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Gem of the Ocean opens February 1, 2019

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About Me

Ayodele Nzinga, MFA, PhD "I am an artist trying to touch the world though the medium of creation. I create therefore I am. I am a theater director. I started out as an actress -- I still love the boards as much as I love my next breath. I am a poet. They call me WordSlanger. I founded The Lower Bottom Playaz, Inc a non-profit theater troupe based in Oakland CA. We were the troupe in the Yard for 13 years. We are now in residence at The Flight Deck in downtown Oakland. My art is particular. I am talking to you. I am listening to the universe. I am constantly in search of teachers. It is said when the student is ready the teacher appears. I will be grateful the rest of my life for meeting my current teacher, Master August Wilson. I met the master after his death, his affect on my life, knowing, and craft have been profound. I proudly walk with Wilson. I commune with his spirit. I am embiggened by his vision and I humbly pay juba. With the production of Radio Golf the tenth of the ten play Cycle; I proudly claim being the first director to direct the Cycle in chronological order and my troupe, The Lower Bottom Playaz, Inc are the first troupe of any size or stripe to ever enact the ritual of the Century Cycle in order. We stand on our art, our art stands on the graveyard at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, we walk with the Bones and August Wilson. If you have seen us you know, we shine like new money." Nzinga 2016
2018: I walked into the ocean with August Wilson's spirit in 2010.   We walked through a century.    I came out of the ocean in 2016.    In 2019 I return to the City of Bones.  They know me there.


The Sad and Sorry Tale of Caesar Wilkes. (Radio Golf: Production notes #1)

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To understand the end one must have an appreciation for the beginning. So as I begin production of Radio Golf by August Wilson I am compelled to look back over the American Century Cycle to the beginning. I met Caesar Wilks in Gem of the Ocean, the year was 2009 for me, however it was the year of our lord nineteen hundred and four for Caesar and the people in the sanctuary at 1839 Wylie St. So begins this tale of many parts, which is in fact the exploration of a group of tales collectively called, The American Century Cycle.

When one sets out on a quest, which includes the enactment of a ritual, one expects to know more about the thing at the end. Imagine cresting the final hill to see the place you began come into view. It turns out that Wilson’s Cycle is circular. We end on the part of the battlefield on which we entered the fray. Here it is we will find our harvest, here is where we will become victorious in our perfect understanding, or here we lose the sense of the song Wilson has been trying to help us remember.

I played Aunt Ester Tyler in Gem of the Ocean. I learned not to be afraid to remember. Memory serves me now as I shape this tale of Caesar Wilks and invite it to inform my direction of the end of the ritual, Radio Golf, the final installment in The American Century Cycle. As stated, I met Caesar in 2009. I had seen him on a stage but did not recognize him as he was portrayed wrapped in buffoonery.  I have come to understand that Wilson is often thought to be more comforting if played for its inherent humor. Never having been overly concerned with making audiences comfortable; I think those productions do Wilson’s work a grave disservice. Which is not to say the inherent humor does not exist but the form employed by Wilson is tragic-comic, like life itself, both bitter and sweet. I think the comedy will attend to itself and is offered to allow breathing pockets within the drama.

"You die by how you live". August Wilson- Gem of the Ocean

“You die by how you live”. August Wilson Gem of the Ocean

So we come to the first Mr. Wilks, Caesar, Black Mary’s brother, the black law that violated the sanctuary of Aunt Ester the soul washer’s home at 1839 Wylie St, arrested Ester, and killed the underground railroad man Solly Two Kings. If ever a scoundrel was, he would be Caesar Wilkes, but like all things the story of how he became such a villain is the most interesting and instructive part of him.  How and why  did he become the man he became with so little grace and even less compassion? Was there another road open? In its smallest part this is a story of closed roads and taking the road that’s open but it’s more complicated  than mere convenience. One must give consideration to how one got to the road in the first place. Aunt Ester knew those kind of things but not everybody is ready to remember. Some people hold on tight to the pain they know. Caesar’s pain was his breakfast and dinner.

Caesar Wilks was born a striver with a desire to go as far in life as his wit and perseverance would take him. He was also born into poverty, draped in blackness, and found his life inconveniently placed in a hostile environment. That environment of hostility, his unforgivable blackness, and the pernicious poverty that permeated his lean existence formed a field of landmines in his life leaving little room for the long strides of a striver.



After the shootings he is taken to the County Farm where he recounts having to  “bust a couple of niggers upside the head for tryin’ to steal my food”.  Caesar set out to bring order to his confinement. He caught some fellow inmates who attempted to escape because he reasoned their escape did no one any good. “While they out there drinking and enjoying their freedom everybody else on half rations and got to make up their work.” He put down a riot by taking the leader of the uprising on one to one because he saw where a riot was “nothing but bad news.” His talent for beating down his fellow inmates in the workhouse got his sentence commuted, got him a gun and a badge, and saw him installed as the black law in charge of keeping order on the hill. After stewing in the bitterness of so many closed roads he found the path that was open to him.

Dressed in the respectability of his badge and gun Caesar returns to the bank and literally uses them as collateral to buy his first piece of property. Even this questionable advance is colored by the uproar caused by a white man selling him a ramshackle piece of property for three times its worth. He remarks, “They tried to kill him for selling to a Negro, he took the money and ran.”

Our striver has arrived, his arrival is darkened by his observation, ” Niggers got mad at me, said I must have thought I was a white man ’cause I got a hold of little something. They been mad with me every since. Everybody mad at me.”  He is speaking to his sister asking her to remember how steep his climb has been and how much it cost. His plea is the most elegant stating of how *”King Buzzards” are made I have ever encountered. But not elegant enough to garner forgiveness from his sister Black Mary. Some transgressions are forgivable. Black Mary disowned him for the murder of Solly Two Kings and the violation of the sanctuary offered at 1839 Wiley St. 1839 Wiley is the home of Aunt Ester the repository of memory that deserves her own paper. Suffice it now to say here that she is the voice, memory and soul of Africa singing here, on the other side the water uniting both sides. Some things are beyond forgiving or understanding but they have a story none the less. This is in part the story of King Buzzard walking in the strange land across the water.

adimu solly two kings gem 2010

Above-Solly Two Kings. (Adimu Madyun) Lower Bottom Playaz produced Gem of the Ocean in 2009 and again in 2010 as a part of The American Century Cycle Project, in Oakland CA

Below- Caesar and Black Mary from the 2010 production. Stanley Hunt and Niko Buchanan in rehearsal.


In part this story is one of hunger that resides in the soul. There is a human imperative to “become”. Where is the someone who dreams of being nothing?  It is in fact, the dream cooed over all babies, no less for  brown babies, the direction to become “something”, to become “somebody”.  In many parts of Africa there is the belief that individual personal destiny coincides with group harmony and prosperity. One has a destiny to fulfill, a purpose that is connected to the balance of the whole. Each individual must find and embody his/her purpose or the individual and the village around him falls into imbalance, lacks harmony, is unwell. Is there anyone who wants with all their heart to fail to find their place in life? Caesar’s actions are the actions of a man seeking personal fulfillment in the narrow confines of an oppressive society in which even his peers limit his ability to go forward in life. On one hand his progress in the face of such massive impediments must be viewed as a testament to his personal determination to “become someone”. One however must wonder at the cost and the affect of his relentless pursuit of” becoming.”

We come to know in Radio Golf that having secured his place in the world Caesar grew prosperous and founded Wilks Realty. His family became one of the most prominent families from the Hill District. The Hill District has been a major character in The American Century Cycle. We have spent all of our 100 year quest in this neighborhood with the exception of a short trip down route 66 to Chicago with Ma Rainey. The real estate of the Hill District has become emblematic of all once red lined, redeveloped ad- nauseam, now gentrified spaces for me. It is easy for me to see Oakland Ca in the telling of Wilson’s tales that emanate from the Hill. This contested space has been and continues in Radio Golf to be the battlefield for striving to become.

