In a series of 10 plays, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson chronicled the black experience in 20th-century America. The plays are collectively known as the "Century Cycle,” with each play set in a different decade — nine of them in the same Pittsburgh neighborhood in which Wilson grew up.
As St. Louis’ premier black theater company since 1976, the Black Rep has a long history of performing Wilson’s plays. In fact, it was only the third company in the U.S. to complete the cycle.
“I think we started the cycle in 1988, and we completed the cycle in 2003,” said the Black Rep’s founder, Ron Himes. “We’re now going through it a second time, but this time, we’re going through in chronological order.”
Wilson didn’t write the "Century Cycle" plays in chronological order.
“The last two that he wrote were the bookends,” Himes said. “He wrote ‘Gem of the Ocean,’ which is set in the 1900s, and then ‘Radio Golf’ was the final one, which is the 1990s.”
While most of Wilson’s plays are set in Pittsburgh, Himes said the themes are universal.
“I think that it gives us an overview of a century of the African American experience in Pittsburgh specifically, but in America in a bigger view, so that we can see how African Americans have progressed, how much change has happened, and how, in some instances, things have stayed the same,” he continued.
This weekend, the company will be honored for its completion of the cycle by Christopher Rawson of the Pittsburgh Gazette. And it will also mount the "Century Cycle" play set in the 1960s. “Two Trains Running” tells the story of regulars at a Pittsburgh diner grappling with the civil rights movement, eminent domain and the threat of an urban renewal program that will change their neighborhood.
“One of the major issues of the play is gentrification. There is a move by the city to begin gentrifying [Pittsburgh's] Hill District,” Himes said. “What does gentrification mean to an African American community? It means that they are about to be displaced. It means that they are dispensable. It means that the city can come in and take all of the property and eliminate a community.”
Himes said he sees a connection between 1969 Pittsburgh and St. Louis during the 1960s, as well as what's happened since then.
“If we look at history here in St. Louis, very few people know anything about Mill Creek Valley. Pretty soon people will know very little about the Ville, if we don’t continue to keep the history of the Ville alive and rebuild the institutions that are there,” he said.
The production stars Broadway actor James A. Williams and will also feature Himes in a supporting role.
On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske spoke with Himes as well as the director for the Black Rep’s production of “Two Trains Running,” Ed Smith.
Listen to their conversation:
What: "Two Trains Running"
When: Jan. 8-26, 2020
Where: Edison Theatre at Washington University (6465 Forsyth Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63105)
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.
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