August Wilson’s Century Cycle > Spoiler-free scene breakdown
- Premiered: 1999; Broadway 2001
- Setting: 1985; backyard of row houses; Pittsburgh Hill District
Prologue (starry night)
Stool Pigeon, clicking ham bones, monologues to an offstage cat (which belongs to Aunt Ester). “The story’s been written. All that’s left now is the playing out.”
King (30s), ex-con with scarred face, plants seeds; his mother Ruby (60) asks him about getting a phone hooked up; he is out of work; she says Elmore is coming; says this dirt is no good, he needs better dirt; she says he’s stubborn like his father Hedley (from Seven Guitars). King and friend Mister are selling stolen refrigerators; King complains that Louise, who raised him, left the house to Ruby; she seems a bit defensive; she’s going to sell the house and give half the money to King; Ruby asks Mister for $2 for beer; mentions crowd at Aunt Ester’s, where a cat is watching a rat hole; King’s thoughts flow pretty easily from selling stolen goods to getting an anniversary picture with wife Tonya; King had a dream he had a halo around his head, and asks if Mister can see it; Mister says he dreamt he had so much money he needed a wheelbarrow, discusses getting in trouble in jail when he seriously asked for a copy of his booking photo; Stool Pigeon got shot at for leaving lids off of garbage cans so feral dogs could eat; Ruby: “He wasn’t right in 1948 when I met him.” Mister says Pernell’s cousin is looking for King, saying King robbed Pernell (the one who scarred King’s face) of a chance in life by killing him; King dismisses Pernell’s potential. Mister is very attentive to Tonya (King’s wife); Ruby has Tonya read out loud a letter from Elmer, who she says is a gambler; Elmer recently sold a to King a watch that stopped running days later; Ruby “He talk sugar but give salt. ‘Cause they both look the same, he don’t even know it. He ain’t the one that taste it.” Ruby says she sees Elmore every five years or so and he’s always trouble; Mister defends his style; says his wife left him because she wanted to change him; King displays a gun, saying it’s for Pernell’s cousin; Stool Pigeon, agitated, enters with bad news about a character we’ve met.
Stool Pigeon finds Biblical connections to recent events; King again asks about his halo; SP tells story of being thrown out of church for being too honest (quotes himself dropping f-bomb); says all (even the recent tragedy, which was followed by citywide blackouts) is according to God’s plan. King and Mister discuss their (legitimate) work; King sees tiny green growth where he planted seeds; they discuss their illicit fridge sales; Mister has short-term expenses, but King reminds him they are selling fridges in order to raise money for buying video store. King speaks of working together as kids in football games. Because Tonya is pregnant King is thinking of the future and getting on the right track. Mister suggests hitting a jewelry store, to get the money for the video store; King approvingly mentions Little Buddy Will’s mother out in the street with a handgun looking to avenge his death; King still haunted by memory of Nessi; good monologue of his love for her, including her apparently encouraging him to kill Pernell, but then testifying against him. (Powerful monologue.) He was apparently in custody and couldn’t attend her funeral. Stool Pigeon enters, praising God’s power with f-bombs. He hoards newspapers, reading headlines he says people need to know. Ruby scolds SP for hoarding newspapers; he quotes the Bible at her, blowing her off. Mister reluctantly lends Ruby $30 for a gift for Aunt Ester. (She won’t put his name on it, too.) Elmer arrives; he and Ruby size each other up; King gripes about pocket watch, Elmer is smooth; Mister is impressed. Elmore offers to help sell refrigerators; King dreams of opening video stores in 50 states; Stool Pigeon insists his name is Canewell. Elmore monologue about wearing a $100 hat with $1.67 in his pocket; spent most of it when he met Ruby; pawned his hat for $7, lost it all gambling; robbed a man and got shot at, ended up with $7. Needed 50c to get hat back from pawn shop. King laments “It used to be you get killed over something. Now you get killed over nothing” (34). Elmore, King and Mister talk about guns; Stool Pigeon says God is more powerful (dropping f-bomb again). SP says God is in charge, Elmore says where was God when various tragedies happened, King says God is only in charge of some things; King and Elmore start to square off; Tonya passes through upset; Ruby says it has nothing to do with King; Tonya has second thoughts about having the baby; mentions her 17yo daughter who is pregnant, but all the men in her life are in jail and she (Natasha) can’t make long-term plans; long monologue narrates more of Little Buddy Will and his mother’s grief; King: “It ain’t even born and you got it in a casket already.” Ruby tries to tell King to back off, but King fires back that Ruby should talk to “Walter Kelly” — we don’t know who he is (yet). Maternal Ruby: “I love me, but I love King more.” Relates that when pregnant with King, she went to Aunt Ester thinking she did abortions; instead Ester said “Got got three hands. Two for that baby, and one for the rest of us.” After Ruby seems to calm Tonya, Elmore calls sayng Ruby’s chicken is burning.
