Arena Stage put on Gem of the Ocean in 2007.

It’s an African-American Decameron: Ten plays, one for each decade of the 20th century, adding up to an epic drama of the black experience. Now August Wilson’s Century Cycle gets a star-studded omnibus staging at the Kennedy Center, with all 10 plays performed together for the first time.

If the plays seem like old friends to some, it’s because D.C. theater has a rich history with Wilson: Nine of the 10 plays have been staged hereabouts, many of them more than once. As the festival opens, the City Paper’s critics look back.

» Download the PDF guide to Wilson’s Century Cycle

GEM OF THE OCEAN (2003)

Synopsis: In 1904, as labor disputes at the local mill turn violent, an elderly conjure-woman sends a remorseful young man on a spiritual quest.

Major D.C. Production: Arena Stage, 2007

City Paper Said: That old lady, the one bossing the rest of the household? She’s Aunt Ester—elusive matriarch, and collective memory incarnate. Don’t cross her, and don’t underestimate her, because she’s got the power to lay you low or to set you free, in a deep-sunk pillar of a play that looks back toward Emancipation and ahead to sacrifices and outrages greater than its own.­—Trey Graham, 2/9/07

Sample Dialogue: “That piece of chain used to be around my ankle. They tried to chain me down but I beat them on that one. I say I’m gonna keep this to remember by. I been lucky ever since. I got all the way to Canada…in 1857. I stood right there in Freedom-land. That’s what they called it. Freedom-land. I asked myself ‘What I’m gonna do?’ I looked around. I didn’t see nothing for me. I tried to feel different but I couldn’t.”

Offstage Chatter: After being talked about with reverence in eight plays, 280-year-old Aunt Ester finally appeared in this one, only to be described by critics as paper-thin. As the New York Times opined: “It’s not easy playing a metaphor.”

JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE (1984)

Synopsis: A man who’s spent years of forced labor on a Southern farm arrives at a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911, searching for his long-lost wife and daughter.

Major D.C. Production: Arena Stage, 1988 (pre-Broadway)
African Continuum Theater Company, 2004

City Paper Said: Endearingly comical is the pigeon-slaughtering, salt-sprinkling, world-wandering “conjure man” whose folk magic works more than one small miracle as the evening goes on; Frederick Strother has come up with a whole vocabulary of verbal and visual tics that make the wild-haired, rheumy-eyed old man funny but never a figure of fun.—TG, 2/27/04

Sample Dialogue: “Everybody has to find his own song. Now, I can look at you, Mr. Loomis, and see you a man who done forgot his song. Forgot how to sing it. A fellow forget that and he forget who he is. Forget how he’s supposed to mark down life.…See, Mr. Loomis, when a man forgets his song, he goes off in search of it…till he find out he’s got it with him all the time.”

Offstage Chatter: Wilson’s favorite play. He told Sandra Shannon, author of The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, that Herald Loomis’ quest for his song is essentially his own quest.

MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM (1982)

Synopsis: A ’20s recording session in Chicago erupts into violence as a group of blues players responds to the pressures of racism in the music industry.

Major D.C. Production: Studio Theatre, 1986
Arena Stage, 2002

City Paper Said: Pianist-philosopher Toledo has an anecdote for every occasion and tells them in the same loose, rippling, bluesy style with which he mimes tickling the ivories.—Bob Mondello, 11/15/02

Sample Dialogue: “As long as the colored man look to white folks to put the crown on what he say…as long as he look to white folks for approval, then he ain’t never gonna find out who he is and what he’s about.”

Offstage Chatter: Wilson’s first show to reach the Great White Way prompted fights before it got there: Producers wanted the show turned into a musical; director Lloyd Richards nixed the idea.

THE PIANO LESSON (1989)

Synopsis: A former sharecropper comes north to ’30s Pittsburgh to persuade his sister to sell the intricately carved piano that is their joint inheritance, so he can buy land.

Major D.C. Production: Kennedy Center, 1989
Arena Stage, 2005

City Paper Said: There’s an agreeable stink of sulfur in the air at Arena Stage—a whiff of awareness that Wilson is interested in more than just the earthly consequences of the family squabble over that ornately carved upright squatting sullen and silent in the corner of the Fichandler.—TG, 4/15/05

Sample Dialogue: “I looked at my daddy and seen him starin’ off at his hands. I got a little older, I know just what he was thinking. He’s sitting there and saying, ‘I got these big old hands. But what I’m gonn’ do with ’em. I can take and build something with these hands, but where’s the tools?’”

Offstage Chatter: The role of Boy Willie was written for Charles Dutton, who owes his career to Wilson (Ma Rainey was his Broadway debut). Now a star, he bailed at the last minute on the Kennedy Center fest (skipping Fences to make a movie).

SEVEN GUITARS (1995)

Synopsis: A ’40s blues artist with a hit record tries to rekindle romance with an ex-flame and rally his musical buddies to head for Chicago and possible stardom.