In Radio Golf we meet Harmond Wilks, our second Mr. Wilks, is the paternal grandson of our first Mr. Wilks.  He has benefited from his grandfather’s industriousness. He is a member of the Black elite. As the curtain rises, it is Harmond, Caesar’s grandson, who is busy with the business of redeveloping the Hill District.  His realty company is one of the largest Black owned businesses in town and he has invested heavily in a plan that depends on the area being declared blighted. Once the area which includes Aunt Ester’s now abandoned house is declared blighted with the use of minority tax incentives Harmond stands to make his green money even greener in rebuilding the once vibrant Hill. As you may recall we lost Aunt Ester in the ninth installment of the Century Cycle, King Hedley, II. We discover Harmond has unwittingly and not quite legally acquired the property located at 1839 Wiley St. It is slated for demolition. Caesar violated 1839 Wiley and now Harmond plans to demolish it.

Harmond, who is also running for Mayor has a dream of revitalizing the Hill. He wears the suit of a striver, whose desires for better, exceed his own personal needs. He is at heart a man of high moral fiber who envisions the change he dreams for the near dead Hill District as his legacy. But even in the most noble of dreams there is room for the whole of a story and when Harmond learns the history of 1839 Wiley St. he is forced to decide what is right and his struggle to stand in the light could cost him 100 years of hard-won progress.

In this work we consider the sins of the fathers, at what price assimilation, what real success looks like for those wrapped in unforgivable blackness, the path to redemption, the cost of traveling the only roads open and what the absence of Aunt Ester means in our lived realities as we continue our never-ending search for equity here in the strange land across the water.

This tale will continue as my production of Radio Golf continues, and my understanding of what the trip home, minus Aunt Ester means to me as a student of Wilson, a theater maker, and a human being wrapped most firmly in unforgivable blackness than has grown deeper in shade since beginning this quest with Wilson.

The Lower Bottom Playaz complete the chronological production of the American Century Cycle by August Wilson under the direction of Ayodele Nzinga, on December 18th, 2015. If you are interested in reading more about the Lower Bottom Playaz Inc, American Century Cycle Project, which began in 2010 please visit: www.TalesofIronandWater.com and explore the articles under the “Ghost of Wilson” tab. If you would like to join us for the historic closing production of the project visit: www.lowerbottomplayaz.com to purchase tickets for performances of Radio Golf.

Contact Ayodele Nzinga at wordslanger@gmail.com , conversations about August Wilson and The American Century Cycle warmly invited.




*”King Buzzard” a term attributed to African slave traders who trafficked slaves to Europeans during the great transgression of the Middle Passage the artery for the Transatlantic slave trade that bled Africans bound for slavery in America from West Africa. The legend of the Red Cloth says there will be no peace in this world or the next forKing Buzzard.




The Origins of African-American Culture – JStor

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions …. red cloth. But in another taleKing Buzzard, an African king, was condemned to travel alone through the world  …

African American Culture – Documents

documents.mx › Documents

Apr 10, 2015 – In Gomez’s words: “It is a study of their efforts to move from ethnicity…. In one set, Africans were tricked onto slave ships by Europeans offering them red cloth. But in another taleKing Buzzard, an African king, was condemned  …

[PDF]The Vile Trade – Carolina Academic Press

The vile trade : slavery and the slave trade in Africa / Abi Alabo. Derefaka … [et al.].…..length and breadth of Nigeria, where its impact in terms of awareness is im- …elsewhere dubbed the “red cloth” tales, a reference to the ubiquitous presence … “King Buzzard” story as the vehicles by which posterity would learn of African  …

Radio Golf By August Wilson (pre-production notes)

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King Hedley II written by August Wilson, is the 9th play in his American Century Cycle. Directed by Dr. Ayodele Nzinga and performed by The Lower Bottom Playaz, Inc; King Hedley II is currently on Broadway in Oakland, CA. at the Flight Deck, located at 1540 Broadway. Come see it and enjoy!

King Hedley II written by August Wilson, is the 9th play in his American Century Cycle. Directed by Dr. Ayodele Nzinga and performed by The Lower Bottom Playaz, Inc; King Hedley II is currently on Broadway in Oakland, CA. at the Flight Deck, located at 1540 Broadway. Come see it and enjoy!

The Lower Bottom Playaz, Inc (LBP), a small scrappy theater company in Oakland CA, are about to become a part of theater history.  They are in production for Radio Golf by August Wilson which will open on December 18, 2015 at The Flight Deck on Broadway. Radio Golf will be the tenth consecutive LBP production of Wilson’s crowning achievement, The American Century Cycle. LBP took up the mantle to become the first theater company to formally stage the entire Cycle  in 2010. With their production of Radio Golf they become that company.

Pre Production Notes

In the first installment of The American Century Cycle, Gem of the Ocean, we started out in the house at 1839 Wiley St., the house with the red door, Aunt Ester’s house.  It is fitting we should end our journey  here at Aunt Ester’s house as the battleground for Radio Golf, the final installment of the Cycle. Souls are still being washed on Wiley St, even though we lost Ester in King Hedley II, the ninth installment. By returning to Ester’s house we are making a circle back to where we started. I find that, and Master Wilson, most elegant.

We are about to do what we said we would do in 2010. It was such a big undertaking until I am not sure that anyone other than us realize how much we bit off. That we would be here, now, is nothing short of miraculous, and that’s the small of it — it has been such a blessing to those of us who stayed the course.  This is such a pregnant moment for me as a theater maker. It is bittersweet and filled with a quiet power. Everything is before us as a theater company and so much is behind us as a group of artist dedicated to a single purpose creating together for a sustained period of time. In this moment we can argue that we will save the house on Wiley St. which is slated for demolition as the curtain rises on Radio Golf.

We have reached the end of a mythical quest with Wilson as our cartographer we have traveled through time and consciousness by the completion of his elegant circular ritual we have arrived at our destination. We are home.  We have come ashore firmly dressed in a cosmology,  in possession of an epistemology, rooted so firmly in our soul that our arrival is only understandable in the context of remembering and going home. We have traveled from who we were, to who we wanted to be, by realizing we are enough.

We may yet save the house on Wiley St. . We know of a certainty we will build it again if it is torn down.   It’s a metaphor; we are the foundation of the house on Wiley St., if we can wrap ourselves around that, then, we know they can’t tear down the house, Aunt Ester is alive, the song is strong. We are that song. We are the children of the Diaspora, the fruit of the bones, without sanctuary in search of a resting place carrying the foundation of home within.  Thus we may still save the house. It’s all metaphor and the purest of truth.

Metaphor and symbolism are part and parcel of  the ritual offered by Wilson. We have learned to speak the language, to carefully read between the lines, and to connect the dots between Wilson’s history of the twentieth century to our lived realities here in the twenty first century.  Having learned the game it is my great pleasure to play with the master’s toys in his house at least once more.

We are mining the lessons and the message already. As usual, for us our real life becomes a part of each story. As we enter Pittsburgh’s Hill District in its final throes of being remade at the turn of the Century we are reminded of how much our hometown of Oakland has changed in the mere space of the five years since we began our Century Cycle Project.

We are no longer in the theater built for us. It no longer exist. Most of our theater troupe no longer lives in West Oakland where we started out. Most of us can’t afford to live in the area we dedicated ourselves to revitalizing with culture and self determination. Our neighborhood, once one of the poorest in America, has become one of the most expensive neighborhoods in California. Like the characters we met in Gem of the Ocean and Joe Turner has Come and Gone we are looking for home and opportunity in places we had not imagined as choices. Most of these places are in fact are not choices in the literal sense of the word.

