Want to Learn More About August Wilson? Start Here!
Whether this is your first experience with August Wilson, or you’re already familiar with the playwright and his groundbreaking work, there’s always more to learn about Wilson’s life, process, influences, and place in theatre history.
Follow this guide to discover the artists who shaped Wilson’s voice, how Wilson created his one-of-a-kind characters, what critics think of his plays, and more!
The American Century Cycle
The best place to start for those new to August Wilson is The American Century Cycle. Also known as The Pittsburgh Cycle, Wilson’s series of ten plays depicts African-American life during each decade of the 20th century. All of the plays within the Cycle are available online, at major bookstores, and your local library:
- Gem of the Ocean: August Wilson’s Century Cycle begins in 1904, where we meet Citizen Barlow, a bewildered newcomer to Pittsburgh from the agrarian deep South. Citizen Barlow arrives at Aunt Ester’s house seeking her help and a safe place from Caesar, the local constable. Aunt Ester, now 285 years old, takes him on a journey of self-discovery to the City of Bones, a city in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Here he makes startling discoveries and his sense of duty leads to his redemption.
- Joe Turner’s Come and Gone: Set in 1917. The story of Harold Loomis, who returns to Pittsburgh in search of his wife. He is haunted by the memory of bounty hunter Joe Turner, the man who had illegally enslaved him. Loomis is unable to fully embrace or release the past. His search brings him to Seth and Bertha’s boarding house with his young daughter, Zonia, where “conjure man” Bynum shows him that he really is searching for himself.
- Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Set in a Chicago recording studio in early March 1927. Female blues singer Ma Rainey lives and works under the pressure of a music business that abuses and victimizes its black artists.
- The Piano Lesson: Set in Pittsburgh in 1936. Boy Willie has come to his uncle’s house to retrieve a piano that holds significant historical and sentimental value to the family. A battle ensues over the possession of the piano, which carries the legacy and opportunities of the characters and determines the choices they must make.
- Seven Guitars: Set in post-war Pittsburgh in the 1940s. We sort through the plight of Black American men who fought and died in WWII, who now return home to find they must confront the same inequities they’d faced before they left. Blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton returns from a 90-day stretch in the county jail with a recording contract in his pocket and a plan to take his woman and his band to Chicago, but the backyard that serves as his office, social club and romantic getaway seems haunted; and his eccentric neighbor, Hedley, who teeters between wisdom and madness, is destined to bring Floyd’s dreams of success to an end.
- Fences: Troy Maxson is a garbage collector who prides himself on his ability to provide for his family and keep it together. He is the patriarch and central character in Fences, (1950-1965), he continually places barriers between himself and the very people he loves the most. Troy’s rebellion and frustration set the tone for this play as he struggles for a sense of fairness in a society that offers none. He and his son clash over their conflicting views of what it means to be a black man in mid-century America.
- Two Trains Running: Two Trains Running examines the possibilities of securing the American dream in a 1960s northern urban ghetto. Memphis Lee, his neighbors, and his restaurant’s patrons stand on the precipice of urban renewal. They consider the prospects for surviving this change with their history and cultural identity intact as the existence of their community is in jeopardy. Sterling – a young, politicized ex-con – has just been released from prison and insists on righting an injustice committed years earlier.
- Jitney: The 1970s are the background for Jitney. In this story, Pittsburgh’s gypsy cab drivers fight to save their business and retain their livelihood and are pitted against a world that wants to tear down the inner city for redevelopment. Becker, a well-respected man in his sixties is reunited with his son Booster, after Booster’s release from jail. A difficult relationship between father and son again points out how each generation confronts the world in his own way rather than building on the struggles of those who came before him.
- King Hedley II: Set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1985. In the backyard of a neighborhood now completely blasted by decay and urban blight, King Hedley II, with a warrior spirit but no education or prospects, daydreams with his friend Mister about opening a Kung Fu video rental store using the money they make selling stolen refrigerators. Aunt Ester has died, the Hill District is without commercial or spiritual resources, and King’s dreams are doomed to a violent end in Wilson’s darkest and most symbolic play.
- Radio Golf: August Wilson’s last play is also the last play chronologically in the American Century Cycle. The play centers on Harmond Wilks, a man who discovers both himself and the place that birthed him at a crossroads. On the verge of an almost-guaranteed win as a mayoral candidate, Wilks finds his identity shaken when his morals and ideals are questioned by those around him. Ultimately, he must recognize the price of his success and decide whether he is willing to pay it.
After the plays, check out these sources where Wilson talks about his work:
- Jackson Bryer, Conversations With August Wilson
- August Wilson, The Ground Upon Which I Stand – available for free online
August Wilson: His Influences and His Influence
How did Wilson accomplish one of the masterworks of American theatre – the 10-play Century Cycle? Who were his influences and how does he influence the next generation of artists and audiences? Watch this interview with Kevin Jones and Chantal DeGroat, hosted by Bonnie Ratner.
Critical Studies of Wilson’s Work
- Christopher Bigsby, The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson
- Harold Bloom, Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: August Wilson
- Mary Bogumil, Understanding August Wilson
- Keith Clark, Black Manhood in James Baldwin, Ernest J. Gaines, and August Wilson
- Harry Elam, The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson
- Marilyn Elkins, August Wilson: A Casebook
- Laurence Glasco, August Wilson: Pittsburgh Places in His Life and Plays
- Joan Herrington, I Ain’t Sorry for Nothin’ I Done: August Wilson’s Process of Playwriting
- Shamal Hussein, The Image of Man in Selected Plays of August Wilson
- Alan Nadel, May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson
- Alan Nadel, August Wilson: Completing the Twentieth-Century Cycle
- Kim Pereira, August Wilson and the African-American Odyssey
- Sandra Shannon, The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson
- Mary Ellen Snodgrass, August Wilson: A Literary Companion
- Dana Williams, August Wilson and Black Aesthetics
- The Piano Lesson, 1995 film starring Charles Dutton, Alfre Woodard, and Courtney Vance
- Fences, 2016 film starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis
The 4 B’s
In many interviews and prefaces, Wilson refers to the influence of the “4 B’s” on his work: the blues (especially as sung by Bessie Smith, “The Empress of the Blues”); the writing of Amiri Baraka and Jorge Luis Borges; and the paintings of Romare Bearden. Sometimes the list is expanded to six by adding the work of James Baldwin and Ed Bullins.
Selected Works and Resources
Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones):
- Dutchman and The Slave
- The System of Dante’s Hell
- Blues People
- Black Music
- Black Fire
- Four Black Revolutionary Plays
- A History of African-American Artists
- Mary Campbell, Memory and Metaphor: The Art of Romare Bearden 1940-1987
- Mary Corlett, From Process to Print: Graphic Works by Romare Bearden
- Ruth Fine, The Art of Romare Bearden
- Ruth Fine, Romare Bearden: American Modernist
- Carla Hanzal, Romare Bearden: Southern Recollections
- Richard Powell, Conjuring Bearden
- Sally Price, Romare Bearden: The Caribbean
- Romare Bearden Foundation, Romare Bearden in the Modernist Tradition
- Myron Schwartzman, Romare Bearden: His Life and Art
- Frank Stewart, Romare Bearden
Jorge Luis Borges:
- Five Plays
- New Plays From the Black Theatre
- The Duplex
- Four Dynamite Plays
- The Theme Is Blackness
- The Hungered One
This list of resources was provided by Pancho Savery, professor of English & Humanities at Reed College. Prof. Savery has taught Wilson’s American Century Cycle to students for more than eighteen years, and is one of Oregon’s foremost scholars of African-American literature.