After writing his third play, August Wilson realized he was developing something quite monumental. He had created three different plays set in three different decades, detailing the hopes and struggles of African-Americans. In the early 1980s, he decided that he wanted to create a cycle of ten plays, one play for each decade.
Collectively, they would become known as the Pittsburgh Cycle -- all but one take place in the city's Hills District. August Wilson's 10 play series is arguably one of the finest literary achievements in contemporary drama.
Although they were not created in chronological order, here is a brief synopsis of each play, organized by the decade each one represents. Note: Each of the links connects to an informative New York times review.
Gem Of the Ocean:
Set in 1904, a young African-American named Citizen Barlow, like many others traveling north in the years after the Civil War, arrives in Pittsburgh in search of purpose, prosperity, and redemption. A woman named Aunt Ester, who is rumored to be 285 years old and possess healing powers, decides to help the young man on his life’s journey.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone:
The title warrants a bit of historical context -- Joe Turner was the name of a plantation owner who, in spite of the emancipation proclamation, forced African-Americans to work in his fields. In contrast, Seth and Bertha Holly’s boarding house offers room and nourishment to wayward souls who have been mistreated, abused, and sometimes even kidnapped by members of white society. The play takes place in the year 1911.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom:
As four African-American blues musicians wait for Ma Rainey, the famous lead singer of their band, they exchange off-the-cuff jokes and cutting-edge barbs. When the blues diva does arrive, the tensions continue to mount, pushing the group towards its breaking point. The tone is a combination of bitterness, laughter, and the blues, an ideal representation of the black experience during the late 1920s.
The Piano Lesson:
A piano that has been handed down for generations becomes the source of conflict for members of the Charles family. Set in 1936, the storyline reflects the significance of objects in relationship to the past. This play garnered August Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize.
Touching upon the theme of music once again, this drama begins with the death of guitarist Floyd Barton in 1948. Then, the narrative shifts to the past, and the audience witnesses the protagonist in his younger days, ultimately leading up to his demise.
Perhaps Wilson’s most renowned work, Fences explores the life and relationships of Troy Maxson, an activist-minded trash-collector and former baseball hero. The protagonist represents the struggle for justice and fair treatment during the 1950s. This moving drama earned Wilson his first Pulitzer Prize.
Two Trains Running:
This multiple award winning drama is set in Pittsburgh 1969, in the height of the battle for civil rights. In spite of the political and social change that sweeps through the nation, many of the characters of this play are too cynical, too down-trodden to experience hope for the future or rage for the ongoing tragedies.
Set in a cab driver’s station during the boisterous late 1970s, this character driven play features sharp-witted, hustling co-workers who gossip, argue, and dream in between jobs.
King Hedley II:
Often thought of as the bitterest and most tragic of Wilson’s cycle, the play focuses on the downfall of the prideful ex-con protagonist, King Hedley II (the son of one of the characters from Seven Guitars). The mid 1980s setting finds Wilson’s beloved Hills District in a dismal, poverty-stricken neighborhood.
With this 1990s setting, the final play in the cycle tells the story of affluent Harmond Wilks, a successful politician and real estate developer – who considers tearing down a historic old house that once belonged to none other than Aunt Ester. It all comes full circle!