a recording session. The session is disrupted by Ma Rainey’s extravagant behavior and tensions among the musicians. Much of the script is made up of the musicians trading stories of their backgrounds, describing the roads that brought them to the studio, and articulating their hopes. At the play’s end, a young trumpet player named Levee explodes in rage and stabs a fellow player to death. At any rate, this is a summary of the finished play. The manuscript the selection committee evaluated was huge and somewhat shapeless. Michael Feingold recalls the discussion about it. ‘Lloyd was a little cautious at first. August’s plays, with very few exceptions, aren’t linear. And Lloyd came from a traditional mode of drama where you started at the beginning and

went to the end.’ ‘Lloyd reserved a discretionary slot,’ says Passanante. ‘If there was something that was controversial, he gave himself the privilege of putting it through. But that was not the case with Ma Rainey; it was definitely voted in by the majority. But I don’t remember any particular buzz about it at the very beginning.’ In a 1991 interview published on the website of the Academy of Achievement, Richards looked back on the selection of Ma Rainey. ‘[Wilson was] a poet who was in the process of teaching himself to become a playwright at the suggestion of some friends. He was rejected by us five times. . . . He even tells the story that once he didn’t believe that we had really read his play, so he submitted the same play the next year, and it was also rejected. He thought, maybe these people have a point...The important part of that is the fact that August Wilson did not arrive full blown. He was a person who did not, in getting rejected, turn around and say, “Aw, there is something wrong with you,” the rejector. He ultimately accepted the fact that he was in process, and there may have been something wrong with what he was doing, and he had to learn more and he had to do more. He did, and he finally got to that point where his work was accepted for work. Finally, that was when he came to the Playwrights Conference and our relationship began.’ “[ the first table read of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom] Passanante says, ‘There were a lot of sort of eyeball-rolling jokes among the directors and me about how much time this was going to take. The guy 51


didn’t open his mouth. He seemed very, very nervous. He smoked a lot of cigarettes and he held back a little. And the play seemed like it was going to be eight hours long. We were all worried that we were settling in for a long nap’ ‘No one fell asleep,’ says William Partlan. ‘He read with his head down,’ designer (and current NTI design faculty) Skip Mercier remembers. ‘He never made eye contact with anybody.’ Amy Saltz elaborates, ‘There was a podium with a desk. Most people would sit behind it and read. August couldn’t sit still. He would be walking around, and this language would just sweep over the room.’ Passanante says, ‘He almost was in a trance when he was reading it, kind of rocking back and forth on his feet, being all the characters. For everybody in the room it was

utter captivation. People were rapt. “Oh my God, that play is brilliant.”And everybody knew it. Whatever playwright was supposed to read next said, ‘Oh great, now I get to read my play.’ But I think from that moment on everybody knew we were dealing with something really profound.’ Saltz remarks, ‘At the end of the pre-Conference weekend, the playwrights got O’Neill jackets. This particularly affected him. Getting his -- he felt like he was recognized, that he had arrived . . . that he was a playwright.’ When he returned for the full Conference, Wilson quickly came to appreciate what the O’Neill had to offer him. ‘August had started his own theatre and he had had some theatrical experience, but I think he felt that this was a whole new ballgame,’ says Partlan, referring

to Black Horizons on the Hill, a small company Wilson had helped found in Pittsburgh. The ‘whole new ballgame’ was a different standard of professionalism. The value of the O’Neill was not just that it helped him find his play, but also that he began to learn how to be a playwright with claims to craftsmanship.” Read more about how August developed his voice at the O’Neill, what John Patrick Shanley thought about the ending of Fences, the legendary relationship between August Wilson and Lloyd Richards as well as hundreds of other stories from 50 years of theatrical history in The O’Neill: Transformation of Modern American Theatre by Jeffrey Sweet published by Yale University Press in 2014.

