August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand

10-Play Cycle Scenes and Synopses

August Wilson (right) met mentor-director Lloyd Richards (left) at the National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center in 1982, where the two men forged a friendship that resulted in Richards' directing Wilson’s first six Broadway plays. Photo: The Yale Repertory Theatre.

August Wilson (right) met mentor-director Lloyd Richards (left) met in 1982 and forged a friendship that resulted in Richards' directing Wilson’s first six Broadway plays. Photo: The Yale Repertory Theatre.

August Wilson’s seminal cycle of 10 plays covers African-American history in the 20th century, with all but one set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where Wilson grew up. This “Century Cycle” of plays has recurring characters, though the plays were not written in chronological order.  “My plays are ultimately about love, honor, duty, betrayal,” Wilson said in an interview in 1996. All nine of the plays on Broadway received Tony Award nominations for best play and two won Pulitzer Prizes. Learn more about each in the order they were written, below.

Videos of dramatic readings performed for August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand are included for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, Gem of the Ocean.

1. Jitney (1979)

JitneyPremiere: 1982, Allegheny Repertory Theatre, Pittsburgh; 2000 premiere Off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre.

Synopsis: Set in an unofficial taxi station threatened with demolition in 1977, Jitney explores the lives and relationships of drivers, highlighting conflicts between generations and different concepts of legacy and identity.

Talent: Directed by Marion McClinton. The Off-Broaway production starred Anthony Chisholm (Fielding), Paul Butler (Becker), Willis Burks (Shealy) and Stephen McKinley Henderson (Turnbo), all of whom had been performing the play regularly since 1996.

Awards: 2001 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play; 2002 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play.

2. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982)


Ebony Jo-Ann performs Ma Rainey’s monologue exclusively for August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand.
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Premiere: 1984, Yale Repertory Theatre; subsequent 1984 Broadway opening at the Cort Theatre.

Synopsis: Set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the ten-cycle play not set in Pittsburgh), Ma Rainey examines racism in the history of black musicians and white producers, and the themes of art and religion.

Talent: Directed by Lloyd Richards, the Broadway premiere starred Charles S. Dutton (Levee) and Theresa Merritt (Ma).

Awards: Wilson wins his first of his seven New York Drama Critics Circle awards for his plays.

3. Fences (1984)


Fences CoverRosalyn Coleman (Rose), Ray Anthony Thomas (Troy) and Horace Rogers (Jim Bono) perform a scene from Fences exclusively for August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand.

Premiere: 1987, Broadway premiere at 46th Street Theatre.

Synopsis: In 1957, Troy Maxson, a former Negro Baseball League player, is a bitter man in his 50s who works as a garbageman. His frustration and disappointments in life affect his wife Rose and son Cory, who like his father, is a gifted athlete.

Talent: Directed by Lloyd Richardson, the play starred James Earl Jones (Troy), Mary Alice (Rose), Courtney B. Vance (Cory) and Ray Aranha (Jim Bono).

Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Drama, four Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Direction, Best Actor (James Earl Jones), Best Featured Actress (Mary Alice), and three Drama Desk Awards.

4. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984)

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Premiere: 1986, Yale Repertory Theatre; 1988, Broadway opening at Ethel Barrymore Theater.

Synopsis: Set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911, the ensemble play includes characters who were former slaves and examines the residents’ experiences with racism and discrimination.

Talent: Directed by Lloyd Richards, the cast included Delroy Lindo (Herald Loomis), Angela Bassett (Martha, Loomis’s wife) and L. Scott Caldwell (Bertha, the boardinghouse owner’s wife).

Awards: L. Scott Caldwell won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play

5. The Piano Lesson (1986)

Premiere: 1987, Yale Repertory Theater; 1990 Broadway opening at Walter Kerr Theatre.

Synopsis: Named after a painting by Romare Bearden, the play follows the Charles family in the Doaker Charles household. A brother and a sister have different ideas about what to do with their piano, a family heirloom. Sell it to purchase land their enslaved ancestors once toiled upon, or keep the piano, which includes carved depictions of two distant relatives.

Talent: Directed by Lloyd Richardson. Starring Charles S. Dutton (Boy Willie), Rocky Carroll (Lymon), Apryl R. Foster (Maretha), Carl Gordon (Doaker), Lisa Gay Hamilton (Grace), Tommy Hollis (Avery), S. Epatha Merkerson (Berniece), Lou Myers (Wining Boy).

Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.

