August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle: Critical Perspectives on the Plays. Edited by Sandra G. Shannon. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016; Pp. 211.
The principal undertaking of August Wilson’s playwriting career—the “Pittsburgh Cycle”—is a singular accomplishment in American theater. A series of ten plays highlighting the cultural shifts and stresses of African-American experience throughout the 20th century, the Cycle was written and staged over the course of three decades and completed shortly before Wilson’s death in 2005. Wilson situated his opus largely in the Hill District of Pittsburgh where he spent his childhood, a once-vibrant African-American community that fell into decay following failed urban development schemes and resultant poverty. Throughout the Cycle, Wilson connects the Hill District’s transformations to the larger history of African-Americans—slavery, Jim Crow, the Great Migration, persistent institutional racism—and the ways in which these realities reveal themselves on stage in micro-histories of Black lives. Wilson also foregrounds the historical linkages of music, ritual, ceremony, and oral culture as critical dramaturgical elements. As their descendants replace characters on Wilson’s stage, these are the ties that bind still. The restoration of a fragmented ancestry is personified in the reoccurring figure of Aunt Ester, the wise woman who physically embodies the link across time to Africa. Taken together, the plays of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle can be seen as the work of playwright tethering a community to an obscured past.
As Sandra G. Shannon rightly notes in her introduction to a new collection of essays, August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle: Critical Perspectives on the Plays, the narratives that fill Wilson’s plays are not simply representations of African-American life, but are also intensely personal, “reflect[ing] the playwright’s own fragmented life exacerbated by a complete disconnect with his biological father, by his flight from a racist Pittsburgh’s school system, and by his discovery or “reunion” with the blues, Africa, Amiri Baraka, and by his newfound regard for the vernacular of fellow Pittsburgh natives” (5). For Shannon, as well as many authors in this excellent collection, Wilson’s dual roles as an “autoethnographer of the black experience,” and as “the wounded healer” (6) who confronts his own personal history as a way to make sense of the larger historical narrative, are essential to understanding Wilson’s great accomplishment; they are also essential to comprehending what Wilson’s vision of the twentieth century means in our twenty-first.
Since August Wilson’s death, there have been many attempts to examine and reconcile Wilson’s completed project, and recent scholarly treatments of the complete Cycle resonate throughout the volume under review here. Shannon’s text joins an already active critical conversation, including Harry Elam’s touchstone work The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009), a recent Cambridge Companion collection, and the frequent stagings of the plays across the country. Appropriately enough, Shannon’s collection ranges widely in subjects and inventive theoretical perspectives. Sarah Saddler and Paul Bryant-Jackson’s piece on Two Trains Running brings together Manning Marable’s advocacy of a multidisciplinary “living history” to reclaim the lost narratives of people of color, and Diana Taylor’s argument to consider the “embodied behaviors that serve to e/affect the outcome of the social drama, and thus “ history” itself” (53). Saddler and Bryant-Jackson conclude that Wilson creates a document of living history in which the political struggles of the 1960s are played out on a personal and spiritual level on stage. In another essay, Psyche Williams-Forson probes the Wilson’s frequent use of food as way to depict communal and gender relationships, citing Wilson’s own interest in cultural anthropology. These arguments reframe August Wilson not just as a significant “realist” playwright, but as a writer whose works respond to various theoretical frameworks.
Wilson deploys African ritual in his plays, often as a way to reconnect with a lost heritage, and several essays in this collection tease out the various dramaturgical and symbolic meanings of this connection. Artisa Green’s analysis of the “Òrìșà archetypes, sacred objects, and spaces” (10) and the Yoruban week calendar “which comprises a seven day cycle characterized by daily attributes that resulted from events which occurred in Yoruba creation stories” (156), facilitates a significant new understanding of the spiritual architecture of Gem of the Ocean. In the case of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Connie Rapoo looks at Loomis’ “acts of sacrifice” (177) as ways to “remember the spiritual African past in order to restore cosmic order” and to reclaim a forgotten cultural identity.
More significantly, this collection often shows how Wilson’s work uses history to reflect upon contemporary concerns. Isaiah Matthew Wooden’s piece on the fraught relationship between the American justice system and the African-Americans subject to it in Gem of the Ocean is deeply relevant to the America of Black Lives Matter and police action captured on cell phone video. The concluding essay by Susan C. W. Abbottson deploys the work of theorists Alan Wilde, John McGowan, and Linda Hutcheon to investigate the optimistic, inclusive humanism in Wilson’s work. For Abbottson, “what Wilson is modeling through this cycle are lessons of responsibility, connection, history, and identity, which combine to create a final vision of what contemporary society most needs: active democracy” (200). In illuminating the experience of Black people in America, Wilson’s “self-defining American chronicle for the ages” (199) also sheds light on the desires, anxieties, and possibilities of all human beings.
The main utility of the August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle is as a companion to, and an expansion of, previous Wilson scholarship. While it is inevitable for any collection to focus on some works more than others, Jitney (1982), Fences (1985), and Radio Golf (2005) are seldom addressed in this volume, though they are certainly topics of examination elsewhere. The inclusion of a production history of the Cycle would have made the text more user-friendly. Yet, the multiplicity of theoretical perspectives here acts as a provocation for other scholars to look at August Wilson’s work in new, inventive ways. Just as Wilson himself sought to forge links between the present and past, readers of his work should be encouraged to connect it with our present and future.
James M. Cherry