A Year with August

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Explore the complete works of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson with Aurora Theatre Companys Associate Artistic Director Dawn Monique Williams over the course of this monthly book club. Members, having concluded their journey through Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle will now discuss Wilson’s final work, How I Learned What I Learned, and discuss the recent film adaptations of Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Wilson's Century Cycle exalts "the poetry in the everyday language of black America" (The Paris Review) and are among the most celebrated plays of the modern American canon. Unless otherwise specified, all meetings of this book club will be held virtually in a webinar format, where members can sign in from anywhere in the world to see the conversation. Be sure to register early to submit questions or participate live in the discussion. Dates and discussion material are as follows.

July 12, 2021 | How I Learned What I Learned

Synopsis: How I Learned What I Learned is Wilson’s theatrical memoir; a patchwork of musings, reflections, and the stories of his life as a young poet and one of the United States most celebrated playwrights. First performed by Wilson himself, How I Learned, is a solo show reaching to the depths of one man’s journey through adversity and triumph. This session will also welcome discussion on the film adaptations of Wilson’s earliest commercial successes, Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.  

As you read/view consider the following for our conversation:

  • How does reading The Ground on Which I Stand inform your experience reading How I Learned What I Learned?Why the title Radio Golf?
  • How do these film versions meet or defy your expectations of these plays in performance?
  • How do these film versions meet or defy your expectations of these plays in performance?

June 14, 2021 | The Ground on Which I Stand

Synopsis: Given as an address at the 1996 Theatre Communications Group national conference, August Wilson’s The Ground on Which I Stand, is a clear manifesto for the Black theatre movement Wilson envisioned. A blueprint, or prescription if you will, for redefining the state of the arts, Ground lead to an infamous series of debates between Wilson and theatre critic Robert Brustein, culminating in a Town Hall event. Some 25 years later, we consider the impact of this speech and Wilson’s body of work.

Link to read The Ground on Which I Stand

Additional Links for your consideration

May 10, 2021 | Radio Golf

Synopsis: Completed in 2005, just months before Wilson’s death, Radio Golf premiered on Broadway in 2007. At the center of the play is Harmond Wilks, an upwardly mobile Black man set to be the first Black mayor of Pittsburgh. He and his wife Mame, along with their business partner Roosevelt Hicks, are invested in a major real estate development in “the Hill.” Wilks’ star is on the rise when he learns that at the heart of this major demolition project is the house at 1839 Wylie. This sacred ground was the home of Aunt Ester, the most revered ancestor of the Hill District. Harmond must wrestle with his own idea of the American Dream and measure of success and the legacy left him by his father. Does revitalizing the Hill mean tearing down the old? Is looking back the only way forward?

As you read Radio Golf consider the following for our conversation:

  • Why the title Radio Golf?
  •  How does Wilson draw a distinction between building up and investing in the community and gentrification?
  •  How do you respond to Harmond’s emotional dilemma?

April 12, 2021 | King Hedley II

Synopsis: Perhaps the most tragic of Wilson’s plays, King Hedley II deals in retribution and unrest. On a block where seeds planted, can’t grow, King tries to rebuild his life after seven years of incarnation. Set almost two generations after Seven Guitars, Wilson reintroduces Ruby along with her son King Hedley II who is caught up with runners and hustlers. Against a backdrop of 1980s trickledown Reaganomics, King’s homecoming is rocky; finding employment options limited, he boosts and resells home appliances to earn the money needed to start a video store. Tanya, his pregnant wife, doubting King’s reliability, struggles with the decision to carry the pregnancy to term. Other residents of the hill tempt and test King’s determination and resilience as Wilson explores legacy, ritual, and blood-bonds. Written in 1999, King Hedley II premiered on Broadway in 2001.

As you read King Hedley II consider the following for our conversation:

  • What is this play’s relationship to Seven Guitars?
  • How is Wilson continuing to explore father-to-son legacies? What strikes us as similar to Fences or Jitney in that regard, what strikes us as different?
  • How does Wilson bring the gun violence he has explored in previous works to a head here?

March 8, 2021 | Jitney

Synopsis: Wilson’s last work to make it to Broadway (posthumously in 2017), is a character study set in Jim Becker’s jitney station. The residents of “the Hill” can’t catch a taxi in their neighborhood so Becker’s unlicensed car service is a mainstay for the community. Looming over this portrait of daily life, is that as part of ongoing urban renewal the city threatens to condemn the building. Becker and his son, Booster, come to blows, while war veterans Doub and Youngblood try to reconcile contrasting worldviews. In this drama rich with generational conflict young men try to forge paths of their own under the gaze of their cynical, disapproving elders. First produced in 1982, Wilson once again captures the majesty of the mundane. Jitney was finally complete and published in 2000.