New Haven & Yale University

August Wilson and Lloyd Richards on the set of The Piano Lesson at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1987. (Credit: Yale Repertory Theatre)


Wilson’s close relationship with Lloyd Richards eventually brought him to New Haven, Connecticut, where Yale University is located. Richards served as the Dean of the Yale School of Drama and the Artistic Director of the Yale Repertory Theatre from 1979-1991. During his tenure, the theatre increased its emphasis on the production of new plays. Athol Fugard, Lee Blessing, and August Wilson were among the playwrights who premiered their work at Yale Rep during Richards’s leadership. Yale Rep was one of the first resident theatres to regularly transfer serious work to the commercial theatre, developing a model of professional producing that changed the course of new

play development in the American theatre. The Yale Repertory Theatre premiered six of the ten plays in Wilson’s American Century Cycle. New Haven thus became a place that Wilson frequented, a place that was also important for not only the development of his work, but also the development of himself as an artist. Wilson’s play Fences premiered at the Yale Rep in 1985, starring James Earl Jones, already an established actor, in the role of a troubled father. The son was played by then-Yale grad student Courtney B. Vance. Jones recalled, “My favorite moment, for those of you

The Yale Repertory Theatre’s 2016 production of Seven Guitars. (Credit: Yale Repertory Theatre)

Seven Guitars when it premiered in 1995 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The Yale Rep sought out Andrews for their new production of Seven Guitars in 2016.

who know Fences, is when the boy says to his father, ‘Why ain’t you never liked me?’ The father says, ‘Who says I got to like you?’ And he ends up saying, ‘Don’t ever expect anybody to like you.’ And that was better than Shakespeare for me!” Jones went on to win a Tony for Fences when it moved to Broadway. In April 2005, James Bundy, the current Dean and Artistic Director, brought Wilson back to Yale for the premiere of what turned out to be the playwright’s final work, Radio Golf. “The universality of August Wilson’s work comes from the particularity of African-American culture,” explains James Bundy. “The authenticity of voice in all those characters, the specificity of that poetry, speaks to everybody.” Bundy recalls Wilson being at Yale for Radio Golf. The Rep set up an office for him in the theatre building. Wilson’s assistant during the production was a playwriting student named Tarrell Alvin McCraney, now known as the award-winning author of his own African-American dramatic cycle, “The Brother/Sister Plays.” “When

not writing in the theatre,” Bundy says, Wilson “loved to be on Chapel Street, talking to people.” One of Wilson’s collaborators in the first productions of most of his plays was the composer Dwight Andrews. As the resident music director at Yale Repertory Theatre, he worked on the New Haven and New York productions of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Fences and The Piano Lesson. He also created music for

The Yale Repertory Theatre is one of the top regional theatres in the country, and it is most notable for nurturing some of the best talent around, including Meryl Streep, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Giamatti, Angela Bassett, Christopher Durang, and August Wilson. Wilson’s connection with Yale and New Haven was strong and incredibly important in his development as a playwright. Today, this relationship between Wilson and the city is honored through the participation of local high school students in the August Wilson Monologue Competition. Credit: CBS News, Yale School of Drama, Couran

Chapel Street in downtown New Haven, Connecticut is at the intersection of both the Yale and New Haven communities. (Credit: Betsy Grauer Realty, Inc.) 53



ugust Wilson has surely made his mark on the American theatre scene, and since his death in 2005, scholars, critics, and artists have been thinking about the ways in which his legacy lives on. Below are some of the thoughts and projects that have sprung out of Wilson’s legacy.

Denzel Washington On December 25, 2016, a film adaptation of Wilson’s Fences was released, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. The film was also directed and produced by Denzel Washington.

Fences finally found its way to the screen courtesy of the clout of Denzel Washington. The actordirector-producer was nominated as best actor for Fences, reprising a role that brought him a Tony Award for the 2010 revival. At the first screening of Fences in Pittsburgh on Dec. 20, Mr. Washington addressed the audience at the SouthSide Works Cinema with reverent words for the writer: “Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee, August Wilson. August Wilson is not just one of the greatest writers in American history, but in world 54

history. It is a pleasure, an honor, a responsibility and a privilege to bring this to the screen.” When the Oscars were announced, Mr. Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, said in a statement, “I am overjoyed that August’s work is

being recognized, and that millions of people are getting the chance to see Fences! I feel he would be incredibly proud of the love and care that everyone involved, especially Denzel, invested to make this film possible.” Playwright Todd Kreidler, the Duquesne University graduate who for the last six years of Mr. Wilson’s life was his assistant, close friend and dramaturg, said his mentor would, of course, have been thrilled by the four Oscars nominations for Fences. “I’m just so excited that just the scale and impact of a movie can open doors,” Mr. Kreidler said.

