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O'Reilly Theater: Charting 20th century black America

Sunday, December 05, 1999

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

August Wilson makes invigorating comedy and heart-churning tragedy out of the ongoing human drama. But beyond that, he has had the daring to erect his plays on an epic scaffold, the century-long development of African-American identity.

  The cast of "King Hedley II," which will have its professional premiere at the Public Dec. 15. Front: Ella Joyce, Mel Winkler, playwright August Wilson, Marlene Warfield, Charles Brown; rear: Tony Todd, Russell Andrews, director Marion Isaac McClinton.

Some might have called it folly or even effrontery, considering that his improbably grand design of a play set in each decade of the 20th century was already in place when his first play hit the national consciousness. When "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" debuted in 1983, several others were already in various stages of gestation. Within less than a decade, five of the planned series had been produced on Broadway, each winning the best play award of the New York Drama Critics Circle.

When he was in Pittsburgh filming "The Piano Lesson" in 1994, he said "Seven Guitars" would complete the sequence from the 1910s through the 1970s (he was already counting "Jitney" as his '70s play, even though it had lain dormant for a decade). "Then I have the '80s and '90s," he added. But as to the century's first decade, "I don't start counting with zero; I start with one -- 1911."

Since then, he's expanded his plan. "Jitney" was rewritten and revived at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, "King Hedley II" fills the '80s slot, and Wilson now plans to write both '90s and '00s plays to complete a 10-play cycle that few would have dared imagine, let alone pulled off.

In building this sequence dramatizing the glory, anger, promise and frustration of being black in the American 20th century, Wilson has created a world of the imagination -- August Wilson's Hill -- to rank with Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha, Hardy's Wessex or Friel's Donegal. August Wilson Country is not just the Hill as it is now or was when he grew up in the '50s, but the archetypal Northern urban black neighborhood, a construct of frustration, nostalgia, anger, grit and dream.

As the Post-Gazette said in June, this isn't a history we entirely enjoy, because it's shot through with as much injustice and futility as survival and triumph, but it's ours to experience and acknowledge. Wilson's passion and insight speak eloquently across the great American racial divide.

Wilson's map of 20th-century black America looks like this:

1910s: "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" (set in 1911 Pittsburgh boarding house); first professional production, 1986; first Broadway production, 1988; first Pittsburgh production at Public Theater, 1989.

1920s: "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (1927 Chicago recording studio); professional premiere, 1984; Broadway, 1984; Kuntu Repertory Theatre, 1987.

1930s: "The Piano Lesson" (1936 Hill home); professional premiere, 1989; Broadway, 1990; tour arrived in Pittsburgh, 1992.

1940s: "Seven Guitars" (1948 Hill backyard); professional premiere, 1995; Broadway, 1996; Public, 1997.

1950s: "Fences" (Hill backyard, 1957-58 and 1963); professional premiere, 1985; Broadway, 1987; Public, 1989.

1960s: "Two Trains Running" (1969 Hill diner); professional premiere, 1990; Broadway, 1992; Public, 1994.

1970s: "Jitney" (1977 jitney taxi office on Hill [originally set in 1971]); professional premiere at Allegheny Repertory Theater, 1982-83; revised at Public, 1996; due off-Broadway this spring.

1980s: "King Hedley II" (1985 Hill, vacant lot between two houses); professional premiere at Public Theater, Dec. 15, 1999.

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