Your Crash Course in August Wilson


Thanks, talented actress friend Alyssa Simon, for alerting me to the fact that through August 26, August Wilson’s entire ten play Pittsburgh cycle will be available in free radio versions with stars like Leslie Uggams, Keith David, Phylicia Rashad, S. Epatha Merkerson, etc etc etc. at:

I think Wilson’s body of work ranks with the best of America’s greatest playwrights. It is a testament to his gifts that these plays, so specifically about the African American experience, speak to EVERYBODY. Above all he taps into the national folkishness…which I hold to be a prerequisite for any great writing and which few American playwrights—drawn as they tend to be from the middle class—ever approach. He’s a poet, and a fine tragedian — both equally rare in the land of Madison Avenue and happy Hollywood endings.

Here are some stray thoughts on his various plays from my notebooks:


Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984): The one play in Wilson’s canon I have reservations about. It’s his first effort and I’ve always thought of it as a flawed play about wonderful (unassailable) subject matter. I find it rambling, discursive, and lacking focus. Wilson makes the common flub of the novice —  mistaking constant bickering for conflict. The play lights up when Ma enters, many minutes in, splitting the focus further. While the title of the play and advertising art lead us to think of it as a play about her, it is just as much about her feuding backup musicians, whose simmering tussle eventually takes us to a tragic place. For more, see my review on George C. Wolfe’s redemptive screen adaptation here. 


Fences (1985)—a wonderful play, full of complexity …the main character Troy Maxson may be Wilson’s greatest creation, a man full of contradictions, admirable about some things, pigheaded and stupid about others. Seems to be a sort of variation on Death of a Salesman in some ways…with its football player son held back by the father, this time purposefully. Denzel’s 2016 film (based on his 2010 stage revival) was terrific. The original Troy was of course James Earl Jones. 


Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1986) incredibly good with a wonderful feeling of tension… A hardworking man keeps a boarding house. A mysterious tenant shows up with his little girl, they are seeking his wife. Character of a root doctor, a “finder”, taps into all kinds of great folk tradition, the supernatural.


The Piano Lesson (1987) also terrific. The title is misleading—the play is about a fight over a symbolic piano once owned by slaveowners, now owned by the descendants of the slaves they owned. The brother wants to sell it to buy land to farm, the sister wants to keep it. This play has a real ghost, which is all I need to keep my primitive brain happy. One of the main characters (the brother) is almost as unbearable as nearly all the characters in Ma Rainey, and that’s a drawback, but otherwise I enjoyed the play.


Two Trains Running (1990) Yet another wonderful play. This one is Wilson’s contribution to the “slice of life” genre, yet with a definite plot arc (which is more than you can say about The Time of Your Life, for example.) Set in a Pittsburgh diner in 1969. The characters include a feeble-minded man who keeps repeating “I want my ham”—he has been deranged by the promise of a store owner to give him a ham in exchange for painting a fence. The place is across the street from a funeral parlor, and constant news of funerals (and the dying neighborhood) overshadows everything. But the theme is holding out for what you deserve. The diner owner needs to sell to the city but is holding out for a higher amount than they are offering, for example. Another character is a guy just out of prison, who seems like a good guy but destined for trouble. Amazingly, the play has a sort of happy ending, though with a note of foreboding. When the crazy guy dies, the convict steals a ham to bury with the body. It’s a nice note and a nice gesture…but will it land him back in jail?


Jitney (1992) August Wilson’s Taxi. Set at a taxi garage in 1977. Some great characters, particularly Turnbo, a  busybody who sticks his nose into everybody’s business. But the play goes wrong in a couple of ways. First, by having Turnbo pull a gun on somebody on anger, which seems really out of character, and just out of nowhere. Second by having the boss of the taxi stand suddenly get killed by an accident. Thus, none of the conflicts that have been set up (esp. the return of the bosses jailbird son) get resolved organically. The last minute of the play has the son taking over the taxi stand. Is the point of the play that black men depend on random luck for their chances?


Seven Guitars (1997) terrific…feels a little incomplete…I’m not completely sure what transpired. But the characters are great. Play is about a guitar player who is about to make it big, and his circle of friends. A framing device lets us know that the guitar player has died and we see the events leading up to it. The player seems cursed, unable to take advantage of his big chance. His guitar is in hock and he needs money…his “manager” embezzles money, etc.


King Hedley II (1999) This is a sequel to Seven Guitars. Takes place in 1985. This play does a much better job than, say, Mourning Becomes Electra at ORGANICALLY visiting the theme of the cycle of violence. King Hedley II is the son of one of the characters in Seven Guitars. He’s not naturally bad but was raised without the skills to negotiate a world of law and order. His mother, a singer, left him to be raised by a friend. The closest thing to a father figure is a hustler who did time for a murder of passion. King Hedley II is just out from a seven year stretch for his own revenge killing. The killings are not without honor from a certain perspective…in the old west or medieval times, no one would have judged them as  wrong. But it’s a different world. In the end, Hedley will die from the same sort of violence. What’s important about Wilson’s play(s) is that this is the sort of thing we read about all the time in the tabloids. Every day in fact. We become hardened to it as a daily occurance. The drama — the theatre — may be the only antidote to such hardening of the heart. When you know the whole person, and the whole story, it’s a different feeling indeed


Gem of the Ocean (2003)

Perhaps the most poetic and impressionistic of the cycle, full of myth and ritual and lore. Set in 1904, it is set in a house run by Aunt Esther, a former slave and soul-cleanser who claims to be 285 years old. Labor unrest leaves many dead, and the symbolically named “Citizen” becomes an image of hope.


Radio Golf (2005)

The last play in the cycle and a testament to its scope and Wilson’s commitment to immediacy and relevancy. This is the only play in the series where the African American heroes have MADE it — they are rich and powerful. But painful dilemmas haven’t gone away. The characters in the story are going to develop a chunk of real estate and find themselves at odds with the community. What is more important, your own success, or the needs of others? It isn’t always so clear.

* * * *

I’ve seen a few of these plays live, a few in television versions, and have read the rest. It will be interesting to hear them presented as radio. Again, they’re available through August 26 here:

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