“A Year of August Wilson” began on March 10, when about 30 residents discussed and read from “Gem of the Ocean.” In his Pittsburgh cycle of 10 plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, this play was the second to last Mr. Wilson wrote. It is however set in 1904, the earliest in the cycle. “A Year of August Wilson” is part of in the Library’s “11 Months of African American History” series, conceived and put together by Leslie Williams, head of adult services at the Library.
Led by actors Jacqueline Williams and Tim Rhoze, the group discussed recurring themes and characters of the plays, the language and the Pulitzer-prize winning Mr. Wilson himself. Each has played a role in at least one Wilson play, performed locally at both the Goodman and Court theatres.
Mr. Wilson was a presence, Mr. Rhoze said. “When he was in the room, you knew it.” He was also, said Ms. Williams, “surprisingly warm and approachable.”
The soaring themes of Mr. Wilson’s plays – spirituality, family connections, the migration of blacks to the north after the Civil War – combined with his plain, spoken-word language make him “our Shakespeare,” said Ms. Williams.
A character may appear eccentric or crazy, said Ms. Williams, “but what’s crazy? [The character] is like Shakespeare’s fool.” Meditations on the migration, said Ms. Williams, reflect a conflict. “Characters wonder whether they should have left [the Jim Crow south], but [in the north], even though they’re in [a place of] freedom, they don’t feel free.”
Ms. Williams said often a character will come into his or her own. “[They recognize the question] ‘What do I need to make peace with the past to get on with the present and on to the future?’” she said.
The language, said Ms. Williams, is the guide to the play. “If you read what Mr. Wilson has on the page – follow his punctuation, follow his words – he gives it all to you. … Just like Shakespeare, you have everything you need to know about that character.”
The next reading and discussion will be from 6 to 8 p.m. on April 14 with “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” set in the 1910-20 decade in Pittsburgh. Copies of the play are available at the Library. The readings are free and open to the public.