Major D.C. Production: Studio Theatre, 1998

City Paper Said: Pittsburgh’s Hill District is a high-decibel neighborhood, peopled by folks who figure most things worth saying are worth saying at top volume. As it happens, the easiest way to capture attention in this environment is to speak softly. —BM, 1/16/98

Sample Dialogue: “The Bible say some things ain’t for you to know. It say you know neither the day nor the hour when death come. He come like a thief in the night. And he don’t go away empty.”

Offstage Chatter: Wilson conceived the character of Ruby with Rosalyn Coleman (daughter of Howard University administrator Don Coleman) in mind.

FENCES (1985)

Synopsis: A one-time Negro League baseball star who is now a laborer clashes with his rebellious son in a ’50s industrial city where black dreams are routinely stifled.

Major D.C. Production: Arena Stage, 1990
Round House Theater, 2004

City Paper Said: A poetically eruptive play that will forever depend on a theater troupe’s ability to find a suitably active volcano. The original Broadway production had one in James Earl Jones, who played the evening’s trash-toting patriarch as a well-meaning mountain of a man brimming over with frustration at how little he’d been allowed to accomplish in life—frustration that was as likely to express itself in violence as in words.—BM, 4/9/04

Sample Dialogue: “Death ain’t nothing but a fastball on the outside corner.”

“Some people build fences to keep people out and other people build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on to you all. She loves you.”

“Legs don’t mean nothing. You don’t do nothing but push them out of the way. But hips cushion the ride…like you riding on Goodyears.”

Offstage Chatter: In 1987, 26-year-old comic Eddie Murphy, fresh from Beverly Hills Cop, got Paramount to buy film rights so he could play the son as his first dramatic role. Wilson balked when the studio kept proposing white directors, and the film was never made.

TWO TRAINS RUNNING (1990)

Synopsis: At Memphis Lee’s lunch counter, ’60s conflicts between cultural assimilation and cultural separatism are played out on a personal level.

Major D.C. Production: Kennedy Center, 1991

Studio Theatre, 1996

African Continuum Theater Company, 2004

City Paper Said: I wondered why August Wilson would spend the first half of the play assembling volatile materials, and the second half refusing to detonate an explosion. Studio’s production suggests an answer of sorts by turning the evening into a display of verbal fireworks. —BM, 1/26/96

Sample Dialogue: “I want my ham. He gonna give me my ham.”

“Freedom is heavy. You got to put your shoulder to it.”

Offstage Chatter: Two years of rewrites in regional theaters left the play feeling scattered at its New York premiere. Wilson’s fraying partnership with mentor Lloyd Richards lasted just one more play.

JITNEY (1983)

Synopsis: ’70s urban renewal threatens a taxi depot just as its owner’s son returns from a 20-year prison term.

Major D.C. Production: Studio Theatre, 2001

Ford’s Theatre/African Continuum Theater Company, 2007

City Paper Said: There are moments of such clarity and such annealing fire that they leave you feeling cleaner somehow, energized and renewed despite the pain they uncover and the sad truths they tell us about the mistakes we repeat, generation after tragic generation.—TG, 5/25/01

Sample Dialogue: “Where were you when your mama was dying and calling your name? You are my son. I helped bring you into this world. But from this moment on I’m calling the deal off.”

“You gotta shake off that white-folks-is-against-us attitude. Hell, they don’t even know you alive.”

Offstage Chatter: Wilson’s first play, widely regarded as a test run for the father-son fracases that animate Fences.

KING HEDLEY II (2001)

Synopsis: In the ’80s, an ex-con engages in petty crime as he struggles to raise enough money to open his own business.

Major D.C. Production: Kennedy Center, 2001 (pre-Broadway)

City Paper Said: As played by Brian Stokes Mitchell, with a chin-to-forehead scar undercutting his matinee-idol looks, King is the sort of guy who buys seeds so he can grow his wife some flowers, then surrounds the seedlings with barbed wire when he realizes they’re fragile. —BM, 3/16/01

Sample Dialogue: “A man is going to cry over a woman. That’s why she’s called a woman: She brings woe.”

Offstage Chatter: Once shows were up and running, Wilson often rewrote to get the dialogue’s “music” right. With vocalist Leslie Uggams in this Broadway cast, he added actual lyrics. (He also cut 30 minutes’ worth of dialogue, by our count, during the D.C. run.)

RADIO GOLF (2005)

Synopsis: With the millennium looming, an ambitious real estate developer faces opposition as he seeks to demolish a row house with a long and storied history.

Major D.C. Production: Closest it’s come is Baltimore.

City Paper Said: We don’t do Baltimore.

Sample Dialogue: “You a Negro. I’m a nigger. Negroes are the worst thing in God’s creation. Niggers got style. Negroes got blindeyetis. A dog knows it’s a dog. A cat knows it’s a cat. But a Negro don’t know he’s a Negro. He thinks he’s a white man. It’s Negroes like you who hold us back.

Offstage Chatter: Wilson’s quickest Broadway flop, at 81 performances. (Fences, with 536 performances, ran longest.)