August Wilson’s Century Cycle > Spoiler-free scene breakdown
- Premiered: 1990 (Broadway 1992)
- Setting: 1969; Memphis’s small restaurant, Pittsburgh
Memphis (hard-working and honest) complains that Wolf (notorious numbers runner) is tying up his phone; Risa (waitress with self-scarred legs) doles out sugar at Wolf’s request; Memphis complains his “old lady” left him and wouldn’t even shake his hand; Holloway (whose anger at injustice draws him to the supernatural) describes big crowed for Prophet Saumel at West’s funeral home (across the street). Risa supports Samuel as truth-teller; others focus on his popularity and wealth. Memphis describes his youthful recklessness, but hung up his gun when he bought the deed to the restaurant; now the city wants to tear down the whole block; mentions rivalry with West (wealthy owner of funeral home); Wolf admits West does a good job making bodies look good; Hambone, whose vocabulary is limited and seems addled, stops by; Rita is kind to him; Memphis is critical of her work (but it seems he’s just crabby — Rita doesn’t object). Sterling enters — young, handsome, fresh out of the penitentiary; he flirts with Risa (he knew her older brother) and is looking for work; amusing story about asking his landlady to put him on the waiting list for paying rent; tries to sell a watch; Holloway advises Sterling to visit Aunt Ester — and Hambone perks up. Hambone is obsessed because butcher Lutz promised him a ham if he painted a fence, but ended up offering only a chicken; for almost 10 years “Hambone” has obsessed over that ham, hence his name. Memphis says it’s Hambone’s fault for agreeing to the job without agreeing to the price; Halloway monologues about Prophet Samuel’s backstory; Memphis predicts Sterling “ain’t got good sense”
I.ii (next day?)
Wolf, looking out window, narrates the daily encounter between Hambone and Lutz; Holloway monologues on how if Hambone accepted the chicken, it wouldn’t taste right; Memphis mentions rival Stovall (about whom we heard in The Piano Lesson) back in Jackson, and describes himself slowly climbing up the economic ladder; tells Halloway and Wolf something “ain’t natural” about Risa not being interested in men (or women); Holloway says Risa had been a sexual target since she was 12 and scarring her legs is her way to avoid sexual attention; Wolf says Risa just hasn’t met the right man; Memphis is suspicious of Sterling, who quit respectable (but low-paying) job; Hollow describes how every dollar people earn ends up in the white man’s pocket, and offers complex economic observations in street-talk, explaining why hard work doesn’t benefit Black people; Memphis, who has come up in the world, says others are lazy; he won’t sell his building for less than 25k; West offers to buy the property from Memphis for a sure $15. Sterling arrives, with flyers, and describes his visit to Aunt Ester. Sterling advertises rally for Malcom X’s birthday; Memphis scoffs, noting the man is dead; “N——- killed Malcolm.” Halloway mentions that St. Peter was also killed, and Memphis mentions Martin. “If they kill the sheep you know what they do to the wolf.” Sterling says that’s the point of having a black power rally; Memphis objects to “equality” on the grounds that he might be superior to someone else; when Hambone arrives, Memphis throws away his coffee and pushes him out the door. Memphis says he’s tired of Hambone (who has waited almost 10 years to get what he feels Lutz owes him).
I.iii (another day)
Risa and Sterling talk; each gives their backstory (Sterling’s bank robbery, Risa’s scars). She gives him a lottery number based on her scars; Sterling has inspecting the fence Hambone painted years ago and says he considered getting a ham for him; Wolf arrives with gifts for Risa and Memphis; Sterling wants to borrow money from Wolf to play Risa’s number; Wolf describes being arrested on trumped up charge; we hear of the offstage character Bubba Boy, whose woman died of an overdose; he tried to shoplift a dress to bury her in; page 56 Wolf has two lines — is one line mislabeled? Sterling asks Hambone to show everyone something Hambone has learned; Memphis complains his deed has unfair language; he has rejected the city’s offer of 15k and fired the black lawyer who advised him to take it; Sterling suggests burning the building for insurance money; gives impassioned speech including reference to his mother’s death; he won’t sell unless they meet his price.