To say the least our lived experiences leave us in a most interesting place as we begin production for the only installment of the Cycle told from the standpoint of potential developers, who happen to be Black. We are on slightly different terrain in this play. Usually our main focus is on common folk with lessons for all of us about complex issues. This time we focus on the hearts and minds of Dubois’s talented 10th. Our hero’s are very comfortable and upwardly mobile folk on a move. They are not suffering from a lack of resource or opportunity. Their poverty is of a different stripe. It allows us to look at a manifestation of trauma not well examined since Caesar Wilkes explains why he hunts Black people for a living in Gem of the Ocean. I have always thought that monologue was one of Wilson’s greatest gifts in the cycle.

In that monologue Caesar tells us how he lost his soul. He speaks in great candor about his journey as a striver and how he took the only road left open to him. Caesar figuratively murders freedom in Gem of the Ocean by killing Solly Two Kings. He violates the sanctuary of 1839 Wiley the home of Aunt Ester to do so. We still have time to unfurl the mystery of Black Mary, Caesar’s sister who we believe at this point joined the myth of Ester Tyler, who of course is symbolically much more than a 300 year old woman. We will return to this thought in later writings. But for now we do know somethings for a certainty,  in Radio Golf we come to know that Caesar Wilkes regrets where he found himself, and went to great lengths to make right his wrong. It is his act of contrition that sets the stage for Radio Golf.

Radio Golf offers space for a reexamination of wealth, legacy, and loyalty in the context of a marginalized people in a material culture.  It allows us to question what success looks like from multiple vantage points.  We are afforded a vehicle to examine our interconnectedness in a  way I hope makes audiences quietly uncomfortable in the consideration of  the simple truth: right is right and right don’t wrong nobody.

Radio Golf starring The Lower Bottom Playaz, directed by Ayodele Nzinga opens 12/18/15 in Oakland Ca. at The Flight Deck, 1540 Broadway. Ticket info on website:http://www.lowerbottomplayaz.com . Information :510-457-8999.

King Hedley, II Post Show Notes

koran streets as King HedleyKoran Streets as King Hedley, 9/2015 Oakland photo by TaSin Sabir

They say King Hedley II, is the darkest play in  the American Century Cycle by August Wilson. Dark with all its connotations is an interesting take. It is dark. Dark like black life, dark and heavy like the history of North America’s Nation within the Nation. Dark like a burn on a soul that won’t comprehend the enduring nature of the trauma initiated by the Transatlantic Transgression, the lived experience of chattel slavery, and its living legacy in its descendants.

If you want to know why things are the way they are you might consider Wilson a source of spiritual information. It is not history Wilson seeks to address rather  its the fullness of every-day-ness, the extraordinary complexity of the ordinary, the enduring and  universal struggle of North American Africans through the decades of the twentieth century to find the center that keeps shifting.

I have always invested Wilson with the ability to be in two times at once: the current moment is always made more clear by looking at his reference to a specific point in the past. I have come to understand that this is not so much a trick of Master Wilson as it is an intentional testament to what the “illusion” reveals; not a lot has changed at the core of North American African existence in North America in the last one hundred years. It is not Wilson’s ability to reside in multiple time frames but rather the unchanging nature of barriers to inclusion and the methods of exclusion perfected over time that we observe in Wilson’s Cycle.

Two Americas

Wilson’s work is important because it sets the two America’s side by side and offers a view of the center from off-center. The better to understand that there are two songs of Americas living side by side in dissonance. The song of America that echos in the world is one of democratic strength, stewardship, might and compassion. There is a moral note borne in its declaration of being a Christian nation that implies certain ethics are in play within greater society where progress is seen as both natural and inevitable. There is a public good and a standard by which this nation views itself.

Yet there are consistent anomalies like the persistent gap in wages and job attainment that exist between well qualified black applicants and their white counterparts. Disproportionate incarceration, as a result of  disproportionate contact with law enforcement and lack of access to competent legal representation is another point of observation as is the lack of correlation between education and employment prospects in emerging fields. Another would be the tenuousness of geographical community. Just as The Hill District  is a topic of contested space throughout Wilson’s Cycle the relationship with geography, community, space in which to thrive, and the concept of belonging have been and remain a troubling and complex point of reflection in considering tales of the two Americas.

There are multiple places where one can observe the great divide one could visit a court room, a hospital, a school,  a Fortune 500 company, a tech campus, or perhaps more telling pay attention on Sunday morning to who prays where. There are two Americas.  One has an infrastructure that helps to contain the other which stubbornly persist in refusing to be homogenized with a vigor equal to that which seeks to contain and.other it.

In Gem of the Ocean, Wilson introduces us to “The Mill”, the only source of employment, along with its blatant racism and overt hold overs from share cropping thefts of labor, by the end of Gem the mill has been burned by Two Kings.    Solly, a freedom fighter from the Underground Railroad, is murdered by Caesar the black lawman who tragically found a way to go forward against the obstacles he faced by siding with the system of containment in place. Caesar sees no way for the poor blacks to survive without the meager chance for subsistence offered by the mill. He predicts deeper poverty, the decline of morals fed by unmet need, the rise of criminality, and more as the result of the absence of even less than half a chance. Solly acts out of the philosophy espoused by Aunt Ester. “If the wheel is broke somebody got to fix it”. By burning the mill he forces some other way into reality. Some other way must be discovered even if it must be created.  The Nation buried within the Nation exist in search of the tools to fashion a way from what appears to be no way.

The Nation within the Nation is a push me pull me phenomenon. It is a place we are constricted to as well as a cosmological event we are joined in, feed, construct by our nurture, a place in the center of the whirlwind – the eye of the storm we stand in endeavoring to become. It is what we become that is in question.

The Black Lens 

Off center is an instructive view. It is a view of the center from outside. If the narrative of America from its center its a song of self, a kind of authorized autobiography that is carefully curated then, reading from the side lines gives us a less invested view, one that can afford to not be politically correct because  political correctness has never served it outside of the earshot of those invested from the center. Here we measure affect divorced from dressed up language of intention, the pig without the lipstick.

Where else can you get a comprehensible context of life as experienced by those behind the veil unless you step behind the veil  to bear witness its beating heart. It is a marvel left untold center stage in the drama of America. Wilson takes us into the cauldron of the lived existence of ordinary people to experience the compelling tragedy of reality meeting rhetoric in the brightness of  stage lights so that we can see the places where the peeling paint attempts to obscure a profound brokenness.

A Black lens is a view from the center of the Nation within the Nation. In its gaze, black life is the center of the universe aware of sitting in the belly, orbiting within an internal logic.

Enduring Trauma & Dark Cycles

Hedley is a view of enduring trauma unmitigated by substantive progress. It is a tale of barbed wire, blood rituals, and dying to go forward. It is the observation of the everyday chosen over the stories of exceptionalism that feed the sense of “real black life” as captured by Wilson. There is little room to argue the success of numerous North American Africans within greater society however they are the exception not the rule.  Nor is the rule the parade of mug shots and short walks in handcuffs that populate the evening news , rather the rule is reflected in Wilson’s parade of ordinary people struggling to find their way into the dream of American equity.

Wilson  harnesses the hope, the determined struggle, the callings and failings of  a tribe stranded in the process of transition wanting to “be” in the most literal sense while trying to become at the same time. The Cycle is replete with round unvarnished tales that reflect Wilson’s mastery of storytelling and offers a view of humanity obscured by  its lack of access to the stage of the American public sphere. In his tales from off-center he connects the hopes and desires of these dark spaces in the authorized biography of America to the shining ideals America uses to light its way.

Wilson lights the considerations of love, honor, duty, dignity, and the desire to thrive complexified by  invisible lives and dark history. He clears the stage for the articulation of how it is we sit behind the veil, the coldness born in the shadow of America’s song of itself, and the tragic rawness of sitting so long in the storm. His work is the storms song remembering itself , valuing itself, singing itself whole again.

