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August Wilson Century Cycle 

Plays by August WilsonTheatre Communications Group

'Tis the season of the boxed set, but this one has more significance than the usual holiday gift repackaging. This is the first physical embodiment of a singular achievement — 10 plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, which together tell a long story of African-American survival. It is the first time the plays of August Wilson have been collected to tell that story chronologically.

Since Wilson completed the cycle shortly before his untimely death in 2005, the nature and extent of this achievement is slowly being recognized. No American playwright of any color has come close to a series of 10 major plays like this, or participated in the acclaimed productions of all their plays. Many others helped this process in vital ways, but even so, it's fair to say that August Wilson transformed and enriched American theater as no individual has ever done.

From "Gem of the Ocean" (set in 1904) to "Radio Golf" (1997) and including "Fences," "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "Jitney" and "The Piano Lesson," each play is carefully true to its time, yet there are few historic events even mentioned, and the characters are ordinary people — predominately in the same Pittsburgh neighborhood. The most obvious virtue of these plays is their language — a version of black speech that is at once authentic and Wilson's own poetry — and this alone makes these plays unusually good to read as well as to see performed.

With this set it's possible to feel the changes and the continuities in African-American culture through the century. The reader is aided in this by recurring and even legendary characters, and by ancestors and descendants in the same family — and perhaps most hauntingly, in the fate of a single house.

In this boxed set, each play has a foreword by such luminaries as Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, playwright Tony Kushner, writer Ishmael Reed, actor Laurence Fishburne and former theater critic Frank Rich. Kushner writes that Wilson grappled with theological questions: "Eugene O'Neill, the playwright August Wilson most resembles, did that." Reed writes that Wilson's "ear was so good that his character's words could be set to music." Fishburne quotes favorite lines from "Two Trains Running" (he was in its first production, along with Samuel L. Jackson): "Freedom is heavy. You got to put your shoulder to freedom. Put your shoulder to it and hope your back holds up."

There couldn't be a better introduction to Wilson's work than the intro to the series by New Yorker drama critic John Lahr. The cover for the set has a great photo of the author, taken in the last year or so of his life. The set lists at $200 but can be purchased for $126 — it's definitely a gift item. And if you don't have someone to give it to, think about gifting your favorite local library.

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