Sterling enters, with flowers (from Prophet Samuel) for Risa, and a gasoline can. Holloway tells him Aunt Ester is feeling well enough to see him now; Sterling has a touching moment with Hambone; Mephis buys the gas from Sterling (they haggle over whether the price includes the can — they’re both good at it); Memphis checks that Hambone is paying for his meal, and urges him to hurry on (offering him a free muffin to to eat when he leaves; he’s not being cruel to Hambone, but he still doesn’t want him around); Wolf enters, offfers to sell something to Sterling (unseen, in a paper bag); they haggle on price. Memphis gripes that Wolf is having numbers customers call him on his phone; their dispute escalates, Wolf leaves; West complains someone broke one of his windows; West ups his offer for the building from 15k to 20k; Memphis tells detailed story of his rivalry with Stovall (who said the deed was void if any water was found on the land Memphis bought from him); he got the law on his side but Stovall burned his crops; Memphis left for North, but intends to return; Sterling tries to get himself hired by West; West mentions visiting Aunt Ester and burying Sarah Degree (we’ll hear that name in Radio Golf); death has made him wealthy but he says he didn’t understand death until his own wife died; Holloway describes a grandfather who couldn’t wait to get to heaven and pick cotton for God; seems to credit Aunt Ester for helping him get rid of his anger at his grandfather; Sterling tries to get Memphis to go into business selling sandwiches to mill workers; Memphis declines; Memphis say she and Risa will get married if his number wins; Risa says nothing; Memphis is still wary of Sterling.
Risa tells Holloway she hasn’t seen Hambone; Wolf describes huge crowd for Prophet Samuel’s funeral; Wolf describes his lack of success with women (tied to his money woes); Wolf tells Hollwoay he and Memphis are OK now; Wolf reports being worried about Sterling; the number he played won big, but “the Alberts” who are in charge of the numbers aren’t paying out what they promised; Memphis says that’s a risk you take if you play numbers; he gets upset at the sight of the rally flier; warns Risa away from Sterling; Holloway’s lines about “a n—– with a gun” which causes the white man to panic unless the sentence is “The police man shot the n—– with his gun.” M suggests Sterling needs to carry a gun. Risa discusses her faith in Prophet Samuel — not a preacher, but prophet, who said God would send a sign that only the wise would recognize; Memphis scolds Risa over money (in the process though he reveals he trusts her); Memphis announces his plan to visit Aunt Ester.
Holloway reports some bad news. West and Risa debate the costs of burial; Sterling, angry, looking for Wolf (to collect his winnings); West, on Sterling’s anger: “That’s because you walking around ehre with a ten-gallon bucket. Somebody put a little cupful in and you get mad cause it’s empty. You can’t go through life carrying a ten-gallon bucket. Get you a little cup. That’s all you need” (94). His father told him to get his ranch first, and the woman will come. (Sterling wants it all, now.) Wolf tells him the boss is only paying half the winnings; Sterling says he’ll see “the Alberts” himself.
Sterling asks whether Risa is coming to the rally; Sterling says Old Man Albert wouldn’t pay up, but seemed impressed with Sterling’s guts (at least as Sterling tells the story); Sterling then went to Aunt Ester, who told him to throw $20 into the river; he speaks of her calmness. He sings to Risa, asks her about her legs (not so chiding this time); he continues pursuing her, but she remains uncertain, declines going to the rally with him, but then plays Aretha Franklin’s “Take a Look” on jukebox; they dance. (Earlier when Sterling had said he doesn’t dance, she suggested he hasn’t asked the right woman.)
Holloway says Bubba Boy and West are the only people he knows who found love; Wolf dismissively describes the crowd at the rally; they discuss a visit to the funeral home; a fire burned the drugstore last night, police taking pictures, suspecting arson (but Holloway says the owner did it for insurance money); Wolf reports Petey Brown killed his “old lady” and her lover last night; says when he dies, “every woman in Pittsburgh gonna cry”. Risa and Wolf complain about Lutz; Sterling pays Wolf $20 (for the previous purchase, presumably) and hands Risa $562 (remainder of his winnings) and goes out on an unknown task; Memphis enters, with news of his final visit with the city regarding the property; Memphis describes his next steps; Sterling returns from his errand. (I am of course leaving out a lot — read it or go see it yourself!)