The ever two-ness in which we sit and the blocked paths are the geography of  Wilson’s work in a figurative sense he demands we understand the distance Caesar Wilkes travels from murdering Solly Two Kings to remembering what he did not know what he had forgotten. We know something in him shifts when we reach Radio Golf, (the final installment in the Cycle), we discover he assumed the taxes on the sanctuary he violated in Gem of the Ocean, ( first installment),  1839 Wiley St, the home of Aunt Ester. Caesar’s tale of origin has always struck me as instructive. The lesson begins in the first installment.  Caesar becomes Caesar because there seems no other path to success in life and he is a striver with a hard-wired imperative to survive.  He becomes successful in the eyes of those beyond the pale at the cost of disconnecting from what placed him behind the veil and taking what he perceived as the only path open to success by becoming an overseer.   Yet he becomes steward to Aunt Esters sanctuary where the  blood memory of self as articulated by the mythic Ester guides dark travelers for a century that we know about.  In the distance of the cycle Caesar comes full circle and reaches some understanding with his song of self.   The Nation in the Nation is still traveling the road of Caesar’s logic trying to understand the cost of unsung, squandered, and lost songs of self. Wilson urges us to make it a consciousness interrogation and charges us with manifesting the fortitude to insist we be fully sung.

Resistance & Sacrifice

Resistance and sacrifice are implicit themes in all of Wilson’s work.  They are brought center stage in King Hedley,II as are love and honor all metered through the motif of blood.

What must North American Africans sacrifice to a be part and un-separated parcel of the American pubic sphere? What must be let go, what part of the self must be set adrift, amputated to find firm purchase in the public square of American consciousness?

The redundant reference to the song of self, the need for reconciliation between now and how it came to be, the recognition of the point of origin and coming into being Africans who are North Americans, the struggle endured in pursuit of belonging, and the cost of the journey are touchstones for Wilson’s retrospective of the twentieth century.

Wilson strongly suggest  that we have an innate “self” guided by a cosmology, an epistemology that resides so deeply in us we may have forgotten it but it has not forgotten us so it keeps itself alive in narrative personified in the water wise metaphor of Aunt Ester, traveling a line, emanating from the ocean anointing us as a new tribe here – ever African and American. Wilson embodies in theater pieces the lived experience of Du Bois’s theory of two-ness. The work gives flesh to the narrative of the  lived experience of being cast into seeking wholeness, looking for a song of self even if we don’t know what it is we are searching for,  and a textured consideration of what we are trying to reconcile. Wilson is the great interlocutor, interrogating our experience in the context of American progress, wanting us to claim our part of the story, to tell the truth to ourselves about what’s been lost, what can be gained here, and to do the work of conceiving how we go forward, who we will become. One of the central questions posed by Wilson’s work is what it cost to become American from the lens of those bound both willingly and without choice within the Nation in the Nation.


Wilson wants us to know that redemption is a necessity. He calls attention to the way in which we sit in the belly. He has cast us as our own redeemers. No one else is coming to right the wheel. It is our duty to find a way to harness the wind  if we want it to blow this way. If we want to sit on top of the mountain we must find the key. He wants us to know that we know. We know because we have lived the story-we were there. He wants us to remember — to connect events to one another, and to believe the story it tells when you stack one decade a top another. He wants us to be clear on what progress looks like. He wants us to recognize cycles, where we bent, where we were broken, and to create options where none seem to exist. He wants us to remember that we are able, we are enough, we were born with dignity and honor. He wants us to know that we have a duty to life itself, that duty is to live, living is not the same as surviving and he wants us to note that. He wants us to see ourselves as dignified in our struggle to create a way out of no way, to observe the ways in which we leave the path, and the cost of losing one’s self.  He wants us to be awake in our journey and to understand the things that bind us, the things that sustain us, and to value them appropriately. He wants us to celebrate the ordinary and accept it as the space in which extraordinary things can be achieved. He wants us to make our better, best. Redemption could come any day it does not require a special day. The day will be made special by the song we choose to sing.

Wilson as Redemption Song


We are wandering in the wilderness; all there is to save us is an unsung song of self. If you can’t imagine North America as a wilderness you have not experienced history from my perspective. My people were captured and sold into servitude by a savage country founded in violence stolen from the indigenous people they found living in what they named North America. They made a grave yard of the Atlantic Ocean in the process of the inhumane  transporting of millions of human beings bound for the most dehumanizing bondage the world has ever witnessed.

Once here they were stripped of semblance of humanity save that they claimed for themselves. They were for all intent obliterated, left unable to trace tribe, village, religion, language, or worldview. They were rewritten as property to be used in any manner seen fit. The concepts of honor, love, and duty were undone as were the institutions of marriage,childbearing, and by default family, all torn apart and set outside of the African– now slave, in a society that placed the slave outside of humanity.

If they ran they were hunted. If they resisted they were slaughtered. They were set afire, and hung from trees. They were caged, bartered, sold, raped, murdered, and considered no better than animals of the field.

Slavery ended and they were set free into nothing with nothing to make their way out of no way. This country has shook them from place to place in so called migrations which under closer scrutiny more resemble refugees fleeing.

Wilson’s work offers a view of the 20th Century in North America from the view of the descendants of cooks, mammy’s, share croppers, garbage men, waitresses, nail makers, steel workers, those that bent their backs to set the telephone poles in the ground and drive the railroad ties, the collective of America’s Blues people. These are their stories, this is their song of survival and the every present quest for equity in this land of equality where lynchings made their way into the new millennium and one can make a cogent case that slave catchers still exist with body cams in black and whites and they neither protect or serve us in the most literal sense.

Wilson places us center stage between the epic events of this countries history in our daily reality as ‘most human’ in search of honor and dignity. He credits us with the means for reinvention as borne by our achievements here and our legacy which stretches beyond the shores of this continent to embrace a highly developed sense of community, a view of god, a sense of worth, a cosmology, an epistemology, an artful aesthetic, and worldview that we managed to hold onto, albeit it in shreds. We are trying to remember who we are in a world that changes but manages to leave us standing in the rear of the line.

When we see our sense of continuity as a song emanating from the collective soul we can begin to grasp the enormity of Wilson’s gift to us. In his Cycle he has captured the essence of our blue black determination to thrive, our brokenness, our insistence on a share of what we built, our loving hearts, our patient longing, our twisted paths, the barbed wire, the places we leave the path, and wander into the dark, the places our light is made and the chance of wholeness waiting in remembering, claiming, and singing our song of self. It is a redemption song carved from the blues instructed by jazz and re imagined in hip hop, it is our beating heart saying I Am.

It has been a great honor to stage this work. I will be sorting the gifts it has offered up for the remainder of my life. I have been hugely influenced by Wilson and I am grateful. I invite you to join us as we finish our American Century Cycle Project. We are currently offering King Hedley, II at the Flight Deck through September 6th.

Hedley is a beautiful work for right now in North American inner cities. It offers a glimpse into the beginning of gun proliferation in urban spaces. The era of Reaganomics, Crack decimation, and inter-group violence have a sick relationship that continues to influence our quality of life. It’s a raw wake up call, a gun shot in the night, the site of a train wreck…sometimes you must go back to see now more clearly. King Hedley, II offers that chance in a dark, soaring, blues filled blood ritual of a play. You can’t miss it.


King Hedley, II – Blood on top of the mountain I


It’s 1985 and papers are full of drive by shootings. There is no work.  In the Hill District of Pittsburgh PA and across the nation people are trying to grow opportunity out of rocky soil. The times are violent on multiple levels. It’s a hard time to be born into and a hard time to raise a family or define it once it’s been busted asunder and not yet quite found its way back together.

King Hedley, II the unborn child of Ruby in Seven Guitars is a grown man who is trying to grow himself a life. The soil he has inherited is rocky and hard but its “him” he must make life out of what he has been given like Rose instructs Cory in Fences. You have no choice but to make life from what you have. How can you otherwise. As Lyons quotes Troy to Cory in reflecting upon Troy’s life, “You got to take the crooked with the straights”. Lyon’s reflection comes at the event of Troy’s death where we are given the image of him finally striking out and death claiming him. I note he lives on in Lyon’s carrying forth of his philosophy of life. You have to work with what you have but what if its not enough? Then, what to do?

