August Wilson and The Century Cycle
By Jered Bellot
It was a keynote address that sent shock waves through the theater industry.
Playwright August Wilson stood before an audience at the Theatre Communications Group National Conference (June 1996) and declared: “I am what is known, at least among the followers and supporters of the ideas of Marcus Garvey, as a ‘race man.’ That is simply that I believe that race matters—that it is the largest, most identifiable and most important part of our personality.”
Wilson, who had already come to be known as one of the most influential playwrights of the 20th century, made it clear that he was unable and unwilling to separate his Blackness from his artistry—and offered a sharp indictment of an industry that too often underfunded Black theater and overlooked Black stories.
Wilson demanded the opportunity for Black artists to practice self determination, and in the process, rooted his body of work in the complicated and oft-unspoken history of Black experience in America. Using the ground as a central metaphor, he stated, “I stand myself and my art squarely on the self-defining ground of the slave quarters and find the ground to be hallowed and made fertile by the blood and bones of the men and women who can be described as warriors on the cultural battlefield that affirmed their self-worth.”
Early Life and Inspiration
August Wilson (born Frederick August Kittel Jr.) was born on April 27, 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the fourth child of Daisy Wilson, a Black housekeeper, and Frederick August Kittel Sr., a German immigrant who left the family when Wilson was a child. Wilson grew up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a historically Black neighborhood and cultural hub for African American businesses and artists that would later become the setting for many of his plays.
Wilson’s mother remarried in 1958, and the family relocated to the predominantly white neighborhood of Hazelwood. As a mixed race child in a predominantly white space, Wilson often grappled with his own racial identity and struggled to fit in with his peers, as he was one of just 14 Black students. In Hazelwood, Wilson and his family were frequent targets of racial threats and harassment, including an incident that led Wilson to quit school at age 15 after being accused by his teacher of having plagiarized a paper.
After leaving school, Wilson committed to self-education, spending time at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and returning to the Hill District to learn from the community there. Wilson became involved with the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s; in 1968, he became the cofounder and director of Pittsburgh’s Black Horizons Theatre.
He was deeply inspired by what he referred to as “my four Bs”: poet Jorge Luis Borges, playwright Amiri Baraka, painter Romare Bearden, and, most significantly, the blues. For Wilson, the blues represented not only “the best literature we have,” but a sense of connection and rootedness to the ancestors that came before and a language of the Black community that was entirely unique.
The Century Cycle
The defining project of Wilson’s playwriting career—‘The Century Cycle’ (also sometimes referred to as ‘The Pittsburgh Cycle’) is a series of ten interconnected plays documenting the history, culture and lived experiences of African Americans over the 20th century. Staged over the course of three decades, and completed just before the author’s death in 2005, The Century Cycle offers an articulation of Black traditions as told through the evolution of a single neighborhood over generations. All of the plays (save for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which is set in Chicago) take place in the Hill District, the same neighborhood that Wilson grew up in, with each play set in a different decade of the 20th century.
Wilson says of his work,: “I wanted to place this culture on stage in all its richness and fullness and to demonstrate its ability to sustain us all in areas of human life and endeavor and through profound movements of our history in which the larger society has thought less of us than we have thought of ourselves” (The New York Times, 2000). While the plays are not connected in the sense that they don’t tell a single, serialized story, they do share a common set of roots and speak to one another on an emotional and spiritual level.
Characters reappear at different stages in their lives, past and future ancestors are featured in various plays, and locations are echoed and revisited.
In The Century Cycle, Wilson chooses to focus on characters and stories that represent everyday, working class Black people. Grounding the plays in what he describes as “what I felt were the most important issues confronting black Americans for that decade,” Wilson manages to illuminate larger historical patterns and trends—the trauma of slavery, racial harassment, red lining, gentrification, stagnant wages, the pursuit of the American dream—through small interactions of daily life. Drawing on a rich African American literary tradition, the plays in The Century Cycle also feature spiritual and supernatural elements juxtaposed against the naturalism of their urban backdrops.
Wilson believed deeply that Black theater, like the Black experience, is unique and distinct, and therefore insisted that his plays only be produced by theaters that would hire Black directors and designers. While this meant that a number of predominantly white theaters had not developed relationships with Black artists were unable to stage Wilson’s work, he stood by his belief that “[Black people] cannot allow others to have authority over our cultural and spiritual products.” In doing so, Wilson helped to provide work for Black theater makers largely ignored in the American theater and ensure that his stories were told by those who shared the experience of being Black in America.
While many theaters have produced plays from The Century Cycle, Goodman Theatre was the first theater in the world to produce the entire cycle of plays in productions that spanned from 1986 to 2007. Chuck Smith’s 2022 production of Gem of The Ocean marks only the second time the Goodman has revisited Wilson’s work after Two Trains Running (also directed by Chuck Smith in 2015).
Legacy & Impact
Widely celebrated during his lifetime, Wilson received numerous honors and awards during his career—including, notably, a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for Fences, a second Pulitzer for The Piano Lesson, as well as seven New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards for best play. Two weeks after his death in 2005, Broadway’s Virginia Theatre was renamed the August Wilson Theatre, the first Broadway theater to bear the name of an African American.
Wilson’s legacy is undeniable. Between the years of 1959, when Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun premiered on Broadway, and 1984, when Wilson debuted with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Cort Theatre, not a single play penned by a Black playwright managed to find success on Broadway. However, Wilson’s critical and commercial success helped to usher in a new era for many Black artists who had previously been unable to gain traction. His work created opportunities for artists such as Kenny Leon, Samuel L. Jackson, Courtney B. Vance, Angela Bassett, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Laurence Fishburne, Suzan-Lori Parks, Lynn Nottage and Charles Smith, all of whom who have gone on to create legacies in their own regard.
But has the American Theater met the challenge issued by Wilson in his “The Ground on Which I Stand” keynote speech? Has the American Theater, in the past 25 years, created the space for Black artists to practice self-definition? Not quite. While every new play on Broadway this past fall was written by a Black playwright, the industry at large is still grappling with complicated questions around systemic racism, representation and equity among artists. Many Black theater artists and companies still struggle to remain financially sustainable. While there are more Black theater artists than ever before carving out for themselves lives in the theater, still Black artists must fight against an industry rooted in the tenets of white supremacy to, in the words of Wilson himself, “Let us be the catalysts of our future and our images. Let us be the custodians of our culture, of when it’s dispersed, how it’s dispersed, when it’s disseminated, and to whom.”
We must keep fighting forward to build a more solid foundation for the ground on which we stand.
Jared Bellot is the dramaturg for Gem of the Ocean.