LISTEN LIVE

St. Petersburg Theatre Makes History With 'American Century Cycle'

Feb 6, 2017

After 10 years and 10 plays, an epic production in St. Petersburg will soon take its final bow.  

With its current production of “Joe Turner's Come and Gone" by August Wilson, American Stage is now one of just 12 theaters in the world to complete the late playwright's "American Century Cycle."

Each play is set in a different decade of the 20th century and explores the nation's story through the eyes of black America. Put it all together, Wilson once said, and you have a history. American Stage launched the series in its 2007-2008 season.

And actor Kim Sullivan, who’s appeared in all 10 plays in St. Petersburg, says he knew it was something special from the get go.

"I could tell that this audience had never seen anything like August Wilson and they were mesmerized,” he said. “They fell right in and they knew that there was something special in each one of his plays."

L. Peter Callender, the director of “Joe Turner's Come and Gone," says the opportunity to inhabit Wilson's world is equally meaningful for African American actors and crew working in the production.

“I think he wanted us to celebrate ourselves,” said Callender, who is also the Artistic Director for the African-American Shakespeare Company in San Francisco. “He wanted us to celebrate our language, our families, friendships and our ancestry.”

Pittsburgh theater critic and August Wilson scholar Christopher Rawson, presents American Stage with a plaque to commemorate the company's completion of August Wilson's American Century Cycle.

Many theaters have attempted to complete the Century Cycle. American Stage Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte said there’s a simple reason most have faltered.

“Quite frankly money,” she said. “You need an audience, you need sponsors, and you need the community to get behind the works. They're challenging pieces. You need to be able to bring in the best artists to elevate the work to where it belongs and that requires some backing.”  

Gularte has been with American Stage for two years. When she arrived, the organization had just announced the lineup for its 2015-16 season which included "Jitney," the company's 9th August Wilson play. She says it didn't take long for her to understand how significant the cycle was to theater patrons because many asked if the company had any plans to repeat the cycle.

“And I started hearing that as soon as I started,” she said. “So people were already anticipating the conclusion of the cycle and already having kind of a sense of longing for it to remain."

August Wilson didn't set out to write a 10-play cycle. He said the idea didn't occur to him until after three plays had already been written. All nine of the plays that ran on Broadway received Tony nominations. "Fences," which is now a movie starring Denzel Washington, took home Broadway's top honor in 1987. The play also earned Wilson a Pulitzer Prize. 

Frederick August Kittel, Jr. changed his name to August Wilson to honor his mother after his father's death in 1965.

The playwright often wrote in diners and barbershops and critics have likened his dialogue to poetry.

Director Callender said Wilson's work is Shakespearean and it's also musical.

"And if you skip a word you feel it. The rhythm is off," he said. "If Mozart writes in A flat and its played as an A sharp- it's a different thing."

Callender returns to American Stage after directing "Jitney" last season. Hesaid he hopes the success of the movie version of “Fences" will inspire more theater companies to commit to taking on the full 10-play Century Cycle.

Actor Kim Sullivan, American Stage Artistic Director, Stephanie Gularte and "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" director, L. Peter Callender.
Credit Cathy Carter

"These plays are momentous,” said Callender. “Whether done by young people or old people or on a lavish set or even standing with music stands. I think the words and the language will continue to sing, and that's the most important part of his work.”

For actor Kim Sullivan, who plays boarding house owner Seth Holly in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," August Wilson's death in 2005 hasn't diminished his impact.

"The published plays are done but they are rich to be done again,” he said. “They still live on and people clamor for them and they will always be alive. He still is as vital as he was when he started in 1987- 86."

In fact an argument could be made that August Wilson is more prominent than ever. He's earned a posthumous Oscar nomination for the big screen adaptation of "Fences,"and Denzel Washington will adapt more of the century cycle for HBO. Jitney,” the only play that had never made it to Broadway debuted in New York City in January to positive reviews.

As for American Stage Theatre Company and that question often posed to artistic director Stephanie Gularte about repeating the Century Cycle, she says  that  "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" will certainly not be the last time that American Stage produces an August Wilson play.