“That’s the big thrill about it. My personal mission is to get the plays in the classroom, and now we’ve got a DVD or something to stream.” Washington is a huge fan of Wilson and hopes to produce all ten American Century Cycle plays for the big screen. HBO Films president Len Amato says, “Denzel Washington is incredibly dedicated and passionate about this and he looks at it as not only an artistic endeavor but a mission to bring August Wilson to a place he should occupy as a playwright and, for him, it’s alongside Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Many people know [Wilson’s work] but more people should know it.” The project is still in development and no official plans have been made yet, but Washington’s desire to carry on Wilson’s legacy is a testament to the impact that the playwright has had on the world. Washington speaks a lot about the truth and musical nature of Wilson’s plays, ultimately comparing him to Shakespeare. (Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Watch his interview about Fences and August Wilson with 60 Minutes here:


Read more about the ongoing development and history of film versions of Wilson’s American Century Cycle here:

Jitney on Broadway Jitney was Wilson’s only play to have not appeared on Broadway prior to 2017. On January 19, 2017, the play had its Broadway debut at the Manhattan Theatre Club, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. It won the 2017 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. Manhattan Theatre Club Artistic Director Lynne Meadow recognized Jitney’s late playwright in her acceptance speech. “August Wilson wrote ten plays, one for each decade of the twentieth century to chronicle African-American life and culture,” said Meadow. “Jitney is a shining example of his brilliance and his poetry, his deep insight into the human heart and his belief in the importance of coming together in community to overcome adversity and to celebrate our shared humanity.” The New York Times’ Ben Brantley has bestowed a glowing review on Jitney, saying that the words in “the glorious new production … take on the shimmer of molten-gold notes from the trumpets of Louis and Miles.” After a playwright’s death, there’s usually a hiatus from productions of their work, followed by a comeback of the best of the best. With 10 plays to choose from, that has not been the case for Mr. Wilson. Theatre companies know his lyrical stories of the African-American experience in Pittsburgh are popular with their mostly white audiences and can attract a more diverse audience as well. (Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Broadway. com)

August Wilson Monologue Competition Overall Impact Lots of scholars and artists have speculated at the overall impact that August Wilson has had on the national and international theatrical world. Rachel Shteir, who writes for SLATE, says the following: “Wilson was a necessary playwright. His best work describes a world that few theatre audiences had seen, and it punches holes in common wisdom about race. I saw The Piano Lesson in 1987 at the Yale Repertory Theatre and I remember the Charles family’s tender hijinks over a piano that threatened to destroy them even as it taught them who they were. But there is an enormous unevenness among the plays. For one, at least half are overly long, a fact that some critics attribute to Wilson’s collaborator, Lloyd Richards, the former dean of the Yale School of Drama, who cared less about the length of the first act than the emotional heft of the second one. Consider— to cite just one example—the bloviating King Hedley II, the 1980s installment of the cycle, which I saw at the Goodman Theatre in 2000 and where the first act stretched on for nearly two hours. Another thing: Wilson tries to render the tension of psychological complexity, but he does not always succeed. (Ben Brantley in the New York Times says that Wilson’s characters always behave as you would expect them to, as though this were a virtue.) … Such a position may have been

