Considered as one continuous, contiguous work, August Wilson’s “The Pittsburgh Cycle” (which spawned “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) constitutes a survival tale in the aftermath of trauma, wherein the children of slavery fight to regroup and rebuild in a hostile New World, strengthened (if not always saved) by a culture the playwright describes as “forged in the cotton fields of the South and tested by the hard pavements of the industrial North” which ultimately serves as the ladder by which they “[climb] into the New World.”
The central figure in this meta-narrative is Aunt Ester, described in the Goodman Theater’s “Gem of the Ocean” program notes as a centuries-old conjure woman whose birth “coincided with the arrival of the first shipment of African slaves in the English colonies. She is both the keeper and the transmitter of African-American memory.” In a sense, she is the spiritual mother of nearly all the characters to follow, the personification of Mother Africa, and she thus, appropriately, appears at the very beginning of the “Cycle”, in 1904, kicking things off with a magic realist overture markedly different from the rest of Wilson’s work.
Seeking redemption for his part in a petty crime which yielded tragic results, a young Alabaman named Citizen Barlow arrives at 1839 Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where Ester lives with her old friend Eli and her young heir apparent, Black Mary, whose brother Caesar, a tyrannical police officer, maintains his own power by ruthlessly enforcing the laws of the white power structure. Citizen’s spiritual journey from disorientation and emotional chaos towards salvation brings him face to face with his ancestors (and the innocent man whose death resulted from his crime) in the City of Bones, a spectral, psychic monument to the initial enslavement and deadly transport of Aunt Ester’s “children” to America.
Ironically, one of Ester’s confederates is Rutherford Selig, the only major white character in the “Cycle”, whose great-grandfather transported blacks into bondage and no doubt contributed his share of souls to the City of Bones. Selig himself followed in the family business as a finder of runaway slaves, but as the “Cycle” begins, in the post-Civil War era, he has switched his business model, transporting blacks away from various troubles and entanglements on the back of his peddler’s cart. Moving ahead to 1911 in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”, the setting changes to a boarding house in Pittsburgh, where Selig has expanded his business to include “people finding” for the lost, scattered “sons and daughters of newly freed American slaves,” still “dazed and stunned” as “[foreigners] in a strange land,” survivors of a historic tragedy, “cut off from memory, having forgotten the names of the gods and only guessing at the faces.”
By “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, set in 1927, “Ester’s children” are still struggling for sustenance and respect, and even those few who’ve managed to prosper (like the play’s imperious blues singing title character and her entourage) are familiar with the slights and cruelties of the dominant white power structure and the fault lines of repressed anger and misdirected violence seething through the black community, dramatized by a shocking act of violence in a Chicago recording studio. Yet in the midst of colossal deprivation and despair, the cultural forces of music, oral history and tradition have already begun to restore a sense of hope and community in “The Piano Lesson,” as dramatized by a family squabble between Boy Willie and Berniece Charles over an heirloom musical instrument in 1930s Pittsburgh, wherein the characters are both haunted and strengthened by their common history.
Still, though, even with the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, being heralded as a champion of Black America in the 1940s-set “Seven Guitars”, the solace of culture and community is not enough for proud men like Pittsburgh blues musician Floyd Barton and his neighbor King Hedley, whose frustration with America’s institutionalized racism leads to crime and murderous insanity — while for others, like 1950s garbageman Troy Maxson in “Fences”, that frustration is tamed and internalized through fierce devotion to family and principle yet leaks out in self-destructive rage, infidelity and a heartbreaking inability to let his son, Cory, advance beyond him.
Nevertheless, Cory and his generation do advance, into a world of opportunity unimagined by their fathers and grandfathers. The big wheel of the civil rights movement has turned, however slowly, as the setting shifts to a black-owned restaurant in 1969 (“Two Trains Running”), where there is, for once, a palpable feeling of optimism, even in the face of war and the assassinations of Kennedy, King and Malcolm X. One of the restaurant regulars is a successful black businessman on the right side of the law, another makes his living on the fringe of legality as a numbers runner, and the owner of the restaurant fights city hall and actually wins, at least in the short term. Sterling, an ex-convict, arrives on the scene and is advised to visit Aunt Ester, who tells him, “Make better what you have and you have best.” As a result of Ester’s advice and the support of the small community he finds at the restaurant, Sterling is able to calm his own demons, find love and teach a local street person, traumatized by the injustice of white society, that “Black is beautiful.”
