Two years ago, close to a hundred luminaries of the American theater (including several actresses familiar to wider audiences thanks to the miracle of TV) gathered at The Greene Space in New York City to record playwright August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle.
It took Wilson 23 years to write the ten plays that comprise the collection, each one set in a different decade in the 20th century. The result is a composite portrait of African American life, featuring characters ranging from a former slave to a real estate developer turned savvy politician.
The Greene Space crew labored for a far shorter time, but as the project’s Artistic Director, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, notes above, they did so with integrity, humanity, and concentrated effort. The late Wilson, his friend and long time Wilson intepreter avows, “would not have stood for anything less.”
Where should the virgin listener dip in? Do as Julie Andrews counsels in The Sound of Music. Start at the beginning. It’s not the order in which the plays were written—1982’s 70’s-set Jitney was the first—but the order in which the Greene Space plans to release the recordings, one every Sunday.
Currently, you have your choice of three decades, with descriptions supplied by the project’s coordinators:
The action takes place in the Pittsburgh home of Aunt Ester, a 285-year-old former slave and renowned cleanser of souls. A young man from Alabama visits her for help in absolving the guilt and shame he carries from a crime he’s committed, and she takes him on a journey of self-discovery.
Set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone tells the story of owners Seth and Bertha Holly and the makeshift family of migrants who pass through during the Great Migration of the 1910s. (Keep your ears peeled for Law & Order’s S. Epatha Merkerson, aka Pee Wee Herman’s friend, Reba the Mail Lady, in the role of Bertha.)
Legendary blues singer Ma Rainey and her band players convene in a Chicago studio to record a new album. As their conversation unfolds, their bantering, storytelling and arguing raise questions of race, art and the historic exploitation of black recording artists by white producers.
After all ten plays have been released, you’ll have until August 26 of this year to listen to the Pittsburgh Cycle (also known as the American Century Cycle) in its entirety.
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