August Wilson’s Century Cycle > Spoiler-free scene breakdown
- Premiered: 1988.
- Setting: The Hollys’ boarding house, Pittsburgh. 1911.
- 11 characters (a fairly large cast for a drama, including 2 children who would typically be double-cast; not an easy play to produce)
Long stage directions before the first scene describe the children of freed slaves moving north.
Ornery Seth describes to his long-suffering wife Bertha the “heebie-jeebie” pidgeon-blood ritual that “conjure man” Bynum performs outside. Seth discusses starting his own shop rather than working nights for Mr. Orlowski. Recent Southern transplant Jeremy has been arrested for drunkenness. Selig (from Gem of the Ocean) arrives with sheet metal, which Seth will use to make articles for Selig to peddle; Selig is a “people finder” and Bynum asks him to find the “shiny man” who led him to the “Secret of Life” in a ritual that included being cleansed with blood and encountering a vision of his father. Bynum uses the power of song to help bind people. Seth scolds Jeremy for being arrested but Bertha sees it as routine harassment from police. Loomis and his 11yo daughter Zonia enter; he is looking for his wife Martha. Jeremy describes losing a guitar contest with a white man. Seth seems to know where Martha is, but is suspicious of Loomis and stays out of it. Mattie arrives, seeking for Bynum to make her man Jack come back to her. Bynum, aware of the proximity of Jeremy, tells Mattie to forget about Jack, and leaves after he sees Jeremy and Mattie getting to know each other. Meanwhile, Zonia plays in the yard and befriends neighbor boy Reuben, who supplies Bynum with pigeons, which were the pets of his dead friend Eugene. She mentions a man named Joe Turner did something bad to her father.
I.2 (one week later)
Seth complains to Bertha that Loomis is suspiciously looking for Martha, who we learn is a former boarder who left looking for her little girl; Selig returns, doing more business with Seth; Loomis asks Selig go find Martha; Selig gives his backstory, which includes that his great-grandfather was a slave trader.
I.3 (next morning)
Seth complains that he couldn’t get a loan to start his own shop without signing away the boarding house; Jeremy won a dollar last night with his guitar and wants Mattie to move in with him. Bynum shares a sensitive speech about women, offering a perspective that differs from Jeremy’s interest in the here-and-now. Molly then enters, looking for a room — and the stage directions say “JEREMY’s heart jumps out of his chest when he sees her.”
I.4. (later the same day)
After the Sunday chicken dinner, all the residents but Loomis are sitting around, happy and satisfied. Seth calls on Bynum for music, and they do Juba, a call-and-response dance. The stage directions call a dance “as African as possible” with improvised lyrics that include a reference to the Holy Spirit; at this, Loomis enters, “In a rage,” then starts to unzip his pants, speaks in tongues, and dances (this seems to be Wilson’s way of representing the Evangelical Christian way of channeling the same energy we just witnessed), then has a terrifying vision of bones rise from water. Bynum helps him articulate his dramatic visions.
II.1. (breakfast — presumably the next day)
Seth complains to live-and-let-live Bertha that Loomis has to go; nobody else in the house seems bothered, and Loomis points out he’s paid up front for the rest of the week; Molly tells Mattie she doesn’t want to work for a living or have babies; Mattie by contrast longs for stability. Jeremy has been fired rather than pay 50 cents extortion money to whites; Seth scolds Jeremy for losing his $8/week job over 50 cents. Jeremy and Molly express mutual attraction, and we don’t see either one again.
II.2 (next day, Monday)
Bynum sings a song about Joe Turner, who takes people away in chains. Seth is cold to Loomis, reminding him he has to leave Saturday. Loomis objects to Bynum singing the song about Joe Turner, Seth criticizes Loomis for causing trouble, but Bynum is willing to sing something else, and says Loomis reminds him of a man he knew in Johnstown, where he saw the “shining man.” Bynum says he can tell Loomis was on Joe Turner’s chain gang; Loomis first calls him a liar, then tells a story of being a deacon, trying to preach to men who were gambling, when Joe Turner (the brother of the governor of Tennessee) swept in and “grabbed” them all and made them work seven years. When he got free, he found his wife Martha had left their daughter and headed North; he has been searching for his wife ever since. Loomis suggests Joe Turner was trying to steal Loomis’s song.
II.3 (next morning)
Seth reminds Loomis that today is Tuesday; Bertha scolds Seth. Loomis and Mattie express interest in each other, but Loomis “done forgot how to touch.”
II.4 (next morning)
Reuben tells Zonia he saw a ghost because he had promised to release Eugene’s pigeons, but hasn’t. Reuben sweetly asks whether he can kiss Zonia.
Bertha advises the departing Loomis to look for a room on Wylie; Mattie ties a ribbon on Zonia’s hair and says goodbye ; Bertha says a man needs someone to make him laugh, “blessing” her own kitchen in a ritual dance; she, Mattie, Bynum, and even Seth join in”near-hysterical laughter.” After another entrance (only a surprise if you haven’t read the list of characters), this new character is grateful for a change that terrifies another; a knife appears, and is used, and the plot threads resolve. (I don’t want to spoil the ending.)