The scene next shifts, in “Jitney,” to another black business in the Hill District, circa 1977. Times are still hard and America’s still racist and fundamentally unfair, but Aunt Ester’s “children” are continuing to do the best they can for themselves, progressing slowly towards a better world. Again, a black business is threatened and again the owner (this time an older man named Becker) vows to fight. Another young black man, Becker’s son Booster, is released from prison, full of anger, and once again his community ultimately provides him with the security and wisdom to move forward.
But then, Wilson’s “King Hedley II” releases a wrenching cry of despair: “Lock your doors! Close your windows! Turn your lamp down low. We in trouble now. Aunt Ester died! She died! She died! She died!”
Late in the “Cycle”, the worm has suddenly turned as the promise of the Black Power era gives way to the rise of Reaganomics and the neo-con revolution of the ‘80s, dividing the haves and have-nots ever more viciously. Although not the true biological son of his namesake, “King Hedley II” embodies all the rage, violence and hopelessness of earlier decades, with none of Aunt Ester’s wisdom or spirituality to guide him. He emerges from prison full of rage, like Sterling and Booster before him, but with no responsible older paternal figure to challenge or guide him. The community, awash in drugs and murder, is unraveling, the spirits of the ancestors are fled away, the past is forgotten, the promise of the future has been shattered once too often and for all the talk of equality and freedom in previous decades, far too many of Ester’s children seem determined to follow her into the grave as the Hill District itself becomes a City of Bones.
Yet despite the efforts of those in power to set back the clock, 1990 is not 1890, and by the end of the “Cycle”, in “Radio Golf”, Ester’s “children” have ultimately survived and, in many cases, flourished. Indeed some, like mayoral candidate Harmond Wilks, have even made strides to join the elite on their own terms, working within the system to jump start the urban renewal of the sixties and seventies, beginning with the Hill District. But, like the Charles family’s haunted piano, Aunt Ester’s old house at 1839 Wylie Avenue suddenly presents itself as a reminder of the past, demanding acknowledgement, when Old Joe Barlow, son of Ester’s successor Black Mary, appears claiming to have the deed for the property, which is scheduled for demolition to make way for an upscale redevelopment project. With the help and encouragement of Sterling the ex-con, now an aging handyman, Harmond discovers that Black Mary was the sister of his grandfather Caesar Wilkes, the policeman who menaced Citizen Barlow (Old Joe’s father) at the beginning of the century. After learning that he and Old Joe share a common ancestor (Henry Samuels, father of Caesar and Black Mary), Harmond determines to save the house at 1839 Wylie Avenue, thus preserving Ester’s heritage as her “children” move forward into the future – though, as the “Cycle” draws to a close, that future (not to mention the fate of Ester’s house) is anything but certain.
In the wake of Barack Obama and the white supremacist backlash of Trumpism, it’s fascinating to speculate about the twenty-first century epilogue Wilson might have added to “The Pittsburgh Cycle” had he not succumbed to cancer in 2005. Undoubtedly, such a play would be long and wordy, packed with the emotion and lyrical vernacular of his other works. Again, his characters would react to the disastrous policies of a racist power structure with rage, cynicism, humor and steadfast determination. There would be no happy ending, but the survivors would find just enough strength in their culture and community to keep pushing forward – or, in the words of Aunt Ester in “Two Trains Running”, “You got to go back and pick up the ball.”
While the content of Wilson’s writing, the verbal fireworks and sharp observations, provided his plays with their unique voice and flavor, it’s possible to speculate about the structure of this imaginary epilogue with some degree of certainty, since the forms, themes and even settings of “The Pittsburgh Cycle” are remarkably consistent throughout. As the playwright himself noted in a 2000 “New York Times” article (reprinted as the preface to the 2005 Theater Communications Group edition of “King Hedley II”): “From the beginning, I decided not to write about historical events or the pathologies of the black community… Instead, I wanted to present the unique particulars of black American culture as the transformation of impulse and sensibility into codes of conduct and response, into cultural rituals that defined and celebrated ourselves as men and women of high purpose. I wanted to place this culture onstage in all its richness and fullness and to demonstrate its ability to sustain us in all areas of human life and endeavor and through profound moments of our history in which the larger society has thought less of us than we have thought of ourselves.”
