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THEATER

At the close of a century

August Wilson reaches his goal of 10 plays set in 10 decades, all with black American themes.

August 07, 2005|Don Shirley

WHEN August Wilson wrote his breakthrough success, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," in 1984, he had no idea he had embarked on a cycle of plays that would take more than two decades to complete.

It wasn't until he was writing "The Piano Lesson," three plays later, that it dawned on him that by setting his plays in different decades of the 20th century, he was gradually constructing a cycle. It would focus on "the largest issues and ideas that black people faced in those times," he said in 1986, shortly after he realized what was taking shape.

Many playwrights have had dreams on that scale; few have seen them realized. Yet Wilson's ambitious goal has been reached. All of the plays have been produced, with eight reaching Broadway. The final play in the cycle, "Radio Golf," opens Thursday at the Mark Taper Forum.

As the cycle continued, the plays became more sprawling and more referential to one another -- with characters showing up in more than one play. The atmosphere of the neighborhood where Wilson grew up, Pittsburgh's Hill District -- hardly present in the first two produced plays -- became stronger. Look for a 10-day reading of the entire cycle in February 2007 at New York's Signature Theatre.

-- Don Shirley

Gem of the Ocean

Set in: 1904

Premiere: Goodman Theatre, Chicago, April 2003

L.A. premiere: Mark Taper Forum, July 2003

Broadway premiere: Dec. 6, 2004

Plot: A young man seeks an old seer's counsel about a violent incident, while a former Underground Railroad guide frets over his sister and a black constable tries to enforce the white man's law.

Inside info: This was Wilson's first play since "Ma Rainey" with a dominant female character, the 285-year-old seer Aunt Ester, who was mentioned but not seen in "Two Trains Running" and "King Hedley II." Although McClinton directed in L.A., Kenny Leon directed on Broadway. In 1904, Wilson told the Times, "you could walk around and find people who were slaves. I find that incredible."

*

Joe Turner's Come and Gone

Set in: 1911

Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, May 1986

Broadway premiere: March 27, 1988

L.A. premiere: Los Angeles Theatre Center, April 1989

Plot: A mysterious man in search of his wife, accompanied by his young daughter, arrives at a boarding house where a neighbor tries to help him rediscover his identity.

Inside info: Wilson has called this play his favorite. His inspiration came from a photograph of Romare Bearden's painting "The Millhand's Lunch Bucket." The titular character is offstage -- he's the white man who pressed the leading character into peonage in the South.

*

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Set in: 1927

Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven, Conn. April 1984

Broadway premiere: Oct. 11, 1984

L.A. premiere: Los Angeles Theatre Center, June 1987

Plot: In a Chicago recording studio, "Ma" Rainey and her band -- exploited by the white-run music industry -- fall into strife among themselves.

Inside info: The fourth play Wilson wrote was his first to be produced -- and the only play in his 20th century cycle set outside Pittsburgh. Wilson told The Times: " 'Ma Rainey' isn't about 'This is what you took from us' but 'This is so valuable what you've taken from us.'

*

The Piano Lesson

Set in: 1936

Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, November 1987

L.A. premiere: Doolittle Theatre, January 1990

Broadway premiere: April 16, 1990

Plot: Boy Willie, a sharecropper from the South, wants to sell his family's ancestral piano. His Pittsburgh sister Berniece insists on keeping it -- the piano has the carved faces of their great-grandfather's wife and daughter, who were sold in exchange for the piano during the days of slavery.

Inside info: Wilson picked up his second Pulitzer for this story. Skip James' blues song "Special Delivery" was part of Wilson's inspiration -- he told the Chicago Sun-Times that he "wanted to write a play like that song -- with the same grace, elegance, power."

*

Seven Guitars

Set in: 1948

Premiere: Goodman Theatre, Chicago, January 1995

L.A. premiere: Ahmanson Theatre, January 1996

Broadway premiere: March 28, 1996

Plot: A group of neighbors in the backyard of a tenement house returns from a funeral, and the play flashes back to the final week of the young singer-songwriter who died.

Inside info: This was the first Wilson production to premiere away from Yale Repertory, which Wilson's longtime director Lloyd Richards left in 1991. Richards couldn't direct the premiere -- Walter Dallas did -- but Richards then took over. "All of the things in the play are very necessary, but they all appear to be quite unnecessary," Wilson told The Times.

*

Fences

Set in: 1957

Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, May 1985

Broadway premiere: March 26, 1987

L.A. premiere: Doolittle Theatre, September 1988

Plot: A former Negro League baseball player who was born too soon to make the transition to the major leagues now collects garbage and nurses grudges against his athletic 17-year-old son.

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