Online Edition: Winter 2008/2009

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 The August Wilson
 Century Cycle

 August Wilson

 Theater Communications Group ($200)

 by Justin Maxwell

If you have any interest in theater, odds are that you’ve read something by August Wilson, seen one of his plays, or have a copy of Fences or Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on a bookshelf somewhere. This boxed set, however, showcases the power of Wilson’s oeuvre in a unique fashion. Presenting Wilson’s “century cycle”—ten plays, each dramatizing a different decade of African American life in the 20th century—as a unified whole, the boxed set looks and feels like it could indeed hold a century of cultural memory inside of it.

While the ten-volume collection itself is hefty, it is also well designed and well made; each book is comfortable in the hand and readable on the page, signifying that these editions are meant to be read, not archived. Many boxed sets are merely repositories that seem to say, “Look, I contain the collected works of ____.” The Wilson boxed set, by contrast, says, “Come and read me.” Those who accept the invitation will discover hidden layers to Wilson’s achievement, seeing how each separate play in the cycle informs the others.

Adding to the reading experience is the fact that each volume gets a heartfelt introduction by a contemporary writer, such as Toni Morrison and Tony Kushner, or by another artist with ties to Wilson’s work, like actors Phylicia Rashad (Tony-nominated for her portrayal of Wilson’s iconic character Aunt Ester) or Laurence Fishburne (the film star who has repeatedly returned to interpret Wilson’s characters on stage). While I would have liked to see introductions by other theater professionals such as Paul Carter Harrison and Lou Bellamy, their absence doesn’t detract from what is there. Most notably included is a lyric introduction to Radio Golf written by Suzan-Lori Parks, where she is at her poetic best.

Of course, this fulsome set does come with a large price tag, but since each hardcover volume is listed individually at $25, the triple-digit price isn’t the trip to the dentist that it seems—in fact, it’s a bargain. And when you can get so much of the most important African-American literature of the 20th century in one place, which of these plays would you give up?


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