Indeed, major historical events (the Depression, World War II, Vietnam, etc.) are offstage and seldom dramatized or referenced directly in the “Cycle”, with the notable exception of the slave ship sequence in “Gem of the Ocean”. The characters in “Seven Guitars” listen to a Joe Louis fight on the radio, Troy Maxson debates the merits of Jackie Robinson’s athletic ability and cares for his brother Gabriel who was wounded in World War II, Sterling discusses Malcolm X with the restaurant regulars in “Two Trains Running”, the jitney drivers Youngblood and Doub compare the experiences of the Vietnam and Korean wars, etc. But in general, Wilson is more interested in personal and cultural history, extrapolating larger events and movements of the 20th century from life-size character studies of ordinary people set in a succession of back yards and living rooms, along with the occasional restaurant, recording studio, jitney station or office. Most of the people in his “Cycle” are just getting by from day to day, on one side of the law or the other (or the grey area in between). Very few are wealthy, and only Ma Rainey is well-known outside the Hill District. Not even “Radio Golf”’s successful real estate developer Harmond Wilks considers himself larger-than-life: “I ain’t a big man,” he says at one point. “I’m going to run for mayor. If I win I’ll be a big man.”
In “The Pittsburgh Cycle”, the decades and characters may change, but the places, conflicts and configurations are always similar. Like musicians playing variations on a jazz riff, Wilson returns to certain situations and philosophical arguments again and again in his ongoing exploration of the right way to live and the true nature of freedom. To continue the jazz analogy, the melodies and harmonies of these issues are played at various times by recurring, intertwining combinations of character types: young firebrand versus older authority figure, partner versus partner (romantic or otherwise), and class versus class, with an argument between clear “good guy” Sterling and a social climbing black man named Roosevelt Hicks in “Radio Golf” who “thinks he’s a white man” seeming to indicate that Wilson views the black bourgeois sell-out as a modern-day version of Caesar, the hissable black policeman from “Gem of the Ocean”, described in the Goodman Theater program notes as “a black man gone white, someone ready to oppress and exploit his people for personal gain.” Like Roosevelt’s devotion to the white man’s money, Caesar believes the laws of the status quo are simply the way the game is played, and can’t understand people who refuse to accept the established rules of the dominant power structure.
But the problem with playing by the rules, as explained by various characters throughout the “Cycle”, is that the game is rigged and the deck is always stacked in favor of the white man. Or, in the words of “Gem”’s Solly Two-Kings: “The law is supposed to make everything right. The law is what create order. They use the law to chaos. They wanna misuse the law.”
Unfortunately, while most of Wilson’s characters realize the fix is in, their options are limited, since there are precious few ways to quit the game entirely short of death, madness, or the ever-elusive “big score,” like a hit record or hitting the numbers. Yet, as Ma Rainey learns, even blacks who beat the system on their own terms are never truly allowed to win: “They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice…As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it’s just like if I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on. Ain’t got no use for me then. I know what I’m talking about…If you colored and you can make them some money, then you all right with them. Otherwise, you just a dog in the alley.”
Given the maddening, inescapable realities of black life as depicted in Wilson’s oeuvre, it’s unsurprising that so many of his characters opt out of the game by escaping into madness. Nearly every play in “The Pittsburgh Cycle” features some variation of the holy fool or the damaged misfit, including “Joe Turner”’s haunted Herald Loomis, “Seven Guitars”’ murderously delusional King Hedley, Troy Maxson’s shell-shocked brother Gabriel in “Fences”, the amusingly single-minded Hambone of “Two Trains Running”, “King Hedley II”’s neighborhood eccentric Stool Pigeon and the offstage breakdowns of characters like Cigar Annie and Jasper in “Jitney” and “Radio Golf”’s Sam Green, a successful grocer who lost his mind after being arrested simply for wearing the wrong color skin in a rich white neighborhood (much like Wilson’s own teen years in Hazelwood, Pennsylvania, where the open racism of his classmates and teachers caused him to drop out of school in the tenth grade).
