A season of August Wilson at local theaters

Two of the Pulitzer Prize-winner's plays are currently onstage: 'Jitney' at the Cincinnati Playhouse and 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' at Northern Kentucky University.

Oct 26, 2016 at 11:38 am

click to enlarge Playwright August Wilson won two Pulitzer Prizes. - Photo: Courtesy of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park
Photo: Courtesy of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park
Playwright August Wilson won two Pulitzer Prizes.
Eleven years after playwright August Wilson’s death in 2005 at age 60, his reputation continues to grow. He will be most remembered for his trailblazing American Century Cycle — 10 plays about the African-American experience, one for each decade of the 20th century. Two of his plays won Pulitzer Prizes: Fences (1987) and The Piano Lesson (1990).

Wilson’s remarkable talent for capturing the voices of often-forgotten people is a hallmark of his writing. But while happening at specific moments in time and place, his plays have lasting resonance, because they reveal the timeless themes of love, honor, duty and betrayal, matters understood and felt by people regardless of their ethnicity.

“Confront the dark parts of yourself and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness,” Wilson once said, adding, “Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.” 

Capturing the nobility in the struggles of everyday life is another constant in his plays.

In case you need a refresher course in Wilson’s achievements, you have opportunities now to see Jitney at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park (see review here) and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at Northern Kentucky University. 

Playhouse Associate Artist Timothy Douglas, Jitney’s director, is well acquainted with Wilson’s work, having been personally involved as a young actor at Yale Repertory Theatre, where several of his plays were first staged. Today, Douglas is a veteran director with an impressive portfolio of productions of the Century Cycle plays.

Douglas’s production of Jitney is at the Playhouse through Nov. 12. 

It’s the fourth time he’s staged the script. His third production of Jitney convinced Wilson that Douglas was the director he wanted to stage the world premiere of his final play, Radio Golf. That happened in 2005, just months before Wilson’s death. 

Wilson stepped over from poetry to drama in 1977; Jitney was his first attempt at playwriting. After several small productions and a lot of rewriting, it saw a polished production in Pittsburgh in 1982. An inveterate reviser, Wilson continued to tinker with it until its Off-Broadway production in 2000. 

Jitney portrays a group of men in 1970 running an unlicensed car service in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where Wilson grew up.  Douglas says he loves this play and its ensemble of characters, noting its simplicity: “It allows the characters to really riff off one another. It’s a cleaner journey compared to the rest of the cycle.”

Another early Wilson script, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, was the first to gain broad public notice and remains one of his best-known plays. It is onstage at Northern Kentucky University now through Oct. 30. Set in a Chicago recording studio in 1927 (the only one of Wilson’s plays not taking place in Pittsburgh), it’s about a battle of wills. Wilson imagined this story about real-life Blues legend Ma Rainey, who was a true force of nature. We see her locked in a titanic struggle over control of her music. She’s hell-bent on recording her best-known song, “Black Bottom,” her way. But her band’s hotheaded, ambitious young trumpeter, Levee, is eager to launch the group into the Jazz Age, and the record producers are leaning in his direction. 

Critic Frank Rich praised Ma Rainey’s “claustrophobia, a slow-fuse dramatic structure, meaty arias, a devastating dramatic pay-off and (a) profound identification with those who are betrayed by the gaudy promise of the American dream.” It’s a great piece of theater.

In December, you can see Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences in movie theaters. It’s a cinematic rendition of the play’s Tony Award-winning 2010 Broadway revival. Denzel Washington will repeat his award-winning performance as Troy Maxson, a one-time standout baseball player who never made it to the major leagues. In 1957, he’s an embittered garbage truck driver. Viola Davis plays his stalwart wife Rose, a role that won her a Tony, too. 

JitneyMa Rainey and Fences within two month’s time: That’s a blessing.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]