August Wilson's African-American Century

Gem of the Ocean
Marvette Knight (Aunt Ester), Abdul Salaam El Razzac (Eli), Austene Van (Black Mary), Cedric Mays (Citizen Barlow) and James Craven (Solly Two Kings) in the Penumbra Theatre production of August Wilson's GEM OF THE OCEAN.
Photo by Michal Daniel

Playwright August Wilson died of liver cancer two and a half years ago at the age of 60. But despite his early death, he still managed to complete a monumental task - his 20th century cycle - which he began several decades earlier.

His goal was to capture the struggles and drama experienced by black families over a period of 100 years. Penumbra Theater Artistic Director Lou Bellamy says it's a unique and profound achievement.

Lou Bellamy
Penumbra Theatre Artistic Director Lou Bellamy worked closely with August Wilson, and is now memorializing the playwright by performing all ten of the plays in his 20th Century Cycle over the next five years.
Photo by Ann Marsden

"Usually African-Americans are a footnote or an anecdote to the history that's being told," says Bellamy. "With Wilson's history these people are at the center of what's being told. It isn't a side story, it IS the story."

Lou Bellamy says Wilson's accomplishment should be memorialized by people who understand the nuance and intent of his work - and Bellamy knows Wilson's work quite well.

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August Wilson moved to St. Paul in 1978, just two years after Penumbra theater got its start. Bellamy and the Penumbra actors worked with Wilson over the next 12 years while he wrote some of his best known work: Fences, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and The Piano Lesson.

August Wilson
Playwright August Wilson wrote a play for each decade of the 20th century, and placed African-Americans firmly at the center of American history.
Photo courtesy of Penumbra Theatre

Now Penumbra is going to present all of Wilson's 20th Century Cycle.

Chuck Smith, resident director at the Goodman Theater in Los Angeles, says he's seen shows at the Goodman, on Broadway and elsewhere, and none of those performances have matched Penumbra's.

"I've been saying it for years," declares Smith. "If you want to see an August Wilson play done right you've got to go to Penumbra. Those guys know him, they know how to speak that language, because they developed it with him."

There are themes that run throughout Wilson's works: the strength of black women, the frustration of black men at having so much potential and nowhere to go with it. There's always an elder in a Wilson play, connecting people to their past.

In "Gem of the Ocean," elder Solly Two Kings tell a young man named Citizen about what it was like fleeing slavery and making it across the border into Canada.

Abdul Salaam El Razzac
James Craven (Solly Two Kings), T. Mychael Rambo (Caesar) and Abdul Salaam El Razzac (Eli) in the Penumbra Theatre production of August Wilson's GEM OF THE OCEAN.
Photo by Michal Daniel

"The man that brought us over the border came over and tried to talk to me," Solly Two Kings say. "I just sat right down on the ground and started crying. I told him I don't feel right. It didn't feel right being in freedom and my mama and all the other people still being in bondage. I say I'm going back with you. I stopped crying as soon as I said that, and joined the underground railroad."

Abdul Salaam El Razzac plays the part of Eli in Gem of the Ocean. El Razzac was a member of the Penumbra Theatre at its founding, and was there on stage when August Wilson was sitting in the theater rewriting his plays in response to what he saw.

El Razzac now works in films and lives in Los Angeles, but he regularly returns to Penumbra to perform in August Wilson plays. He says he takes pride in being called a Wilsonian actor.

"Because to me that's equated with being a Shakespearean actor," says El Razzac. "Everbody can't do Shakespeare, and I'm an example - I think I've done the worst production of Romeo and Juliet in history. But I know that not everybody can do August's work."

Penumbra Artistic Director Lou Bellamy thinks comparing Wilson to Shakespeare is not too far off the mark. He says Wilson has a particular language and rhythm of his own, and he creates specific stories which speak to universal themes.

Black Mary
Cedric Mays (Citizen Barlow), Austene Van (Black Mary) and James Craven (Solly Two Kings) in the Penumbra Theatre production of August Wilson's GEM OF THE OCEAN.
Photo by Michal Daniel

He cites the play "Fences," in which illiterate father Troy Maxon struggles to provide for his children while simultaneously worried that they will surpass him in their own careers.

"When you think about a Troy Maxon in Fences you've got to think about a [King] Lear," says Bellamy. "You just have to, because it's there, the scope is that large. It's a garbage collector, not a king, but the scope is that large."

August Wilson didn't write his 10plays in chronological order, nor is Penumbra presenting them that way.

Penumbra began staging the entire cycle earlier this season with it's production of "The Piano Lesson," which takes place in the 1930s. "Gem of the Ocean," which takes place at the very beginning of the century, runs through May 18th at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

Penumbra will continue next season with productions of "Fences" and "Radio Golf."