possible to stake out in the 1960s and 1970s. But today, Wilson’s attitude toward his own audience can grate. In a recent Paris Review interview, he told George Plimpton: “I think my plays offer (white Americans) a different way to look at black Americans. For instance, in Fences they see a garbageman, a person they don’t really look at, although they see a garbageman every day. By looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of the black garbageman’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.” If the humanity of a garbageman is a revelation to anyone, we are in much worse shape than the most apocalyptic social critic thinks. What is Wilson’s legacy? Most of all, his influence. When Wilson started writing the cycle in 1979 (to remind us), you could count the number of mainstream African-American playwrights on one hand. Forty years later, the major American playwrights—the dazzling Suzan Lori Parks, the inestimable Anna Deveare Smith, and the stylish Lynn Nottage, to name three—are African-American. Of course, this is not just Wilson’s doing, but the culmination of other social factors. But Wilson’s example led the way by setting the bar high for other African-American playwrights. (And yet as Wilson would be the first to say, the American theatre, particularly outside of New York, remains overwhelmingly white.)” Phaedra Scott from the Huntington Theatre Company writes about the 55

LEGACY continued

legacy of Wilson’s family and the new legacy he has created, saying:

look at the man behind the revered Century Cycle.

“Holding a legacy is never easy; “My ancestors have been in America since the early 17th century. And for the first 244 years we never had a problem finding a job,” Wilson’s opening words of the play echo truthfully. Wilson acts as a guide for audiences as he unpacks centuries of American history through his life as a young poet in the Hill District, experiences that would ultimately shape the plays within his Century Cycle. He asks the questions, “what is my identity? How can my identity forge my path to the future?” In an era controlled by the media and hashtag social justice movements, How I Learned What I Learned serves as a reminder of the lessons we learn through life that can only be taught by human interaction. What is the legacy that we are able to leave behind?

Wilson’s works are often politicized, but Wilson himself wrote plays with a purely creative intention: “I don’t write particularly to effect social change. I believe writing can do that, but that’s not why I write. I work as an artist. All art is political in the sense that it serves someone’s politics.” Wilson’s work is honest and truthful on levels that stretch beyond race and class. His work encompasses a variety of themes, including love, honor, and duty, themes that universally weave in and out of our daily lives.”

The impact of Wilson’s work has made a lasting mark on American theatre, and opened doors to conversations about the black experience in the United States. Wilson was attracted to the theatre and its potential to reach audiences, no matter the class or race. How I Learned What I Learned is no exception; “I was, and remain, fascinated by the idea of an audience as a community of people who gather willingly to bear witness,” Wilson states. “A novelist writes a novel and people read it. But reading is a solitary act. While it may elicit a varied and personal response, the communal nature of the audience is like having 500 people read your novel and respond to it at the same time. I find that thrilling.” How I Learned What I Learned is an all-encompassing 56

Finally, two of the most famous New York Times theatre critics, Ben Brantley and Wesley Morris, recently wrote an incredible article titled, “What August Wilson Means Now.” You can find their thoughts below. During two improbably fertile decades, starting in the 1980s, August Wilson (1945-2005) wrote a cycle of 10 generationspanning plays portraying AfricanAmerican lives in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. The scope of this accomplishment was matched by the resonant singularity of his voice, which audiences can experience afresh this year, through the film version of Wilson’s Fences and the Broadway debut of his early play Jitney. The New York Times critics Ben Brantley and Wesley Morris sat down to talk about listening to a great chronicler of the 20th century in the second decade of the 21st. BEN BRANTLEY Watching Fences, I was pleased to note how felicitously Denzel Washington, the film’s star and director, acknowledged the importance of speech as the shaper

of the Wilson universe. We hear him (and Stephen McKinley Henderson) speaking before we see them. Enter talking, as it were. How does that language come across to you at this moment, Wesley? Charles S. Dutton, who has appeared in a number of Wilson’s plays, noted that the dialogue didn’t sound like anything he’d ever heard anywhere — not even when he visited Pittsburgh. There’s a sort of Shakespearean heightening of vernacular going on, isn’t there? WESLEY MORRIS There is! But just like with Shakespeare, a good August Wilson actor will pull you all the way through the language so that it sounds utterly natural, and Denzel Washington is a very good August Wilson actor. You’re listening for two things with Wilson, as well as with lots of lyrical playwrights. First, there’s the handsomeness of the language itself, the way he insists that black vernacular is its own grammar. Then, you’re listening to hear what characters are saying to each other. It’s funny with Fences, because so much of it feels earthbound — and not because Troy Maxson (Mr. Washington) and his friend and co-worker Bono (Mr. Henderson) are riding on the back of a garbage truck. It’s because at any moment a regular gripe session can burst into the ethereal. And you’re watching these two actors as well as Viola Davis, who plays Troy’s wife, Rose, and Mykelti Williamson, as Troy’s brother, Gabriel, and you get the sense that saying all of this is a kick because as an actor — but, let’s face it, as a black actor — how often do you get to work with this kind of rich, meaty poetry that’s