King has crookeds he is trying to make straight. He is determined to put something in the world. Determination to strive demands you make what does not exsist. “If the wind don’t blow your way”, you must find a way to harness the wind. King like Floyd Barton before him in Seven Guitars, like Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom carry the dark seed of desire to move forward in the world. They will create their own wind even if they are consumed in the vortex it creates. They are the will to go forward wrapped in steel. Marked in third grade as unruly King tries his best to live in a world that is too small for him. He can’t fit in so he must make it bigger. He wants to grow something so he plants a seed. He declares its right to live. He takes a chance even though he only has rocky ground. He tends and defends his seed hoping to grow wind that blows his way.

Even in his desire to grow something he travels with a Glock nine mm looking to murder a man. He feels he must in order to be in the world.  The world in which it can come down to me or him in a second and one transgression demands another, and then another. In a world where honor is spelled in blood and manhood is defined by who is left standing even if it cost chunks of your life. In this world being jailed and prison time are still common tales. Remember how Wilson bends time. Then is now. Now is then. Still refers to moving forward from Joe Turner has Come and Gone. King has done time for one murder. A man cut him and he eventually killed his assailant who he remembers as “simple ass Pernell, – a sneaky motherfucker”. Now Pernell’s cousin is stalling him because this world demands blood for blood. Blood is a theme in King Hedley, II.

Blood as life, as a lifeline, as honor, as currency to a better safer life, as the gift of life and as cause for death all play out in this blood play. King Hedley, II believes his father is Hedley, I. Floyd Barton who took his last chance trying to create opportunity for his life in Seven Guitars was murdered by Hedley, I, who takes him for the ghost of Buddy Bolden who he believes is bringing him his fathers money. Hedley kills Floyd with a machete. The machete is given to King along with the task to wipe the blood off of it. We wade in blood cycles trying to find a way to make something grow. King is a tragic figure worthy of Sophocles or Shakespeare. Is he sacrifice or the forerunner for the Messiah who will redeem us from the cycles of blood in which we as a people are drowning in as I write?

Ester dies in this play but as the Soothsayer (TruthSayer) Stool Pigeon says the door to her house has long been blocked and the path grown over. King says he was told she died of grief. Stool Pigeon confirms it, “died with her hand stuck to her head, in 366 years she ain’t seen nothing but grief, it all ganged up on her.” When Ester dies a terrible storm rises and lights go out as houses are blown down across the town and her black cat dies. We wait for the blood that will bring her back if she has not yet used up her nine lives.

The nation within the nation a black cat with nine lives landing on its feet after blood bath after blood bath, struggling on, praying, trying to plant, waiting for a rebirth of life big enough for dreams of thriving.  A hot dark slice of land with hard dirt full of rocks and pitfalls that end in blood is where King tries to grow life. I recognize this blasted landscape as being the geography of our lives. The systems with different rules, the set ups, the predictable downfalls, and the determination to go forward are familiar. The men we will meet here are men we know. Men waiting for opportunity, following the dream, making the dream, and killing the dream are all here waiting for us to overstand how they became who they are, to make us want them to find peace, for us to overstand the need for blood in blood out rituals, last chances, and dreaming anyway.

Come and see where it leads us.

King Hedley plays though September 6th at The Flight Deck in Oakland CA. Starring The Lower Bottom Playaz, Inc who are dedicated to staging the Century Cycle by August Wilson in chronological order. With King Hedley they open Season16.Continua: The American Century Cycle Project. Hedley is the 9 of a 10 play cycle also referred to as the Pittsburgh Cycle.

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The Lower Bottom Playaz poised to complete The American Century Cycle Project.

King Hedley II is the beginning of the end of The Lower Bottom Playaz, Inc., momentousAmerican Century Cycle Project. King Hedley is currently running at The Flight Deck on Broadway in Oakland CA. It opens The Playaz, main stage for Season16.Continua: The American Century Cycle Project and only leaves Radio Golf which will be main stage in December 2015 at The Flight Deck, concluding both Season 16 and The American Century Cycle Project.

Seven Guitars

The Playaz began production of The American century Cycle in 2010 after producing Gem of the Ocean in 2009 and falling into relationship with the spirit and intention of August Wilson, America’s greatest playwright living or dead. In 2010 I announced our intention to be the first company to ever fully stage the Cycle. In 2015, with Hedley up and running my troupe and I are poised on the edge of the completion of a ritual never fully enacted. We play for the Master in most humble gratitude for his generous blessings upon us as we have struggled to manifest this work. It has been a journey that has taken us places we could not have imagined and even more important it has brought us home.

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We are producing Hedley and Golf in our new house in uptown Oakland. The journey from our own out door theater in West Oakland to a residency in an indoor 100 seat black box in uptown has been a tumultuous journey full of pathos, falling to rise higher, refusing to fail, striving and daring to fly in the dark to find our light. We are going to be the first to formally stage the Cycle in chronological order. No other company has ever done so. The Green Room recordings were done after we started our journey with Wilson and they come as close to chronological production as anything ever done but they are recordings of readings. Some companies have staged all ten works in the order Wilson wrote them. No company has ever achieved what we are poised to accomplish.

"You die by how you live". August Wilson- Gem of the Ocean

“You die by how you live”. August Wilson- Gem of the Ocean

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In some ways its been a lonely journey. Not a lot of attention has been given our effort. We are a small company that started out as a Gypsy theater performing in non-traditional spaces including half way houses for reentry populations and shelters for the homeless.  A 100 seat outdoor theater was built for us in West Oakland where we did 13 Seasons of theater. We did Shakespearean adaptations, established the Shakespeare in the Hood series, toured Mack A Gangsta’s Tale to violence riddled areas of Oakland and Richmond, CA. We did an original work, Mama at Twilight: Death by Love that frankly examined the HIV growth in black communities by interrogating gendered roles and community taboos. We established our brand around telling stories that facilitated vitally important community discussion. We honed our craft and survived and very quietly became one of the greatest opportunity for black actors and theater makers in the East Bay. The community organization that partially funded our work stopped funding our productions mid way through our production of The Century Cycle and we became the only theater company to produce in The African American Museum and Library at Oakland CA. where we independently produced Fences. We then took up residency in The Flight Deck where we produced Two Trains Running and Jitney.


Playbill RBG playbill

An American Tale in Black, White and the Blues.

We are so very proud to reach the conclusion of our commitment to August Wilson who in many ways has guided our growth, instructed our direction, and renewed our commitment to our craft, our communities, and our selves. Wilson is the only work we have not felt a need to make site specific as is our habit. In Wilson we see ourselves and we see ourselves as part of the nation in the nation behind the veil in North America, and the universal nature of Wilson’s site specific Cycle (all the plays take place in the Hill Distinct of Pittsburgh PA with the exception of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). We recognize and have come to overstand Wilson’s song of North America; its our lives, we have lived it, bled it, and learned to sing it with honor and dignity as we have walked with Wilson.

If you have seen our work you know we do Wilson with integrity and passion. If you have not a great theater experience is waiting for you. Join us at our new theater to be a part of our red carpet season as we conclude The Century Cycle Project.

gem of the ocean Wilson by Gayle 10535618_776084975746056_5093821033429427179_o 16 wood two trains hedley back email

Book tickets for King Hedley, II and Radio Golf today:  http://www.lowerbottomplayaz.com/box-office.php

Support us on Indigogo: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-american-century-cycle-project/x/173176#/story


 Eight of Ten:  Jitney, A Director's Note

I am mid way through the production of Jitney. Only 3 shows left. It's the second show of the cycle we have done at the Flight Deck in newly dubbed "Uptown", (used to be plain old downtown), Oakland.  This is our third production since leaving The Yard , (The Sister Thea) in the Bottoms. We started in the Bottoms and now we are Uptown -- we are a success story. What a story it is -- the making of art is often if not always as much a drama as the work itself. We are The Lower Bottom Playaz, we are Oakland's premiere North American African theater company and we have earned every accolade we have ever received.

