August Wilson’s American Century Cycle
By Fiona Kyle, Dramaturg
August Wilson, born Frederick August Kittel, Jr., was born in 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He grew up on Bedford Avenue, in an area known as the “Hill District.” Facing racism at school, he left school and educated himself at the local library and by absorbing the stories he heard from the citizens of the Hill District at coffee shops and at a cigar store called Pat’s Place. Wilson began writing poetry and submitted to Harper’s and other magazines. Along with friends, Wilson founded a theater in 1968 where he directed and acted although he had no experience in either. It wasn’t until he left Pittsburgh for St. Paul, Minnesota, that he started writing plays. Although always critical of his hometown—“Pittsburgh is a very hard city, especially if you’re black,” he once said—Wilson missed it and channeled the voices he recalled into the plays that would become part of the American Century Cycle, nine of which are set in the Hill District.
Considered “Little Harlem” through the 1930’s to the 1950’s, the Hill District was an elite African-American neighborhood that had a vibrant jazz scene. In the 1950’s, 8,000 people were displaced to make way for the Civic Arena, which caused a downturn in the district. Following the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, the racial tensions that had been building erupted into riots. Over the years, the once vibrant area further descended into crime and poverty; today there are attempts at renewal in the Hill. This is the troubled area which inspired Wilson’s ambitious American Century Cycle.
The American Century Cycle features ten plays that are each set in a different decade in the 20th Century. The cycle begins with Gem of the Ocean, followed by Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Fences, Two Trains Running, Jitney, King Hedley II, and Radio Golf. Wilson did not write the plays in chronological order; the first play in the cycle, Jitney, was written in 1982 and the final play, Radio Golf, in 2005. The plays are thematically linked and some share characters at different stages in their lives. The cycle explores African-American identity and history by focusing on the microcosm of the Hill District.
Nine of the plays of the American Century Cycle were produced on Broadway—Jitney will make its Broadway debut in 2017. Of those nine, all received Tony Award nominations for Best Play. Fences won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1987 as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Wilson won his second Pulitzer for The Piano Lesson in 1990. The first of August Wilson’s cycle seen at Hartford Stage was Fences, directed by Jonathan Wilson in the 2006–7 season. More recently, our previous Associate Artistic Director, Hana S. Sharif, directed Gem of the Ocean in the 2010–11 season. This month, The Piano Lesson, will make its first appearance at Hartford Stage under the direction of Jade King Carroll.