The Aurora Fox launches a 10-year commitment to produce 10 plays by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson

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Courtesy of Gail Marie Bransteitter
(From left to right) The cast of “Gem of the Ocean” includes Lisa Young, Chaz Grundy, Abner Genece, Faith Goins– Simmons, Steffen Beal, and Cris Davenport.

The Aurora Fox Theatre on Colfax has embarked on an ambitious 10-year commitment to produce all 10 plays by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. This collection of 10 plays, written between 1982 and 2005, is known as the American Century Cycle and portrays the Black experience in Pittsburgh throughout the 20th century.

The first installment, "Gem of the Ocean," opened to critical acclaim last weekend, marking the beginning of a decade-long journey into the heart of Black America.

Director donnie l. betts expressed a deep admiration for Wilson's storytelling prowess — which won the playwright numerous Tony nominations and the Peabody Award. 

“He's a master storyteller,” betts said, who recognized “Gem of the Ocean” as an opportunity to set the tone for the rest of the American Century Cycle at the Aurora Fox. “That was my challenge because when you're going to do all 10 plays, that's a big commitment from a theater.”

Executive Producer Richard Cowden, who took over after the current season was programmed, said “Gem of the Ocean” — which takes place in 1904 — sets the stage for the 20th-century cycle.

Courtesy of Gail Marie Bransteitter
(From left to right) The cast of "Gem of the Ocean" includes Faith Goins– Simmons and Chaz Grundy.
Courtesy of Gail Marie Bransteitter
(From left to right) The cast of "Gem of the Ocean" includes Joshua Levy, Chaz Grundy, Faith Goins– Simmons, and Cris Davenport.

“One of our lead characters is 285 years old, which is significant because that is the distance between 1904 and 1619, which of course was when the first enslaved individuals arrived in this country or what became this country,” Cowden said. “This play really dives deeply into black history and ritual and mythology.”

One of the production’s unique elements is the inclusion of original music by Larea Edwards.  

“I'm a big believer in the original music,” betts said. “And I do a lot of things with soundscape in my productions.”

Quilts were also commissioned specifically for the show. Designed by artists from the Rocky Mountain Wa Shonaji Quilt Guild, they add a tactile and visual dimension to the production.

“We are so honored because you know that art that isn't practiced sort of dies. And what we like to focus on is teaching people the art of quilting,” said Joette Bailey-Keown, president of the Rocky Mountain Wa Shonaji Quilt Guild and one of 8 quilters for the show.

Courtesy of Rocky Mountain Wa Shonaji Quilt Guild
The committee that worked on the quilt for the staging of August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean" at the Aurora Fox with the quilt's recipient, Donnie L. Betts.

Bailey-Keown said betts came to the guild in December, read parts of the play, and described what it was that he needed. She said the guild saw this as an opportunity to expand beyond its usual offerings of trunk shows, standing exhibits, and presentations.

“Our main theme is each one teaches one. And for this quilt to be featured in the play, it screams that the art still exists, there are people that are still interested in doing this artwork. For this to be an element of this play is really exciting for us.” 

betts said everyone can find someone to relate to in Wilson’s plays because they talk about the human spirit.

“(Writer and musician) Oscar Brown Jr., he always talked about the revolution of the human heart. It's what we need as people,” betts said. “And I think in August's work, you hear and see that revolution of the human heart.”

Gem of the Ocean by August Wilson plays at the Aurora Fox through Sunday, April 14.