As you read Jitney consider the following for our conversation:

  • Is Wilson making a comment on the impact of the carceral system? Is there a difference in how Booster’s time served is different than other characters we’ve encountered?
  • This play is more character driven than plot driven. How does that effect you, the reader?
  • This play has been criticized as one of Wilson’s lesser works. Why?

February 8, 2021 | Two Trains Running

Synopsis: Set in Memphis Lee’s diner in 1969, Wilson’s Two Trains Running considers the weight of freedom. Both Dr. King and Malcolm X have been assassinated, Black Power is the cry on the streets, and the residents of the Hill are making a stand for Civil Rights. Urban renewal threatens Memphis’ restaurant which has been a touchstone in the community; a gathering space in the community filled with joy, laughter, rage, and love now on the decline as economics and politics encroach upon the once thriving neighborhood.

 As you read Two Trains Running consider the following for our conversation:

  • Though not a domestic play, how do we experience familial bonds?
  • How does Wilson explore the dichotomy of thought of the “Civil Rights Era” and Black Power Movement?

January 11, 2021 | Fences

Synopsis: Earning August Wilson his first Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1987, and taking the Tony Award for Best Play, Fences is set once again in Wilson’s very own Hill District of Pittsburgh, PA. The year is 1957, incarceration and the color line in professional baseball have kept Troy Maxson out of the majors. Now an aging trash collector content to turn his paycheck over to his wife Rose and drink whiskey on his stoop after work on Fridays with his friend Bono, Troy must reconcile resentment, racism, and the rapidly changing world that offers his son Cory the opportunities it denied Troy. Cory is Troy’s youngest son and on track to get a football scholarship, but Troy, like his father before him, cuts his son’s dreams short, believing that practicality is the only way for the Black man to advance. With the sins of his past always right at his heels, Troy battles to maintain the stronghold he’s built.

 As you read Fences consider the following for our conversation:

  • Is the impact of integration (i.e. Brown v. Board of Education) felt in the play? How so?
  • Can the title and the character of Gabriel be evidence of Wilson’s position on Christianity in Fences?
  • How does Wilson continue his thread of the supernatural in Fences?

December 14, 2020 | Seven Guitars

Synopsis: In the backyard of a Hill District row home, friends and neighbors gather to recount the final days of blues musician Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton. “Each one of the characters is a guitar,” Wilson says of his only memory play; a world of bluesmen dreaming of better lives and trying to make a place for themselves in a white world that views them as cast-offs. Wilson digs deeper into the question are African-Americans leftovers, as Floyd tries to rekindle a romance with Vera and get her to journey with him and the band to Chicago, and Ruby finds herself drawn to Hedley, and the north, and wanting the country gal she once was to be a distant memory. Set in 1948, and a rapidly changing country, these characters create a symphony of their own as they pluck the notes of advancement, politics, music, sex, and love.

As you read Seven Guitars consider the following for our conversation:

  • Seven Guitars is a memory play. What is the emotional impact of this structure?
  • Can you start to identify characters that might fit into a “Wilson trope”? Who?
  • How are the women in this play, Vera, Louise, and Ruby, distinct from one-another? How are they the same?

November 9, 2020 | The Piano Lesson

Synopsis: Winner of the 1990 Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, The Piano Lesson takes place in 1936 when Boy Willie arrives in Pittsburgh at his sister Berniece’s house having traveled from Mississippi with a truckload of watermelons. Wanting to buy the land his forebears sharecropped, and were enslaved on, he has to come up with the money quick, and has a plan to sell the old family piano. Berniece, with whom he shares ownership of the heirloom, is unwilling to part with what has been in the family for generations and, through a series of intricate carvings, illustrates the family’s ancestry and rise from slavery. The Charles family seems to be haunted by the ghosts of the past and visited by the voices of the ancestors as Wilson asks readers to reckon with the foundation of the prison industrial complex, religion as a means of mobility, the development of an urban city, and the complicated legacy of the enslaved.