We are that company Javier Reyes from Colored Ink called the Mc Gyver  troupe for our inventiveness and applied ingenuity. How else would a troupe with the motto, We create what we need from what we have been gifted" roll. We much like our art come from a place of struggle. We are more than entertainment. Our mission is to create community one story at a time. We have become very intentional in embodying our mission. We are serious artist.

We do not create art because it is easy. It is in fact very difficult. Art making in America is costly. We are not wealthy but we have something to say. We are artist out of a necessity -- we have found our purpose. We are gifted. We share the gifts we have been given.  We find a way to make art in spite of the difficulty. We make art as a way of being in the world, as a way of changing the world, as an act of resistance to narratives of lack, marginalization, and scarcity. We are abundantly gifted. We are boundless in our determination. We are dedicated to our craft.

Personally, I stay not because its easy, not because of material rewards, but because art is my calling. The stage is my podium -- I am talking to you. I have been gifted a talented cohort of artist to create with -- that in itself is a challenge. Sitting in a room of geniuses is not all you might think. Genius comes at a cost. And I demand more than mere genius. I am not fond of actors. I am in love with artist -- storytellers, musicians, alchemist who turn story into gospel, magicians who willingly disappear into a character in the name of the story unfolding to show us pain, beauty, horror, injustice,ugly truth, triumphant love and all the other myriad aspects of being. Try herding cats, harnessing fire in a bottle, or aiming a rainbow and you will come to understand what it is to sit in collaboration with genius. I have that privilege.

Yet this is not a cakewalk. It is a marathon in a smorgasbord with all the challenge you can stand .  I may have come to the table ready, but I have grown since I pulled up a chair. I have become very firmly who I say I am.  I am now capable of setting the table. I owe some of that to Wilson. I owe a great deal to the teachers who came to me before Wilson. I owe it to my horse eating great grand parents and the female lineage they bore who taught me how to strive. I owe it to the characters I recognize and have come to love and admire in the American Century Cycle. I owe it to the genius in the room with me trusting me to invoke Wilson properly.  I owe it to my ancestors who walked the path to give me the privilege to claim my gift as my birthright, as my ordained avocation, as my duty to life and nation. I owe it to my nation walking like a blind man in the dark surrounded by  enduring hostility and privilege in this nation divided smothered by the myth of the American dream. I owe it to myself for the struggle doing the American Century Cycle has been.

Doing Jitney was difficult. They are all difficult. I don't expect it will get any easier. Doing what is right, what one should do, what one must to live in the world with dignity in tact is not usually the easiest path. My path has rocks on it. I stay the path rocks and all. I have been called. I have answered. "The destination is worth the journey" as Wilson himself declared. The difficult journey has made me appreciate the lessons learned along the way. We should all know we pay for our lessons in life. With that in mind I am open to the lessons, paying the price for knowing, and determined to remember to remember. I am on the battlefield with Wilson.

With Jitney I claim our space. I mark this point in the journey like Wilson marked completing Jitney which was the eighth play of the ten which would become The American Century Cycle.  He had yet to write the bookends Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf. This was a point of epiphany for Wilson.  He could see the whole spell. I sit in deep communion with him. I feel this point on the path viscerally. Seeing and knowing have become painful and I channel the pain through the production of art that illuminates the source, and the chance of deliverance from that pain.  I am praying with my hands moving, trying to help construct the healing I need -- the healing we all need. I have the advantage of having the whole spell writ out before me; nothing left but to perform the incantation. I am on verse eight of ten, shoulder to the grindstone, pushing the envelope, anticipating a blessing.

With my commitment to the American Century Cycle. the world I knew has fell apart as I walk the path. The producer and the theater we started with are in our rear view as is the neighborhood we moved into to do art that had the intention of being much more than entertainment. We were Griots coming home to tell the tale of falling forward into the American dream with our souls still in tact.  We had the idea that, if we worked to make it so, it would surely be. My home itself has become an emblematic battleground. Home and the idea of it had to be rethought, are still  being considered as I write. At this moment my only home is in the graveyard where the songs of my ancestors whisper to me -- stay the path. Wilson has blown so much away.

We were not wrong it has just not turned out the way we thought it would. That's okay. We have become fine dancers we have learned to change the steps when necessary but we refuse to leave the path. We are no longer sure where the path will take us. We have faith in our fate, we have surrendered to our destiny, we are doing what we must--sharing the gifts given. We are in alignment. We are the water that Ester speaks of in Gem of the Ocean, we are fluid, we have learned the necessity and rude contours of Diaspora.  None of it matters as much as the fact that this is exactly where we should be. Even the difficulty factor acknowledges we are at the top of a mountain.  Wilson and the ancestors stand there with us waiting for the song. The song must be sung the spell must be completed.

No one not even Wilson has enacted the spell in order. We will be the first. We are in a new theater. We produce our own work. We will finish this spell of a work and move on changed forever having walked with Wilson though the past to the point where Radio Golf ends. We will know more than we now know, and that will inform how we walk though the world carrying the song we have found in Wilson. I have learned a fair amount so far:

One must match walk with talk or become simply sound and fury.

If you pray with moving hands the path will clear.

One's song is the essence of one's being the inner light, the purpose, the soul force, it must be nurtured, it demands to be sung.

We have a duty to life.

We must remember.

If you drop the ball go back and pick it up.

Everything ain't always what it seem.

If you lose sight of your song you will suffer.

You were born free with dignity and everything.

Our stories are enough.

You can't pass the torch to the future and then insist on calling  the music it dances to.

We must consider doing what we have never done if we desire what we have never had.

The past is the key to the present you need it to see the path to the future clearly.

Trust what you know you know.

I am because we are.

If the wheel don't work somebody got to fix it -- it don't matter who it pains.

Right is right and right don't wrong nobody.

You got to tell the truth and stand in the light.

We are enough.

What I have learned is what feeds me now.   Finally we are getting feature stories. To all this I say yes. But as the SF Gate feature pointed out "we have been doing this with very little fanfare." Truth is fanfare cost. You need money for advertising and bells and whistles. We are so grassroots. I value paying artist. I know we eat and that heat and water cost even geniuses. It's nice to finally get reviewed. They say:

The actors capture the essence of their characters, and director Nzinga succeeds in providing the elements necessary to bring them together into a cohesive and unflinching portrayal. “Jitney” is an exceptional piece of theater, well played by this gifted group of artists." --Elizabeth Warnimont

Jitney is a must see. If you can, rush, run, fly downtown to the Flight Deck Theatre at 15th and Broadway, go pass the boarded up buildings from I Can't Breathe & Hands UP, Pants Up! and take a seat...

So the fanfare is coming.

But it's not what drives me. I am driven by what drove Wilson:  the urgency to hear the song . The need to complete the spell. This is my duty to life. If my art is my weapon I have chosen well with Wilson. We are on the battlefield in dark times when the song of self is our most potent magic. The world is poised for change. I can hear it in the people's getting up and taking to the street. The fight is not over. We have not forgotten being born free. We are all called to contribute to a better world. There are forces in place that like the way the wheel works its their job to guard the wheel. I am a Black Arts Movement artist. My art is my contribution to the battle to change what is into what needs to be.  I battle not against personalities but principalities,  this art is spiritual, its a leavening stone, it is resistance. I am emboldened with my hard earned lessons firmly rooting. I am fit for the battle. In the tradition of the Black Arts Movement art is ritual, it is political, it is my calling card for discourse, it is my intra-inter group interface with my humanity. I am teaching while I am learning. This song will be sung.