also so particular to a people, which is to say so beautifully black? That, I imagine, is both the joy and the stress of doing Wilson. You want to be worthy of the words.

viable, that there could be drama and ideas, and you could have artists as different as Suzan-Lori Parks and Lynn Nottage and Katori Hall and Anna Deavere Smith.

BRANTLEY Absolutely. I can’t think of another American dramatist since Tennessee Williams who writes with the generous lyricism of Wilson. It’s almost as much like the tragedies of ancient Greece as it is like Shakespeare, or perhaps grand opera, even though the characters belong to another social stratum, altogether, from the usual aristocrats of Verdi. Wilson found the divine in the down home. Those are exalted arias he wrote for the characters of Mr. Washington and Ms. Davis, in one of the greatest performances of the year.

There were two black playwrights when I was a schoolkid. Let me rephrase that. There were two black plays: A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry and Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. Classic theatre, on the one hand. Vegetables, on the other. I was too young to know about James Baldwin or Amiri Baraka. I was also too young for the Youngers of Hansberry’s play. But every year we’d read A Raisin in the Sun, out loud. We’d watch some production of it. And I never knew what that play was about — people who have to move out of their house, I guess.

Of course, when Wilson began writing his 10-play cycle in the early 1980s, there wasn’t anything else like it — not only in AfricanAmerican theatre but in American theatre period. (O’Neill tried, but he didn’t get very far, in his transgenerational series of plays.) What sort of doors did that open, do you think, for other African-American dramatists and in the theatre in general? MORRIS A lot of doors. There’s always this assumption that black people should sing and dance in the theatre. And the country’s racial history has kept a perfectly reasonable mode of artistic expression — the musical — warped with self-consciousness. Wilson wrote plays (sometimes about music and that warping), and lots of people saw them, gave them prizes, Tonys even. Gradually, it let producers and money people know that black nonmusical theatre is

Now that I’m grown, A Raisin in the Sun seems like a book of the American bible to me — mad and sad and militant and resigned at the same time. Necessary. At some point, Fences became the third play. It was conversant in the same joy and blues of Hansberry and Ms. Shange. And it was alive in this different way. Wilson was a man writing from his loins. Just as I couldn’t have known as a boy that Raisin is as feminist as For Colored Girls, albeit to very different ends, I also didn’t realize how much Wilson was thinking about masculinity, matriarchy and their respective discontents. Or how much the themes in Hansberry’s work course through Wilson, in something like Radio Golf, which is a real meal of a political play.

especially since Raisin has been so dismissed or at least seen as superannuated by certain members of subsequent generations of artists. (Remember George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum?) One thing that occurred to me encountering Fences again was how much of the anger in Mr. Washington’s character — a garbage man who wanted to be a baseball star — pulsed through Walter Lee Younger in Raisin. Their aspirations are different. But they are both deeply aware of how much their world is shaped by being “underneath” a white ruling class. But to talk about the differences: Walter Lee wants to move into a white suburb with his family. Wilson thought that a vivid and original culture would be lost by AfricanAmericans blending into the white mainstream. That was a subject of Radio Golf, in which he distinguished between “Negroes,” whom he saw as emulating corrupt white capitalists, and “n-words,” to whom he ascribed a greater integrity and authenticity and defiant style. That’s of a piece with his insistence that his plays (and movies) not be helmed by white directors. (That’s one reason it took Fences so long to get to the screen.) He also thought colorblind casting was wrong, that it uprooted AfricanAmericans from their own enriching context. It would be fascinating to have known his take on the work of someone like the contemporary playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who sees the African-American identity as an existential and very mutable question, shaped by selfconsciousness and self-editing.