Faced with seemingly insurmountable pressures and hardships and disoriented by their own contradictory impulses, even Wilson’s “sane” characters frequently snap, erupting in desperate spasms of crime and brutality or quieter acts of betrayal (like Troy Maxson’s infidelity in “Fences”). Yet, in a society where the law is used “to chaos,” sanity is relative and the line between right and wrong is often maddeningly hard to define. For example, while the deaths of characters in several of his plays are presented as regrettable consequences of misdirected fear and loathing, Wilson also suggests that such acts are sometimes necessary and defensible. The mill in “Gem of the Ocean” is a symbol of oppression, thus Solly’s decision to burn it down can be seen as a revolutionary act of defiance. Herald Loomis’ desperate act of self-mutilation in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is the catalyst that allows him to “[accept] the responsibility for his own presence in the world” and “soar above the environs that weighed and pushed his spirit into terrifying contractions.” Meanwhile, Troy Maxson explains that his infidelity allows him to “get away from the pressures and problems…be a different man” after “standing in the same place for eighteen years.” And, perhaps most tellingly, Booster justifies his murder of the white girl who falsely accused him of rape as the act of a warrior: “I wanted to make them remember my name…I made my choice. I took my road and I did what was right for me. I paid the consequences. Now that’s over and done.”
In other words, when the game is rigged, the law is misused, only sell-outs seem to get ahead and freedom, to quote Solly Two Kings, “ain’t never been nothing but trouble,” many of Wilson’s (specifically male) characters withdraw into paranoid solipsism, trusting only their own desires while fiercely protective of their pride. As the title character of “King Hedley II” explains: “I ain’t sorry for nothing I done. And ain’t gonna be sorry. I’m gonna see to that. ‘Cause I’m gonna do the right thing. Always. It ain’t in me to do nothing else. We might disagree about what that is. But I know what right is for me. As long as I draw a breath in my body I’m gonna do the right thing for me. What I got to be sorry for?”
But, as Wilson demonstrates repeatedly, pride is not the same as honor, and freedom without responsibility can itself become a trap. Solly’s act of defiance costs him everything and doesn’t really solve anything, like many other violent and criminal acts throughout the “Cycle”. Troy Maxson’s infidelity brings temporary pleasure, but at the cost of his marriage. As Booster eventually says of his rationale for killing Sally McKnight, “…it didn’t add up the way I thought it would.”
With no easy answers, Wilson continuously stresses the importance of questions, using the jazz of his conversational duets to explore the validity of multiple viewpoints. In much the same way Solly Two Kings has difficulty reconciling the “mixed messages in the Bible, which teaches both to turn the other cheek and to smite your enemies,” so do the characters of “The Pittsburgh Cycle” navigate their own lives and the life of their communities through endless conversation, checking and rechecking relative positions against common reference points, while trying their best to stay on course. Throughout this journey, Aunt Ester functions as the North Star, a constant tribute to the primacy of tradition, community, and responsibility — as opposed to the false values and simplistic solutions attributed by Holloway to the sham mystic Prophet Samuel in “Two Trains Running”: “Aunt Ester…don’t make people rich. You go up there talking about you wanna get rich and she won’t have nothing to do with you. She send you to see Prophet Samuel…and you see how far that’ll get you.”
As noted earlier, Wilson allows his characters to voice many opinions, but clearly values some more than others. In The Piano Lesson, for example, Boy Willie is not condemned for his shady (possibly murderous) activities, and his desire to put the past behind him and buy the land his ancestors worked as slaves in order to build a new life for himself is admirable – so long as his advancement is not at the expense of his cultural heritage, represented here by a piano decorated with images of his family, which he intends to sell for the money to buy the land. As his sister Berniece reminds him, “Money can’t buy what that piano cost. You can’t sell your soul for money.”