*The portrait of August Wilson at the top of the article is by James Gayles. It is for sale to support The August Wilson American Century Cycle Project undertaken by The Lower Bottom Playaz in 2010 to be completed in 2015. Inquires to: wordslanger@gmail.com

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The American Century Cycle


The American Century Cycle

Posted by Ayodele Nzinga on Monday, October 13, 2014 Under: Under the influence of Wilson

The American Century Cycle


I am often asked why August Wilson? Why did I decide to direct the American Century Cycle? I am producing the America's greatest playwright's seminal work in its entirety. I will be the first director to do so in chronological order of the 100 hundred years covered in what is often referred to as the Century Cycle. The answer to the why of it for me is both mystical and practical. Wilson's work is a part of the progression of my artistic arc and because when the student is ready the teacher appears be the teacher living or dead.

Having intentionally placed an arts practice in a gentrifying community with a long history of being informed by art; as an artist who is also an activist I addressed the cyclical issues plaguing that community by the production and creation of art. I eventually moved intentionally into West Oakland after having lived there for periods in the past and after my arts practice found a place to live in community.

After adapting Shakespeare to make him relevant in a dissolving urban community and adapting James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry to make them matter in the current moment in Oakland; I saw a play set in the early 1900's in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania that helped me give voice to why I had come to West Oakland on purpose with  the purpose of holding an artistic dialog that I hoped might inform change making. This work required no adaptation to make it relevant. No change in site, not need to update it by including current issues, the work resonated across the country and the century.

The play was Gem of the Ocean by August Wilson. The angel who bought the ticket also  built the 100 seat outdoor theater in which my theater company enjoyed residence. He had an affinity for Shakespeare and Wilson. It would be years before I would make the personal connection. It was not a leap Wilson is America's Shakespeare. His work, like Shakespeare's, will continue to gain momentum and patronage as long as it is performed which I hope is a good long time. As Shakespeare painted a picture of the  European times in which he lived Wilson has painted a vivid portrait of the 20th Century in North America.

His chronicle of the 20th Century captures and synthesizes the North American African experience in America from emancipation through the current national wave of gentrification of urban centers.  All the plays save Ma Rainey's Black Bottom are set in Wilson's  home town community the Hill District in Pittsburgh, PA. The sole exception hints at something I knew when I chose West Oakland.  All urban spaces have similar challenges and the narratives of these places is carried in the lives of ordinary people struggling to make home in the shadow of institutional and embodied racism, economic inequity,  fear of personal safety under the spell of  the American Dream in hot pursuit of "freedom and dignity".  West Oakland is emblematic of all North American "red-lined communities" as is Wilson's Hill District.

They are distinct geographical places but if communities are viewed as more than land mass, if they are viewed as the collection of people who enliven the notion of  community, then the Hill District  and Oakland are very much the same place. When a people have a tenuous relationship with land ownership and are forced by circumstance to re-imagine what constitutes communal connection,  the concept of Diaspora makes the thought that a community is a collection of people  hold  greater resonance than the thought that a community is contained in a mere land mass. The concept of Diaspora is a necessary lens for a people that have had no resting place since the days of cotton and ocean voyages in the holds of ships.

These North American land masses and others with similar history are the sites North American Africans came to rest in after  fleeing oppression and in desperate search for opportunity. They are the geographical spaces where the American Dream failed us and we built in the face of that failure. They were home and places of containment in the same breath,  places where wounds inflicted by the public sphere wrapped in the authority of  law  festered. The resultant trauma does not become a  part of the permaculture it is transient, it is carried in the Diaspora, in racial memory predating birth, in communal consciousness, in the people.

America is two places. Its twoness is acknowledged most directly inside the nation in the nation. There is America writ large the home of the brave, with freedom, and justice for all. And there is the America of sundown towns, the America that dropped bombs on Black Wall Street in Oklahoma, the same America that burned and leveled the black section of Roseville Florida. These two geographical points stand out in a collection of black communities in North America that were destroyed by violent racist. The stories of some of those communities have died with the former residents. I am unsure how to synthesize these facts with the myth of America. I am most familiar with the nation that exist inside the nation the one that moves at the pleasure of America writ large in its presence and removed from that presence out of necessity keeps its own rhythm and itself. My America is the one that exist behind the veil. It is this America that is the topic of Wilson's American Century Cycle.

In Wilson's most important work he has digested the twentieth century and given it back to us in a way that makes the current moment very clear. He wants us to overstand how it is we are in these geographical places and how we might imagine embodying the truth of being"born free with dignity and everything." Place, family, dignity, love, trust, honor and pragmatic hope are recurrent themes in Wilson's work. In his attention to these themes we are also lead to explore their antithesis in North American reality. Wilson's work is aimed at the diaphanous veil that divides the two Americas bringing them into dialog though the eyes of those who have become proficient in moving though the world Janus faced. In my opinion Wilson is the most important American playwright of the 20th century.  His work, The American Century Cycle is the most expansive chronicle of American life in the history of American theater. His tale of America told from a view off center is the contextualization of my American song. It is the view from behind the veil. Wilson's America is the nation in the nation.  His view from off center affords a different vantage than the vantage afforded from the center of the public sphere. Wilson and I start from the same place. I have been walking in his shadow all along trying to understand and give voice to what he clearly overstands. My desire to help us understand how our now is at once a bitter travesty and a reason for hope and celebration is met in Wilson's epic voyage through  the 20th  century.

The Importance of August Wilson in American Theater

DuBois speaks of the duality of Negritude in North America and those of us who are conscious behind the veil know that our twoness has followed us through the twentieth century into the new millennium. We are caught in a facade within a facade even in this dubiously titled post-race era, in possession of a President with African blood, and a North American African wife. Even his historic presidency is fraught with duality; the highest office in the land has never been the recipient of such odious disrespect, yet those the most disrespectful also claim to be the most American. It seems race is still a major issue in this "post-race" era. It seems we can't language our race problem away. It remains onstage be it center or hovering in the wings it is a part of the story. Enter Wilson.

With a sweeping mastery of language he tells us a story laced with music, history, and folk wisdom as we travel though the history of America from the point of view of housekeepers, brick layers, musicians, soul washers, cooks, and impaired prophets. Wilson dances us through a century a decade at a time sampling the music, the dialect, the issues d'jour and the unending longing for honey in the land of milk and honey. Wilson shows us poverty along side wealth, hunger in souls to rival hunger in belly, the wealth in a song of self and other essential elements of our glorious humanity. He dresses our struggle in its Sunday best and sends it out to preach the gospel of us overcoming, failing, rallying, and soaring in the midst of obstacles and snares. Race travels better here than in our strained lived reality. But make no mistake it is center stage as it has been throughout the North American African experience in North America.

It begins with Aunt Ester, (Gem of the Ocean), washing weary souls who are in search of their songs. Most don't even know they are looking. She told us how to be  in a land where your song can get shook loose, she warns us everything ain't what it seem. We better understand the importance of our song as we search for the shiny man to find him in Herald Loomis, (Joe Turner's Come and Gone), once he is reunited with his song. Herald sends us the powerful message that we will have to learn to bleed for ourselves; we have to find wholeness. Ma Rainey lets women gain a limited access to the conversation that mostly turns around the trials of men yet can any tale of men be told without women, and remember Ester as mother to all. Ma Rainey allows us to consider the old and the new and how they cohabit and feed it other. The present is grown from the past. The future springs from the present. Sometimes the future fights with the past to be born. What becomes clearest is you must remember where you been to get to where you are going. It is important to remember. Wilson is big on memory. Boy Willie, (The Piano Lesson), weights the value of memory/legacy against the value of being able to invest in the present. His struggle illuminates our struggle to progress and to be rooted in memory/legacy. What does progress cost? Is it worth your song? Can you live in the world without your song. In Wilson's cosmology it is unlikely. Your song and your soul weigh the same neither should be for sale. Progress without these elemental pieces of self yield characters like Caesar, (Gem of the Ocean), who lives in a narrow space beneath the contempt white people have for him and the contempt he has for those that look like him. Levee, (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom), loses his mind when he discovers his song has been stolen and all he has is an empty promise. Floyd SchoolBoy Barton, (Seven Guitars), wants to barter his song for some comfort in his life. He does not want to live in a cold world. When all the ways seem blocked he makes his self a way out of no way. He takes a chance.  Although it works out to be his last chance we are encouraged to believe God was pleased by his effort. Floyd, like Herald Loomis, delivers himself.