BRANTLEY We do have to address the Hansberry connection, 57

LEGACY continued

MORRIS So this is the fashionabilty question, right? When does a modern master like Wilson stop being contemporary? Or if you’re a producer: How do you make him contemporary? Blackness is immutable in Wilson’s work — ineffable. So is place. Mr. JacobsJenkins is among a school of meta artists where very little appears to be fixed. Looseness is the idea when it comes to being black, where its consequences could be a burden in a Wilson play. But blackness is a fact. What one does with it, for Wilson, is a different matter. One tension in a Wilson play is how much history (whether it’s the history of racism or of black culture) do we live with in the present and bring with us into the future. What do we keep? What do we sell? Is it crazy to think the younger black postmodernists — these interrogators of blackness, these satirists of race — have an intellectual luxury afforded them by Wilson’s dogged devotion to place and history? What made Wilson such an Olympian figure was that he could fit the whole country in an office or a backyard and make the bigness of his ideas seem life-size. As for what he would have had to say about this mutability matter? I’d like to think he’d probably have written a play about it. BRANTLEY I do think there are playwrights who, while taking advantage of the intellectual luxury you mentioned, are still dealing with the same subjects as Wilson — especially the legacy, and the burden, of black history in this country. That’s certainly been an abiding preoccupation for Suzan-


Lori Parks, whose past haunts the present as enduringly as the slave ghosts in Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. Its spectral presence shows up in so much of her major work, including the Pulitzer Prizewinning Topdog/Underdog (in which two brothers keep re-enacting the assassination of Abraham Lincoln) and her epic-in-progress Father Comes Home From the Wars. What the voices of the dead summoned in a climactic séance of sorts in Gem keep whispering is “Remember me,” and I’d argue that’s an oeuvre-defining message not only in Wilson’s work but also in that of Ms. Parks and, for that matter, the essays of Ta-Nehisi Coates. No one now believes, even after Barack Obama’s two-term presidency, that we’re living in a post-racial society. Most of the writers descended from Wilson, no matter how different their styles, would agree that you can’t begin to deal with the present without remembering a past that has never been (and may never will be) come to terms with. MORRIS So true, Ben. If anything, we’re living in a most racial society — some of us are just a little more “most” than others. We’re in a time of identity-first culture, a time in which those identities are being pitted against one another for political sport. That’s also because it’s a fundamental aspect of who we are as a nation. And all of these artists, including and especially George C. Wolfe, explore the legacy of that.

What I’ve come to love about Wilson is how much tradition meant to him. His most agitated characters breach or exploit it. Others are trying to uphold some notion of legacy without it crushing them. I’m thinking of The Piano Lesson and Two Trains Running, and Fences, the play more than film, which bypasses a lot of the play’s psychological underpinnings. Dayto-day work and day-to-day struggle operate in complete awareness of the larger African-American experience of work and struggle. That’s cultural tradition. That’s racial heritage. BRANTLEY A couple of contemporary writers we didn’t mention, who I think are in their way in the Wilson tradition: Dominique Morisseau, who did a pulsing cycle on Detroit, and curiously, Tarell Alvin McCraney (who wrote the work on which the Golden Globe-winning movie Moonlight is based). His “Brother/ Sister” plays are postmodern in their formal self-consciousness but combine the spiritual and the material in the way that Wilson does — giving a superhuman dimension to a very specific everyday reality. He, by the way, was an assistant to Wilson on Radio Golf, and I love a quote that Mr. McCraney gave about him in an interview: “August’s work is great and I love it. But I also thought, there’s room for me. As Alvin Ailey said: ‘All stories are old. The only thing that’s new is you.’” AW

(Credit: The Estate of August Wilson)





Issuu converts static files into: digital portfolios, online yearbooks, online catalogs, digital photo albums and more. Sign up and create your flipbook.