October 12, 2020 | Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Synopsis: Inspired by the music and legacy of legendary blues singer, Ma Rainey (Gertrude Pridgett), Wilson illuminates the lives of the unsung background musicians. The year is 1927, and the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey, is set to record an album in a Chicago studio. Tensions mount as the blues players, all Black men, are held in the basement band room awaiting Ma’s arrival. The exploitation of Black recording artists becomes clear as Wilson tackles place of pride, loss of and struggle for dignity, history, and issues of race, class, and gender. A film version of the play, produced by Denzel Washington, directed by George C. Wolfe, and adapted for screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, has an anticipated Netflix release in November. The film stars Viola Davis as Ma Rainey, along with Glynn Turman as Toledo, Colman Domingo as Cutter, and Chadwick Boseman, in his final film role, as Levee.

September 21, 2020 | Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District at the Hollys' boarding house in 1911, a mysterious stranger, Herald Loomis, arrives in search of his wife. Each resident of the boarding house is reconciling a past and legacy of enslavement with the budding development of urban community. The host of characters Loomis encounters include the proprietors of the boarding home, an eccentric conjure man whose practice is firmly rooted in African traditions, and a young musician man up from the South. This drama, by the author of The Piano LessonSeven Guitars, and Fences, is an installment in Wilson’s Century Cycle chronicling Black life in each decade of the 20th century.

August 31, 2020 | Gem Of The Ocean

Synopsis: August Wilson’s Century Cycle (a series of ten plays each set in a different decade) begins with Gem of the Ocean, which takes place in 1904 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (where most of the cycle’s plays are set). Gem of the Ocean unfolds in the home of Aunt Ester, the well-known 285-year-old matriarch whose home has become a sanctuary for the troubled and lost. Onto the scene walks Citizen Barlow, a man who has fled from Alabama in search of renewed life. Citizen has come to Aunt Ester’s because of the tales he has heard of her soul-cleansing powers. Aunt Ester guides him and the other members, old and new, of her household, through a spiritual journey of redemption and self-discovery. When an incident in town leaves the community devastated by the loss of one of their leaders, Citizen steps up to continue the legacy of leading the enslaved toward freedom.

Gem of the Ocean  Plot & Characters

A Year with August Dates 
7 PM Pacific Standard Time

    • August 31 | Gem of the Ocean
    • September 21 | Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
    • October 12 | Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
    • November 9 | The Piano Lesson
    • December 14 | Seven Guitars
    • January 11 | Fences
    • February 8 | Two Trains Running
    • March 8 | Jitney
    • April 12 | King Hedley II
    • May 10 | Radio Golf
    • June 14 | The Ground on Which I Stand
    • July 12 | TBD

 HOSTED BY Dawn Monique Williams

Dawn Monique Williams, Associate Artistic Director, joined the Aurora team in August 2019. A native of Oakland, CA, Dawn was previously the Artistic Associate at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where she directed Merry Wives of Windsor in 2017. Her recent directing credits include Aurora’s Bull in a China ShopEarthrise at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, TiJean and His BrothersWomen on the Verge of a Nervous BreakdownThe Secretaries (Willamette Week’s Top 10 Portland Theatre Productions of 2018), Romeo & Juliet, August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, and Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Stark. She’s directed a range of plays including the English language premiere of Gracia Morales’ NN12OthelloTwelfth NightIn the BloodSteel MagnoliasChildren of EdenThe 25th Annual Spelling BeeLittle Shop of HorrorsBurial at ThebesMedeaAntigone Project, and La Ronde; international directing credits include Edinburgh Festival Fringe productions of Scapin the CheatAnna Bella Eema, and The Tempest. Dawn was a 2016 Princess Grace Theatre Fellowship recipient, was awarded a TCG Leadership U residency grant, funded by the Mellon Foundation, and was a former Killian Directing Fellow at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She is an alum of the Drama League Directors Project and holds an MA in Dramatic Literature and an MFA in Directing. Dawn is a proud member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society.SDC.


August Wilson  

August Wilson was an award-winning American playwright best known for his play, Fences, which won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. In 2016, Fences was made into a film starring Denzel Washington who also served as the film’s director. For his series of ten plays, The Pittsburgh Cycle, which depicts different aspects of the African-American experience in the U.S., Wilson received two Pulitzer Prizes for drama. In all, over the course of his career, Wilson amassed numerous other awards, including a Whiting Award, a Literary Lion Award from the New York Public Library, a Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Award, the American Theatre Critics’ Association Award, the U.S. National Humanities Medal, an Olivier Award, and the Outer Critics Circle Award. In 2005, fourteen days after his death, New York City’s Virginia Theatre was renamed the August Wilson Theatre, becoming the first Broadway Theatre to bear the name of an African-American. In 2006, Wilson was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame. (Source: The Montgomery Fellows Program)