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The Essential Guide to 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' Playwright August Wilson

Discover this treasure trove of plays exploring the Black experience from the 1900s to the 1990s

Playwright August Wilson

Michelle McLoughlin/AP Photo

August Wilson

En español | One of this award season's biggest critical darlings is Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which is set in the world of 1920s blues musicians and features Oscar winner Viola Davis, 55, and the late Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman in his final role. The film, which is playing in select theaters now and will be released on Netflix on Dec. 18, is based on a play by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson.

You may know Ma Rainey, but do you know that it's part of a larger cycle of plays that Wilson wrote — the Pittsburgh Cycle — between the late 1970s and his untimely death in 2005? Each of the 10 plays in the series offers a glimpse into the Black experience during a different decade of the 20th century. Following everyday folks, from formerly enslaved people to trash collectors, jitney drivers to Ivy League-educated developers, the plays run the gamut from bawdy comedies to Greek-inspired tragedies. Here's a decade-by-decade guide to this epic theatrical series, complete with ways you can engage with them at home, including film adaptations, online clips, and Black-owned independent bookstores where you can buy the scripts.


The 1900s: Gem of the Ocean (2003)

The Plot: Set in 1904 in Pittsburgh's Hill District, this symbolism-rich play introduces one of Wilson's most indelible creations, the formerly enslaved Aunt Ester, who is said to be 285 years old. From her home at 1839 Wylie Avenue, Ester offers sanctuary to troubled folks looking to cleanse their souls, and she leads them on a poetic journey of spiritual reawakening to the mythical City of Bones. Phylicia Rashad, 72, earned a Tony nod for the 2004 Broadway production, which was also nominated for best play.

How to Experience the Play at Home: Watch a clip of Rashad from PBS’ American Masters.

The 1910s: Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1984)

The Plot: It's 1911, and Seth and Bertha Holly's Pittsburgh boardinghouse plays host to a rotating cast of characters taking part in the early days of the Great Migration, during which the descendants of enslaved African Americans began their move toward new lives in the industrial North. Among those passing through is Herald Loomis, a strange man who's searching for his wife. The original 1984 Broadway production starred Delroy Lindo, 68, and Angela Bassett, 62.

How to Experience the Play at Home: Consider buying the play script from a Black-owned shop, such as The Tiny Bookstore, located in the Pittsburgh suburbs.

The 1920s: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1982)

The Plot: The only play in the Pittsburgh Cycle not set in Pittsburgh, this music-filled work takes place on a sweltering day in a Chicago recording studio in 1927, as Ma Rainey — based on a real singer nicknamed “The Mother of the Blues” — records an album with her bandmates. Filled with jokes, stories and memories, the play offers a commentary on the ways Black recording artists were often exploited by the music industry. Over the years, Ma Rainey has been played by Theresa Merritt (Aunt Em in The Wiz), Whoopi Goldberg (65) and West End legend Sharon D. Clarke (54).

How to Experience the Play at Home: Watch the new cinematic adaptation, directed by two-time Tony winner George C. Wolfe, available on Netflix Dec. 18.


The 1930s: The Piano Lesson (1987)

The Plot: Set during the Great Depression, this Pulitzer Prize winner follows the Charles family, as its members struggle to decide what to do with their greatest heirloom: a 137-year-old, hand-carved piano that had been traded for their enslaved ancestors. The son wants to sell the piano to buy land, while his sister refuses to let it go. This fall, Denzel Washington, 65, announced plans to produce a new cinematic adaptation with Samuel L. Jackson, 71, and Moonlight's Barry Jenkins as potential star and director — part of his ongoing effort to film all 10 plays.

How to Experience the Play at Home: In 1995 CBS released a Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation, starring Alfre Woodard (68), Charles S. Dutton (69) and Courtney B. Vance (60). While it's not currently available to stream, you can find the DVD on Amazon.

