Seven of One, Five of the Other: Half way through August Wilson’s Century Cycle



Having declared my intention to stage and direct the entire Pittsburgh Cycle or the Century Cycle by August Wilson I am taking time to take stock of the journey begun in 2010 with my first production of Gem of the Ocean.

The experience of staging and directing Gem of the Ocean had a profound effect on me and my troupe of Playaz. It set us on a path we are still traveling on. It gave us new language. It gave us a clearer lens. It sharpened us in many ways. For some of us, it offered defining moments, we now knew what we knew in contextual ways that allowed us to understand things we had always known. This blessed us with the ability to act. For us its about acting; acting on stage and in real life. The association with Wilson has affected our own art making and made us look at how we move in the world, our neighborhood, and our lived lives. We are connected to our song. We are aware we have a song. We have come home and home is glorious. Wilson has made us rich. So we have become devotees of tales of iron and water. We are walking with Wilson and singing.

As we begin our 12 season of theater in West Oakland Ca. we do so from a point informed by our walk with Wilson. We are contributing to the preservation of the tradition of Black Arts being presented in West Oakland like tales from Wilson keep alive the Hill District of Pennsylvania. We are using our story as scribed by Wilson to open dialogues in public spaces like the stories have opened spaces within us for introspection of the richness of our culture prior to and in North America.

Wilson is a bluesologist and we are blues people. Avotcja Jiltonilro explained to me once that  the blues as we know it actually evolved from praise music not from the angst of the American experience as we have been taught. It is our song. Our ever overstanding of the beauty and majesty inherent in life and our heart’s determination to continue beating. The non apologetic shout of our triumphant survival when they thought there was no way we could survive. It is our juba paid freely after rising resurrected from plantations, share cropping, segregation and the perils of integration. It traversed with us from bucolic planted fields with blood at the root to blooming neon flowers springing from concrete. It is the battle cry that sustains us as we beat back the meanness of city streets as we vigilantly search for the path to a better now.

(Pictures from top to bottom: Season 11 Piano Lesson Flyer back designed by Eesuu. Koran   Streets Jenkins as Citizen Barlow from Gem of the Ocean, Seasons 9 & 10, Adimu WolfHawkJaguar Madyun as Solly Two Kings in Gem of the Ocean, Seasons 9 & 10.)

The production of Gem in Season 9 was such a profound experience we repeated the production in the 10th Season. In staging the second production of Gem my love affair with Wilson bloomed as my troupe grew into the work and my commitment to see the entire cycle produced in order in one theater was born.

The experience of doing the work in order has been a high point in my career as a creative. It is perhaps the most conscious I have ever been in the staging and producing of work. It is the work being done here that has allowed me a unique way of integrating my understanding of the movement, driving forces, and shaping context of the North American African experience in North America over the last century.  I am a person who wants the whole story in as much as it can be given. It is the African in me that wants and needs context to make sense of the past and its relationship to the present. Wilson has helped me to understand that my desire is natural, and a necessary skill for a would be griot who wants to use story to instruct and guide. Wilson is the most skillful storyteller I know.

The stories while each dedicated to a decade are the same story told over and over again to different tunes. I contend that artists have one conversation they simply reiterate it in a kaleidoscope of their overstanding of the points they are making.

Wilson wants us to remember to remember. He wants us to have a point of departure for the many paths our North American experience has taken. He wants us to see ourselves as whole and capable of thriving and adept at reinventing ourselves and the most scared elements of our culture wherever we land. He wants us to question, to see, and to rejoice. He draws our attention to geographic place to explore our inner workings and unconscious motivations. As a part of Wilson’s song he recalls for us and our part of the song is our response to remembering. In a real sense we are singing with Wilson. In a real sense the song continues and we grow it connected to the wind, the water, the land, and all the things that lie between like the old folks. We plant this song like seed knowing it will be grown. We are blues people.

Gem set us on the path of understanding the past to overstand the present and Joe Turner grew our understanding of how our failure to remember stunted our ability to discern. In Joe Turners Come and Gone it is Herald Loomis’s ability to bleed for himself that sets him free to reinvent himself in a new life and to stand on the life he has finally been able to let go. He is able to love, to live, to dream again once he is connected with his song — his movement in the world becomes smoothed out so that he can continue. Wilson’s blues is a song in motion.  Movement is a recurring theme.

In Ma Rainey we see the song on the move and as we move with it along the continuum the cycle offers we come to the place where we examine how much the song is worth. Can we sell it for comfort as we move through this world. What is the cost of selling your song? In Joe Turner we considered the fact that those who were willing to pay for the song were hungry for something they thought we had. Something they perhaps felt they were missing. Joe Turner was ravenous for it and kept collecting folks and holding them to learn the secret of the song. The men that lost their song were broken but Joe Turner remained hungry. Perhaps as Bernice asmonishes Boy Willie in the Piano Lesson about exchanging his soul for money; the song won’t go with the buyer.

In Ma Rainey we walk with Levee in the thirties in North America and think about the violence enacted by North American African youth at the dawn of the new millennium. That is another powerful element in the artistry of Wilson, his eriery ability to collapse temporal space, rendering time liquid.  Beginning with Gem and throughout the cycle we are encouraged to see time as a place in which the then, and the now merge, and create a connection; a new viewing platform. This fluid view of time is again a reminder of movement and in this case the lack of movement through the space of time in the face of constant movement in place. The consideration of non-movement is as essential as the consideration of movement in unearthing the context of the present moment.

In Ma Rainey we were allowed a space to consider the modern minstrel  what motivates them and what role they play in our community. The experience of this production inform our discussions of new media offered by the likes of Tyler Perry, and Quentin Tarrentino. Our palates have been educated in a way that dull our appreciation of gas station sushi.

Gem’s Caesar, both Seth and Herald in Joe Turner, Ma Rainey’s Levee, and Piano Lesson’s Boy Willie  lend complexity to conversations about striving, hunger, and ambition connecting them to the ownership, loss, and selling of your song/your soul/your mojo. It connects the song to concepts of wealth and deepens discussions of hunger as well as discussions of becoming what you eat. What does it cost to wear the clothes, speak the language, and think in the logic of the ancestors of those who brought your ancestors across the water and shifted the very ground upon which they stood metaphorically and literally. Wilson makes you want to consider the worth of what your ancestors  brought with them and tended for you.

His sense of the North American African experience in North America as a vehicle to unfold a more contextual autochthonous American story is the reason Wison is aurgeabley the most important American playwright in the last quarter century. His work allows and enables an American narrative of wholeness and thriving in the face of change, and in the face of the lack of it, that is muted elsewhere. In the parlance; Wilson is the truth.

I am more appreciative of Wilson’s contention that “our stories are all we need” as I travel on with him into the 12 season. I am  looking forward to becoming immersed in the world of Seven Gutiars. I welcome the things we will come to know as we enter the backyard where this story unfolds in flashbacks. Wilson, stunting, takes us into our own backyard making us understand and continue to explore the function of memory and the evolution of story as it stands steadfast to tell the same tale until you overstand it like a blues song.

(From top to bottom: Top-Scene for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, l to r, Adimu Madyu, Tatiana Monet, James Brooks, She Cat, Alicia Green, and Stanley Hunt. Middle photo Tyler Thompson and Niko Buchanan form The Piano Lesson. Bottom photo: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom cast members Ayodele Nzinga and Loren Churchill. )

More  Wilson & I & Wilson True North

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

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