6. Two Trains Running (1990)

Laurence Fishburne (left) and Al White (right) in a Seattle Repertory Theatre production of August Wilson's "Two Trains Running." Photo: Chris Bennion Photography.

Laurence Fishburne (left) and Al White (right) in a Seattle Repertory Theatre production of August Wilson

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Premiere: 1990, at Yale Repertory Theatre; 1992, Broadway opening at Walter Kerr Theatre.

Synopsis: Set in 1969, the play revolves around a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which has suffered a long economic decline. The restaurant owner, Memphis, worries what will happen when the city comes to claim the building through eminent domain. A young activist, Sterling, tries to organize protests and rallies that can help save the restaurant, but Memphis is not so supportive.

Talent: Directed by Lloyd Richardson. Broadway premiere starred Roscoe Lee Browne (Holloway), Anthony Chisholm (Wolf), Laurence Fishburne (Sterling), Cynthia Martells (Risa), Chuck Patterson (West), Sullivan Walker (Hambone), Al White (Memphis).

Awards: Laurence Fishburne won a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for best actor in a play.

7. Seven Guitars (1995)

amms-awilson-outtake-harmonica-SevenGuitars-158Premiere: 1995 Goodman Theatre, Chicago; 1996, Broadway opening at Walter Kerr Theatre.

Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1948, blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is newly freed from prison when he’s asked to sign a record deal after a song he recorded months before becomes a surprise hit. He struggles to right wrongs and make his way back to Chicago. Black manhood is a theme of the play and a rooster is used in to symbolize it.

Talent: Directed by Lloyd Richardson. Keith David (Floyd Barton), Rosalyn Coleman (Ruby), Viola Davis (Vera), Tommy Hollis (Red Carter), Roger Robinson (Hedley), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Canewell), Michele Shay (Louise).

Awards: Ruben Santiago-Hudson won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play.

8. King Hedley II (1991)

Premiere: 1999, at the Pittsburgh Public Theater; 2001 Broadway opening at the Virginia Theatre.

Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1985, an ex-con tries wants to support a family and aims to get the money to open a video store by selling stolen refrigerators. The play features some characters from Seven Guitars.

Talent: Marion McClinton directed the Broadway production, with Brian Stokes Mitchell (King), Leslie Uggams (Ruby), Charles Brown (Elmore), Viola Davis (Tonya), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Stool Pigeon), and Monté Russell (Mister).

Awards:Viola Davis won a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for Best Featured Actress; Charles Brown won a Drama Desk Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play

9. Gem of the Ocean (2003)


Phylicia Rashad performs a scene from Gem of the Ocean exclusively for August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand. For this role, Rashad received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Play.

Premiere: 2003, Goodman Theatre, Chicago; 2004, Broadway opening at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1904, the play features a man whose small crime has had deadly consequences for another man. Feeling guilty, he comes seeking the spiritual healing of Aunt Ester. A recurring character in Wilson’s plays, Ester claims to be 285 years old and is the kind matriarch of her household in Pittsburgh.

Talent: Marion McClinton directed the Goodman Theatre premiere; Kenny Leon directed the Broadway premiere, which starred Phylicia Rashad (Aunt Ester), Lisa Gay Hamilton (Black Mary), Anthony Chisholm (Solly Two Kings), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Caesar), Eugene Lee (Eli), Raynor Scheine (Rutherford Selig), John Earl Jelks (Citizen Barlow).

10. Radio Golf (2005)

Premiere: 2005 at Yale Repertory Theater; 2007 Broadway opening at Cort Theatre.

Synopsis: Set in 1990 Pittsburgh, this play concluded Wilson’s Century Cycle and is the last play he completed before his death. The home of Aunt Ester (the setting of the cycle’s first play Gem of the Ocean) is threatened with demolition that will make way for real estate development in the depressed area. Investors include Harmond Wilks, who wants to increase his chance of becoming the city’s first black mayor. History and legacy challenge personal aspirations and ideas of progress.

Talent: On Broadway, Kenny Leon directed Anthony Chisholm (Elder Joseph Barlow), John Earl Jelks (Sterling Johnson), Harry Lennix (Harmond Wilks), Tonya Pinkins (Mame Wilks), and James A. Williams (Roosevelt Hicks).

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Have you seen any of these productions — on Broadway or elsewhere? What did you think? Share your comments, below.
American Masters — August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand premieres Friday, February 20 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Wilson’s birth, the 10th anniversary of his death and Black History Month.