The 1940s: Seven Guitars (1995)

The Plot: In this bawdy tragicomedy, seven friends gather in the backyard of a Pittsburgh boardinghouse to mourn the sudden death of blues guitarist Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton. What follows is an extended flashback to Schoolboy's eventful last week alive, as he's released from jail and finds out that a recording he made months before has become an unexpected hit. Viola Davis earned her first of three Tony nominations — all for performances in Wilson plays — for the 1996 Broadway production.

How to Experience the Play at Home: Buy a copy of the script from Chicago's Goodman Theatre, where the play premiered in 1995.

The 1950s: Fences (1985)

The Plot: This Pulitzer-winning family drama centers around the complex and flawed Troy Maxson, who might be thought of as the African American answer to Death of a Salesman's Willy Loman. A former Negro league baseball star who was excluded from the majors due to his race, Maxson works as a trash collector and lets his bitterness seep into his relationships with his wife, Rose, and his sons. James Earl Jones, 89, and Mary Alice, 79, won Tonys for playing the Maxsons for the 1987 Broadway production, and Denzel Washington and Viola Davis repeated the feat during the 2010 revival.

How to Experience the Play at Home: Washington directed and starred in the 2016 cinematic adaptation, which once again co-starred Davis. You can rent the movie on Amazon Prime ($3.99) to see these towering performances, which earned Davis her first Oscar — not to mention an AARP Movies for Grownups Award.


The 1960s: Two Trains Running (1990)

The Plot: This collective portrait of a neighborhood in flux is set entirely in Memphis Lee's Pittsburgh coffee shop, which is slated for demolition in the name of “urban renewal.” As the Black Power movement gains steam outside, regulars gather in the diner to gossip, laugh and talk politics. Laurence Fishburne, 59, won a 1992 Tony Award for his portrayal of Sterling, a bank robber just released from prison.

How to Experience the Play at Home: The Yale Repertory Theatre premiered six of the 10 Pittsburgh Cycle plays, including Two Trains Running. Order your copy from New Haven's Black-owned, social-justice-minded bookshop, People Get Ready.

The 1970s: Jitney (1979)

The Plot: Critics have often compared Wilson's lyrical dialogue to jazz, and nowhere is that spirit more evident than in this 1977-set play, which takes place entirely inside a rundown gypsy cab station populated by a makeshift family of drivers. Jitney was the first Pittsburgh Cycle play to be written (in 1979, before a 1982 theatrical debut) but the last to make it to Broadway, in a lauded production that opened in 2017 and starred Moonlight's André Holland.

How to Experience the Play at Home: Watch clips from the 2017 Broadway production, presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club.


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The 1980s: King Hedley II (1999)

The Plot: If the title of Wilson's Reagan-era-set drama sounds epic, that's very much by design: The darkest entry in his Pittsburgh Cycle is a tragedy that calls to mind Shakespeare and Sophocles. Wilson picks up on stories first introduced in Seven Guitars and follows the namesake ex-convict as he tries to make a living selling stolen refrigerators.

How to Experience the Play at Home: Get a taste for Wilson's soul-stirring writing in this clip from the 2001 Tony Awards, featuring nominee Brian Stokes Mitchell, 63, and winner Viola Davis.

The 1990s: Radio Golf (2005)

The Plot: Finished just months before Wilson's death from liver cancer in 2005, the culmination of his 10-play epic traces the rise of Ivy League–educated real estate developer Harmond Wilks, who is on a mission to become the first Black mayor of Pittsburgh. His latest project involves redeveloping the Hill District, but one problem stands in his way — the house at 1839 Wylie Avenue. If that address sounds familiar, you may remember an earlier resident: Aunt Ester! Will Wilks demolish the house to make way for gentrification or honor the legacy of the community's ancestors?

How to Experience the Play at Home: On YouTube, you can watch a staged reading of the play by Almasi Arts, a Zimbabwean-American drama nonprofit co-founded by The Walking Dead and Black Panther star Danai Gurira.

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