RUBY: That's the longest hill I ever seen. I can't be walking up these hills getting all them muscles in my legs.
CANEWELL: For your information, in case you ain't figured it out yourself, this here is called the Hill District.
-- August Wilson, "Seven Guitars," set in 1948
The lower Hill, for decades Pittsburgh's colorful crossroads and melting pot of ethnic groups, disappeared in the massive urban reconstruction of the late 1950s. But it lives on with vivid immediacy in the imaginative life of the plays of native son August Wilson.
This week Pittsburgh gets to sample these plays' dramatic legacy of comedy and drama in "August in August," a showcase of excerpts from all 10 plays of Mr. Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle, presented by a cast drawn from Pittsburgh and Broadway. The showcase revives a Pittsburgh tradition that flourished previously in 2004-06, packing the Byham Theater.
The cycle of 10 plays, one set in each decade of the 20th century, is an achievement unmatched in American theater. Except for the first play, set in 1920s Chicago (it was Mr. Wilson's first play on Broadway, and he said, "I was from Pittsburgh, so I thought I needed a more important city"), the plays are all set in the homes, boarding houses, offices, diners, shops and dusty backyards of the Hill.
The Broadway veterans who will lead the cast of "August in August" are Anthony Chisholm and Stephen McKinley Henderson. Mr. Chisholm's Wilson plays on Broadway were "Two Trains Running," "Gem of the Ocean" and "Radio Golf," plus "Jitney," which played at a big off-Broadway theater and went on to London to win the Olivier Award, the equivalent of the Tony.
Mr. Henderson's Wilson plays on Broadway were "King Hedley II," the revivals of "Fences" opposite Denzel Washington and "Ma Rainey" opposite Whoopi Goldberg, and that same "Jitney."
These two experienced Wilson hands are what the playwright called, in his greatest praise, "Wilsonian warriors." But so, in Pittsburgh terms, is another participant, Sala Udin, a childhood and young adult friend of the playwright. Best known as a Pittsburgh city councilman and before that a community organizer, Mr. Udin also is a professional actor who acted in the premiere of "Jitney" here in 1982. At the Pittsburgh Public Theater he did "Two Trains Running," and he has done other Wilson plays at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre.
Mr. Udin also appeared in those earlier versions of "August in ...," staged first as "August in February" (2004 and 2006) and "August in April" (2005). In 2006, he reduced famous guest emcee James Earl Jones to tears doing the father-son showdown scene from "Jitney," in the part originally written by his playwright friend for him to play.
The "August in ..." showcase achieves its destined scheduling by appearing in August. It also achieves its destined home. Although it first appeared at the 1,200-seat Byham and several times filled it nearly to the brim, it now takes up residence in the Center for African American Culture named for the playwright, with its more intimate 486-seat theater.
Other out-of-town actors in this year's cast are Antonio Fargas (best known on TV as Huggy Bear on "Starsky and Hutch" and Doc on "Everybody Hates Chris") and Andrea Frye (a leading actor at regional theaters throughout the country). Contributing some of the few white characters in Mr. Wilson's plays will be David Conrad.
Young winners of the August Wilson Monologue Contest and members of the August Wilson Center Theatre Ensemble complete the cast.
Scenes will be directed by the center's artistic director of theater initiatives, Mark Clayton Southers, who created the "August in ..." series in 2004 for his Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre and produced it at the Byham in association with Janice Burley Wilson, vice-president for education and community engagement of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.
Now, for the first time, Mr. Southers promises the showcase will include scenes or monologues from all 10 plays of the Pittsburgh Cycle, taking the audience on a full, century-long journey.
Based on the rewarding experience of its earlier years, the "August in ..." series now has a chance to reestablish itself as an essential stop on Pittsburgh's annual theater calendar.
Senior Post-Gazette theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.