The Pittsburgh Cycle

By Mike Downing

Mr. Wilson is best known for 10 plays. Known as The Pittsburgh Cycle, each play is set in a different decade of the 20th Century, chronicling the African-American experience.

Nine of the ten plays are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, near Wilson’s childhood home. The only exception is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which is located in Chicago.

In fact, the idea to write one play for each decade of the 20th Century occurred to Wilson after he finished Ma Rainey.  In an interview with Sandra Shannon, he said, “Well, actually, I didn’t start out with a grand idea.  I wrote a play called Jitney! set in ’71 and a play called Fullerton Street that I set in ’41.  Then I wrote Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which I set in ’27, and it was after I did that I said, ‘I’ve written three plays in three different decades, so why don’t I just continue to do that?’”

Fullerton Street and Jitney! were both submitted to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwright’s Conference.  Both were sent back to Wilson.

“Maybe these plays are not as good as I think they are,” he thought.  “I have to write a better play, but how the hell do you do that?”

Wilson realized that Jitney! (in its original form) “wasn’t big enough,” and Fullerton Street was, in Wilson’s own words, “epic and too unwieldy.”  So he sat down and wrote Ma Rainey and sent it to the O’Neill Conference. They accepted it.

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