Arguably, this concern for the soul of Black America is the principal theme of “The Pittsburgh Cycle”, with every conversational duet steering Wilson’s characters towards redemption or damnation, both individually and collectively. Like a stern but compassionate father, the playwright loves all the children of his imagination, even when they fail to lead what the playwright seems to consider the ideal of a “good, honest decent life” as typified by “Jitney”’s Becker: “I am the boss of a jitney station. I’m a deacon down at the church. Got me a little house. It ain’t much but it’s mine. I worked twenty-seven years at the mill…got me a pension. I got a wife. I got respect. I can walk anywhere and hold my head up high.”
Of course, while heartfelt and commendable, the playwright’s romanticized view of simple, decent working men and his apparent distrust of the social climbers in a black middle class which, according to Suzan-Lori Parks in an “American Theater” piece on the playwright, “seems to be divorcing themselves from that community” reads a tad disingenuous from a man as successful and ambitious as Wilson, who never allows his characters (with the possible exceptions of Ma Rainey and the proud, murderous King Hedley in “Seven Guitars”) to climb too high or get too rowdy without incurring disapproval or punishment. Again, like a father (specifically Troy Maxson), Wilson occasionally seems a bit too protective of Aunt Ester’s “children,” fearful “the white man ain’t gonna let [them] get nowhere…noway.”
Thus, in each play, at least one figure (i.e., Citizen Barlow, Herald Loomis, Levee, Boy Willie, Floyd Barton, Troy Maxson, Sterling, Booster, “King Hedley II” and Harmond Wilks) is caught in the no-man’s-land between correct behavior (represented variously by steadfast women like Aunt Ester, Ma Rainey, Rose Maxson, etc. and/or upright men like Seth Holly, Memphis, Becker, etc.) and incorrect behavior (represented by sell-outs, floozies and charlatans like Caesar, Roosevelt Hicks, Dussie Mae and Prophet Samuel). Levee, for instance, chooses the wrong path: kissing the white man’s ass for a shot at fast money and fame, then committing murder in frustration over his own impotence and humiliation. Seventy years later, at the end of the “Cycle” and the twentieth century, Harmond Wilks chooses instead to stand with his people, possibly at the expense of his career, in a somewhat pyrrhic moral victory that nevertheless allows him to keep his dignity (and Wilson’s theme of community) intact. In the playwright’s own words (from Parks’s article): “We have gained a lot of sophistication and expertise and resources, and we should be helping that community, which is completely devastated by drugs and crime and the social practices of the past hundred years of the country…But you can still be middle class; you can still live the life you want to; you can still be contributing to where you came from. If you don’t recognize that you have a duty and a responsibility, then obviously you won’t do that. Some people don’t feel that responsibility, but I do, so I thought I would express that in the work. In the 21st century, we can go forward together.”
Integral to Wilson’s concern for the soul of his community is an abiding interest in “the metaphysical presence of a spirit world,” which runs throughout the “Cycle” as a wellspring of strength and renewal. Aunt Ester’s children may rise or fall based on their choices and the influence of outside forces, but nothing is irrevocable. Even death is not the end as long as the living continue to remember what has come before. Or, as West the mortician says in “Two Trains Running”, “You can live to be a hundred and fifty and you’ll never have a greater moment than when you breathe your last breath. Ain’t nothing you can do in life compared to it. See, right then you done something. You became a part of everything that come before. And that’s a great thing. Ain’t nothing you can do in life compared to that.”
For Wilson, the great moment has occurred, and he now belongs to everything that came before, waiting to be discovered and rediscovered by future generations. But in the unparalleled achievement of his “Pittsburgh Cycle”, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright has already secured a kind of immortality for himself and the overheard, underrepresented voices he championed, forever enriching the soul of a nation and the African Americans who struggle to make it their home.
“You think you supposed to know everything. Life is a mystery. Don’t you know life is a mystery? I see you still trying to figure it out. It ain’t all for you to know. It’s all an adventure. That’s all life is. But you got to trust that adventure.” — Aunt Ester, “Gem of the Ocean”
(George C. Wolfe’s cinematic adaptation of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is currently in theaters and coming to Netflix on 12/8/20.)