While worthy on its own, the play is just one-tenth of the monumental project that defined Wilson’s career. With “Jitney,” a story about a group of ’70s-era cabdrivers that he wrote in 1979, he began his Pittsburgh Cycle (a.k.a., the American Century Cycle): a decalogue about Black life, one for each decade of the 20th century, all — except for “Ma Rainey” — set in his Pennsylvania hometown, where he was born in 1945. He completed the plays out of chronological order, for he didn’t initially set out to create a series, but nonetheless found a story and characters to represent each decade. And he wrote right up to the end: In 2005, the year of his death from cancer at the age of 60, he finished the last one, “Radio Golf,” about white encroachment and local politics in the 1990s. In addition to these 10 dramas, he wrote six others, but it was the Cycle that solidified his legacy as one of the country’s most important playwrights, an essential figure in not just Black theater but the American canon as a whole; two weeks after his death, Broadway’s Virginia Theater was renamed in his honor.
Chief among them, perhaps, is the 65-year-old actor Denzel Washington, a producer of the new “Ma Rainey” film and one of the playwright’s leading advocates. In 2010, Washington won a Tony Award for his portrayal of the protagonist, a 1950s sanitation worker named Troy Maxson, in the Broadway revival of Wilson’s most lauded work, “Fences” (1985). In 2014, the Wilson estate, led by the playwright’s widow, Constanza Romero, now 62, approached the actor about adapting the entire Pittsburgh Cycle to film, beginning with the 2016 film version of “Fences,” which Washington directed, produced and starred in opposite Davis, who won an Oscar for her role as Maxson’s beleaguered wife, Rose.
Washington sees his responsibility as both Hollywood connector and Wilson custodian. He convinced Wolfe, 66, the renowned theater director, to helm the new film; and then worked with Romero to hire his friend Samuel L. Jackson and his son, John David Washington, to appear in the next Wilson film, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Piano Lesson” (1987), a 1930s saga about ghosts and a family heirloom that will be overseen by Barry Jenkins. For the rest of the Cycle, which will be shot out of order over the following years, directors and actors such as Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay and Laurence Fishburne are all “circling,” Washington says. Over the phone this fall, he compared this undertaking to a relay race, passing on the baton in hopes of winning new audiences for the classics that Wilson left behind. “Lord knows he couldn’t take them with him,” Washington says. “And thank God he did leave them. Now they’ve left them in my hands, and I put them in other people’s hands.”
August Wilson, American Bard
Perhaps no playwright has asserted the richness and complexity of everyday Black lives and language so deeply. Now, two screen projects affirm his legacy for new audiences.
Maya Phillips, NYTIMES