There's nothing like a strong sense of place to ground a work of art. William Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha County for his novels, John Cheever set many short stories in the Connecticut suburbs, and the Bronte sisters had the Yorkshire moors.
For August Wilson, the rich loam of his fiction was the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where the playwright was born in 1945 and spent more than half his life.
Wilson is the author of what has come to be called the Century Cycle, a series of 10 plays that chronicle African-American life, one for each decade of the 20th century. It's an astonishing achievement that places him in the company of Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams — even more astonishing in that Wilson was a ninth-grade dropout who gave credit for his education mainly to the Carnegie Library card he got at age 5.
American Stage has committed to performing the entire cycle, beginning last season with Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904. Now the theater's second installment is King Hedley II, the third-to-last play that Wilson wrote and set in 1985. He died of liver cancer in 2005, not long after his final play, Radio Golf, had its premiere.
One play in the cycle, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, takes place in a Chicago recording studio, but all the rest are in the Hill District.
"I sometimes wonder, 'Why Pittsburgh?' But then I think, 'Why not Pittsburgh?' '' says Rob Zellers, a playwright and education director at Pittsburgh Public Theater, which has produced all the plays in Wilson's cycle.
"They're not plays about Pittsburgh; they're plays about America that happen to be set in Pittsburgh. But you can tell the whole story right here. You had industrialization. You had segregated neighborhoods. You had Negro League baseball and two of the best teams there were, the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. You had other immigrant groups. The civil rights struggle took place here as much as anywhere. It could be any Northern industrial city, but then maybe not. Maybe all the proper ingredients were here. In the specifics of Pittsburgh, Wilson found the great universal things.''
The Hill District is only a short walk from downtown Pittsburgh, but white residents of the city almost never went there. "I have lived in Pittburgh now for 40 years,'' says Christopher Rawson, longtime theater critic with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and an expert on Wilson's life and work. "I'd say for the first 30 years I was here, I never went through the Hill District. You drove around it, because it was a depressed area, and it had a scary reputation — much scarier than was ever deserved, of course. But now I've gotten to know it quite well. Visiting actors and so on, I give them a tour of all the August Wilson sites. You can locate most of the plays at various places in the Hill District.''
The Post-Gazette has a section on its Web site (post-gazette.com/theater) called "August Wilson's Pittsburgh'' that has a wealth of material, including a useful map placing each play in the Hill District and other Wilson landmarks.
Harlem poet Claude McKay once called the Hill District the crossroads of America. Jazz musicians Earl "Fatha'' Hines, Erroll Garner, Billy Strayhorn, Ahmad Jamal, Art Blakey and Mary Lou Williams all grew up in and around the Hill. The Pittsburgh Courier was the largest-circulation black newspaper in the country in the 1930s.
"August was the inheritor of a lot of cultural history,'' says Rawson, who teaches a course on Wilson at the University of Pittsburgh. "All the plays come out of his growing up in Pittsburgh in the '50s and '60s, and all the stuff he heard on the streets of the Hill District. That's where all the whorehouses were, all the jazz clubs. His plays harvest the experience he had sitting in the barber shops, the numbers joints, the back-room speakeasies, the jitney stations.''
Like many writers, though, Wilson had to leave his hometown to find his voice. At 33, he moved away from Pittsburgh, first to St. Paul, Minn., then to Seattle. Living in those two predominantly white cities, he wrote the 10 plays in an amazing creative burst of energy between 1978 and 2005.
"There weren't many black folks around'' in St. Paul, Wilson said in an interview with John Lahr, theater critic of the New Yorker. "In that silence, I could hear the language for the first time.'' Until then, he said, he hadn't "valued or respected the way that black folks talked. I'd always thought that in order to create art out of it you had to change that.''
Wilson told Lahr that he missed the street talk of the Hill District. "I got lonely and missed those guys. I could hear the music.''
Wilson was often critical of his hometown. "Pittsburgh is a very hard city, especially if you're black,'' he once said.
Later, from a distance, his attitude mellowed. "Like most people, I have this sort of love-hate relationship with Pittsburgh,'' he told the Post-Gazette in 1994. "This is my home and at times I miss it and find it tremendously exciting, and other times I want to catch the first thing out that has wheels.''
He came back frequently to Pittsburgh for productions of his work at the Public Theater. One of Zellers' most vivid memories is of the much-honored playwright, a chain smoker, taking constant cigarette breaks with the stage crew on the loading dock of the theater. He was a shy, humble person.
"I remember once when we were opening one of his shows, and we were standing out in front of the theater, and there were local dignitaries and celebrities and the press, all of them wanting to talk to him,'' Zellers says. "But at one point, he walked away from that group and went and talked to two elderly sisters — nuns — who were coming into the theater. They had been his elementary school teachers. He saw them, he recognized them. With them he was much more comfortable, much more animated.''
The final chapter
King Hedley II, which opens this week at American Stage, is one of Wilson's most challenging plays. The title character is a man who served seven years in prison for killing someone who slashed his face with a razor. Now King and a crony are engaged in a scam to peddle refrigerators, and they rob a jeweler to get money to open a video store. Ominously, several of the play's six characters are packing guns.
"I think the arcs of these characters are some of the most contradictory and complex in all of Wilson,'' director Bob Devin Jones says. "There's a lot of good they want to do, but you've got to square that with robbing a jewelry store. It's the '80s, with crack coming in, drive-by shootings. Those were difficult times.''
American Stage wanted to keep as many cast members as it could from its hit production of Gem of the Ocean, also directed by Jones. Three actors return for King Hedley II: Sharon Scott, Kim Sullivan and Alan Bomar Jones. The title role is played by Postell Pringle, who previously appeared with the company in The Bomb-Itty of Errors, a hip-hop treatment of The Comedy of Errors.
King Hedley II, premiered by Pittsburgh Public Theater in 1999, is a long, rough-hewn epic, full of rococo street-corner speeches. Rawson considers it the most Shakespearean of Wilson's plays.
"It is the most massive, the most operatic,'' the Pittsburgh critic says. "Hedley is also by far the darkest of the plays. August kept putting it off. He said, 'I don't want to write about the '80s, the '80s were an awful time.' It was the one he kept putting off, because he knew it would be painful.''
So American Stage audience are in for an uncompromising theatrical experience with King Hedley II. "You've got to luxuriate in it,'' Rawson says. "Hang on for the ride.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.