From the day "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" burst onto Broadway in 1984, August Wilson had a grand plan for an unprecedented cycle of plays, one set in each decade of the 20th century, about the struggles, aspirations, comedy and tragedy of black America.
Now Washington's Kennedy Center is surveying the epic result, taking a chronological journey through all 10 plays, Tuesday through April 6, with staged readings featuring all-star casts and directors with long experience in the Wilson canon.
But the math is unforgiving: 10 plays over five weeks with eight performances a week works out to just four performances of each play. Since the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater has just 500 seats, those who hope to partake had better act quickly. You could see as many as three or four plays on one weekend, but some are already sold out.
"There can never be enough seats for all who want to come," says the cycle's artistic director, Kenny Leon, who directed Wilson's final two plays on Broadway. But he believes "August Wilson's 20th Century" will shine a powerful light on Wilson's genius vicariously, even from afar, as the Kennedy Center audience discovers "how the plays talk to each other, generations speaking to generations."
Wilson's widow and the guardian of his legacy, Constanza Romero, trusts audiences will realize that these are just readings, but she believes that "being heard in series, the through-line of this amazing oeuvre will show that his masterpiece is not one play, but all 10 plays."
She calls this half of a "double celebration," pairing it with the recent publication of the handsome boxed set of the 10 plays, called the "August Wilson Century Cycle."
- See an interactive map that shows the probable locations of August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle and listen to short excerpts from all 10 plays.
- The 10 plays of the Pittsburgh Cycle in brief sumaries.
- August Wilson: a biographical timeline, 1945-2005.
- Master index to a decade of August Wilson coverage in the Post-Gazette.
The plays are also sometimes referred to as the Pittsburgh Cycle, since all but one are set in the playwright's native Hill District. Appropriately, joining Leon as associate artistic director of this huge undertaking is a former Pittsburgher, Todd Kreidler, Wilson's dramaturgical associate for his final three plays. Kreidler will also direct Wilson's favorite play, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone."
Kreidler, who started out as Eddie Gilbert's assistant at the Pittsburgh Public Theater and directed its Young Company shows, later directed Wilson in his solo "How I Learned What I Learned." But he says he never expected Leon would ask him to direct, and he didn't want to revisit "King Hedley," "Gem" or "Radio Golf," on which he worked with Wilson so long and intimately.
"But when Kenny asked me to direct 'Joe Turner,' I was overwhelmed," Kreidler says. He recalls Wilson's calling it the play where he discovered "you can write above your talent."
Kreidler endorses Leon's and Romero's point about laying the plays end to end to see if the whole is even greater than the sum of its magnificent parts: "People ask, 'What have you found out?' But I don't know -- that's the point of this festival, to gather everybody and put the texts down center and look at them. ... August was always personally into how to demonstrate the scale of something -- weight, size, number. Putting all the plays together in a month, it should be breathtaking to see the variety."
On Broadway, the plays came along every three or four years, and many noted what they have in common. "But, my God! There's no two really alike dramaturgically," Kreidler says. "You start to appreciate a master dramatist, not only a master poet."
Leon says the Pittsburgh Cycle "demands a festival of its own to bring attention to the magnitude of Wilson's genius." He calls Pittsburgh its essential setting, not just because a playwright should write what he knows, "rooted in truth," but because Pittsburgh forms "a perfect bridge between North and South" from which Wilson could observe the ongoing African-American diaspora.
"It's working class, the Steelers, authentic people," says the artistic director. "It doesn't have other baggage. New York, on the other hand, would be wrong, it's about too much."
The creative team at Kennedy Center includes David Gallo, whose unit set will feature a stage portal and rear curtain both paying tribute to the Hill, along with Reggie Ray (costumes), Allen Lee Hughes (lighting) and Dwight Andrews (music supervision).
The other directors are Pitt grad Derrick Sanders; Lou Bellamy of St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre, which pioneered Wilson's work in the 1980s; Gordon Davidson, who produced his work at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum and on Broadway; Israel Hicks, who directed "The Piano Lesson" at the Public; and Ruben Santiago-Hudson, also a noted Wilson actor.
Casting has been difficult, complicated by the size of the undertaking, by competing commitments multiplied by the end of the writers' strike and by the unusual schedule, with just two days of rehearsal for each play and scattered dates.
Two of the greatest Wilson stars had to drop out. Charles Dutton, the original Levee ("Ma Rainey's Back Bottom") and Boy Willie ("The Piano Lesson"), was to have played Troy in "Fences" but dropped out, citing a movie conflict. And Phylicia Rashad, who was to reprise her Aunt Ester in "Gem of the Ocean," will be busy on Broadway in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
But the Wilson repertory company runs deep. Replacing Rashad will be CMU grad Michele Shay, who has already played Aunt Ester in Seattle under Rashad's direction. And replacing Dutton in "Fences" will be Lou Gossett Jr., who may be best known as an Oscar-winning film star but has 10 Broadway shows to his name.
Supporting Gossett will be three Pittsburghers: Homestead's Tamara Tunie and Montae Russell as Rose and Lyons and the Hill's Bill Nunn as Bono. Russell will also appear in "Joe Turner" and "Jitney," and Nunn in "Piano Lesson."
Keith David, familiar to Pittsburgh from the Public Theater and Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival, will play Bynum in "Joe Turner" and reprise his Broadway role as Floyd in "Seven Guitars." Roger Robinson, who appeared several times at the Public, will appear in "Jitney," and Rosalyn Coleman, in "Joe Turner" and "Ma Rainey."
In other casting highlights, "Gem" will feature five of its seven Broadway originals and "Radio Golf," four of its five, including, in each case, James A. Williams, John Earl Jelks and Anthony Chisholm. Jelks will do four plays in all.
Among the most famous roles, in addition to reprising Caesar in "Gem," Santiago-Hudson will play Boy Willie in "Piano Lesson." Russell Hornsby will lead "Joe Turner" and "King Hedley" as Loomis and Hedley.
One of the key Wilson veterans, Stephen McKinley Henderson, will play central roles in "Piano Lesson," "Two Trains" and "King Hedley," but he will not reprise his magnificent Turnbo from the award-winning "Jitney" cast that started at the Pittsburgh Public Theater in 1996 and swept on through New York and London. But Paul Butler and Anthony Chisholm will be back as Becker and Fielding.
That's just the tip of the iceberg. The 77 Wilson roles (55 male and 22 female) should be well accounted for.
Post-Gazette theater editor Christopher Rawson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1666. This article draws on his essay on August Wilson's Hill District in the Kennedy Center's February Playbill.