Sankofa: Go Back to Go Forward

Wilson like Shakespeare is a teacher, a poet, a preacher, and a sooth-sayer. He is the master magician who bends time and memory to his service and invites us to understand the significance and the meaning of the trick. In his skillful movement decade after decade he shows us how time has stood still in the Nation in the Nation only the clothes and music have changed.

Fences is the fifth work in the ten-play cycle, as a work it serves to take us from the recent past into a more recognizable moment within the 100 year cycle. This particular work for me seats the cyclical issues and the baggage explored in each installment firmly in the wheelhouse of my life time. It is in Fences where we see the historical burden of twoness jump into modernity fully dressed dragging its historical context behind it. We come to the place where our separateness is no longer the letter of the law but racism continues as a primary factor of lived reality in the North America we live in, the America your parents and grandparents lived in. We begin to comprehend the narrowness of the gate for black men who seem only able to succeed in entertainment or sports. Wilson points out the pitfalls in music outside of your control in Ma Rainey. In Fences he turns us to the history of sports in this country. Allowing us to view today with a contextualized sense of how our relationship to these industries is made.

In Fences,  Troy Maxton has decided what paths are open and what paths are closed in life, and in his bitter disappointment he guards the boundaries of his son's dreams seeking to keep him safe from the cost of dreams that can't come true in a racist America. The tension between what has happened and what might happen  in an America that seems new to each unconnected generation is underlined. Father and son stand in place of past and future beating each other to make sense of the present. If Wilson's work is memory work he wants to help us understand the cost of reinventing the wheel with each generation. In Fences the idea of Aunt Ester who is the embodiment of African wisdom and our compass though this journey here, is carried in the character of Gabriel who is considered brain damaged (outside prevailing logic). He intercedes with St. Peter to open the gates of heaven for Troy, a man who tried the best he knew how to live and love with dignity and honor, but was found wanting by life. It is the artist son Lyons who remembers when Troy had a song and how tall that song made him. We are left to understand that the silencing of that song and the settling for living without it poisoned Troys spirit leaving him to wrestle with the certainty of death and never having fully lived. Viewing the cycle chronologically as whole cloth one could offer that Fences sets the last brick in the foundation of the cycle creating space for further conversation. Fences is also the production that marked the end of my producing work in West Oakland. At this juncture all funding for this work went away. In the middle of this play which marks the middle of the cycle I had to decide whether to continue.

2013 was a most challenging year. It was the year I discovered and began to consider forced migration in my life. The concepts of honor, duty, family, death,  place and home, were center for me personally.  And in fact where Wilson's work was about to lead me was in keeping with the events of where  I was in time and geographically. I knew West Oakland was gentrifying when I moved my practice here. The process was well under way at that time. It would occur to me later that my exodus from South Berkeley was also a forced migration related to gentrification. The latter half of the Century Cycle concerns has issues related to gentrification as an additional motif. At this point in my journey thorough the production of the cycle my black neighborhood has become a hipster destination. Traditional residents are fleeing in droves as a result of years of disinvestment, crime and horror stories exaggerating the crimes, because black boys are not just being incarcerated they are being murdered by police and each other.

The schools are underfunded and graduate fewer seniors each year. The law is oppressive and there have not been jobs for years and even in the face of gentrification there are still no jobs for those who live here beneath the federal poverty line. I clearly understand that our theater company is caught in this rip-tide I want to keep my practice here but we can't find the traction to stay where we want to be. No appeals to the city, newly enfranchised artsy folk, or the general public seem to be able to keep us in West Oakland.  I independently produced both Fences and the next work in the cycle Two Trains Running while trying to find a place for the oldest North American Theater troupe in Oakland to continue to produce theater. The August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania is fighting to stay out of receivership and it could just be in my head, my heighten sense of awareness or a fact, that more Wilson is being produced since I committed to the production of the entire cycle in order. As a displaced artist in preparation for Jitney at a new venue in what's now called Uptown (used to be plain old downtown) Wilson continues to mentor me.

Master Wilson and the Willing Pupil

As  the community I tenuously continue to live in after my arts practice has moved uptown transforms I have begun to understand things I have never considered. Things like complex trauma, the lack of resting place for the marginalized, the significance and importance of your song, and above all the importance of memory in a prolonged struggle for equity. Without memory there is no recovery from complex trauma; if you can not remember being well how can you imagine it going forward. If you do not remember being wounded you may be wounded again.  Wilson connects song, memory, melting into the public sphere (if assimilation is even possible) in tension with being complete as is, as touch stones in the journey to reclaiming being "born free with dignity and everything."

Place and the unpacking of what belonging in America means or can mean inside the nation in the nation is big in the second half of the cycle. The work grapples with stratification within the race building on the variety of  past characters which include Caesar (Gem of the Ocean) who becomes a white man's nigger out of the need to survive. The self loathing he experiences as a result of his choice make him kill the savior/spirit of struggle Solly Two Kings who must be reborn in the spirit of Citizen the young wanderer who comes to Aunt Ester the soul washer to find purpose. Two Trains Running hits a new note with Memphis who finds it hard to remember after dropping the ball. It is Aunt Ester born 1619 who tells Memphis in 1969 that to go forward he must do what he has not done. He has to get right with his self. Young Sterling in Two Trains, represents the future, standing alone in the midst of examples of older men who did not run into the end zone, like Young Citizen in Gem he picks up the torch to carry us stumbling forward. In Two Trains the Hill District is being redeveloped in a way that resembles the redevelopment of West Oakland that cleared the space for BART and the Post Office. Thousands of people displaced for progress that took years to come  turning whole sections of a once vibrant community into a shadow of its former self. In Jitney a decade later the process continues as do Wilson's motifs. The old and the young, past and future, grappling to make sense of the current moment. We enter discussions of the passing of torches and the burden we pass to youth as we hobble them with staying inside the lines of what we conceive of as safety zones when in reality no progress can be made if we are only willing to do the things that we have already done. We are drawn to continue to consider how the past can inform the future without being perceived as standing in its way.

Having read the cycle I know whats to come including the death of Aunt Ester. I will stop with the play by play here and deal with the themes and metaphors in play in King Hedley and Radio Golf in the year I produce them and complete my walk with Wilson as my teacher. In truth there are things I can't know about those works until I produce them. I will not know how they correspond with lived reality until I live the process of producing the work. But my eyes and spirit are open I am listening.

By that time maybe I will understand what it means when Wilson decides it time for Ester to finally join the ancestors. I will know if it means she has cleared the path for the men darker than blue that Wilson so concerns his self with to become the redeemers or something less hopeful. As I take stock of the current moment which includes the Ferguson Uprising I know of a certainty the future of young black men is inextricably tied to the future of this country as is the continued forced migration of marginalized people.  I also know my apprenticeship with Wilson is sharpening my overstanding of where we are and helping me to conceive of what is necessary for us to continue to hope, to thrive, to continue forward motion in a battle to be free with dignity.

August Wilson is the American playwright who has harnessed the the twentieth century in a basket for out appreciation. He has divided it by decades so that we may ingest the elephant. It is rich and unusual fare offering a view of America not seen elsewhere on the American stage. It offers a frank view from off center showcasing the driving dream myth of America along side its grounded reality for people who hoed, planted, tended but have yet to harvest the fruit of the dream we have so religiously chased. Wilson offers us a glimpse at a whole served in units each whole unto them selves. If you have not discovered Wilson you have not yet understood what the American theater can offer or how rich and textured the unstoried life of America beyond the pale is and has ever been.



This article is an expansion of the article, The Importance of August Wilson in American Theater, originally published in 2013 on www.anzinga.com


In : Under the influence of Wilson 

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