I.iii (next morning)
Elmore (cleaning gun) tells story of Stroller (fat, had money, died in New York); Elmore mentions “That thing with Leroy” which caused him to lose her; Elmore notes that Ruby never told King that Leroy (killed by Elmer) was King’s real father; Elmore reveals he plans to tell King the truth; Elmore says he was earning money to come back and marry Ruby; Ruby reports burying her mother, Louise’s lukemia; King in jail; she didn’t wait for Elmore; Elmore: “You still pretty. You just got old. We both got old,” and suggests they marry. Mister comes by looking for King, who is out getting pictures for Tonya; they discuss work; we learn Mister is Red Carter’s son; Ruby describes a record deal with Walter Kelly that never happened — they had a falling out; Elmer gives Ruby jewelry; Elmore smoothly sells Mister a gun; then charges him extra for the bullets; King arrives, distressed that Sears couldn’t give him the pictures, even though he had the receipt — he caused a scene, police involved; he wouldn’t give them the receipt but they took the numbers from the receipt and said they’d look for the photos; Elmore advises King to pick his battles; frustrated that his boss didn’t get a contract (which makes King more reliant upon his illegal ventures). King gives his backstory, where his 5th grade teacher told him he’d make a good janitor; and Mister echoes / amplifies King’s resolve; says he was worth $1200 during slavery, now he’s only worth $3.35/hr. Discusses his own moral code — he was justified in killing Pernell because Pernell cut him, and in 3rd grade his teacher wasn’t justified in asking whether he needed to go number one or number two when he went to the bathroom. Elmore accidentally steps on seeds when giving his rebuttal — make your own rules, rather than be offended the rules are against you. King insists this is good dirt, and Stool Pigeon watches silently while King gives a rousing speech at end of Act I.
Stool Pigeon starts burying the dead black cat that used to belong to Aunt Ester. To Tonya, he prophesies about King wanting to fly like an eagle but not having wings; King arrives, and is defensive about his seeds; SP gives King the machete that Heywood used to kill George Floyd (in Seven Guitars). SP tells the story, says he forgave Hedley; gives a touching sermon; ends with another f-bomb. Mister arrives; they talk about the machete and the cat, then King casually pulls a black knit cap out of his bag; they talk about Mister’s wife (who left him) and guns, and about what they are planning.
King and Mister discuss the results. Mister annoyed because King diverted from the plan. “If he willing to die over his money he deserve to have it.” SP, bandaged, has been mugged. King at least outwardly defensive. Laments that the muggers took his newspapers, which means he won’t be able to pass on important stories to the next generation; Elmore tricks King and Mister into giving him commission on a refrigerator he’s buying for Ruby; King: “That was a good one.” Elmore discusses life; King asks if Elmore sees the halo over King’s head; Elmore philosophizes guilt over shooting Leroy, saying it was over a “little thing”; God should decide death; King describes fighting with Pernell because P called him “champ” and not “King”; P scarred K’s face; K describes thinking of the funeral and P’s grieving partner, but still killing P anyway; says he’s learned his lesson: “The next one’s gonna to be self-defense” (75). Tonya, dressed for work, is suspicious when King gives her $500; rejects it when he won’t say where it’s from. She tells him not to do these illegal things for her; he says who else is he doing to do it for?
Tonya tells Ruby she’s finish with King if he goes back to jail; Ruby says King is just like Hedley, describes her singing career and the reasons for her falling out with producer Walter Kelly; monologues on being a woman with gray hair; Stool Pigeon sings a hymn that, predictably, ends with an f-bomb. Says he needs blood on the cat’s grave but the zoo won’t give him a goat. Mister gives Ruby the fancy derringer Elmore sold him; teaches her how to use it; update on Little Buddy Willis’s mother (in jail for shooting the man accused of killing her son); Ruby says the woman deserves a medal; King says his boss got a new contract; notes his seeds are growing; King reports on his visit to Neesi’s grave, and his emotional visit to Pernell’s grave; monologues on his seeds growing in rocky soil; Tonya mocks him for walking around with a gun looking for violence and also talking about wanting a baby; tells him he can be a man by being around for the baby — that’s what she wants.
King polishing machete; Mister reports update on Aunt Ester from “Mr. Eli”); Mister has quit, King is waiting for a raise; Ruby, dressed up and wearing necklace, announces her engagement to Elmer; King offers to Elmer a diamond ring he had previously said was for Tonya; Mister rejects his half of the earnings. (This is probably a significant moment between the men, but the state directions don’t suggest anything.) Ruby and Elmer dance; Ruby calls SP “Canewell.” Ruby dances with King; sings; Elmer reflects on Leroy, perhaps gloating now that he has Ruby? (Was that his motive all along?) Elmer describes the dispute over $50; King sides with Leroy, Mister sides with Elmer; Elmer recalls that Ruby told him she was going to stay with Leroy; she told E where L was; but King seems to emphathize with Elmer as his story progresses; Elmer tells Ruby “Tell him!” but it’s Elmer who tells King who his real father was.
Mister discusses King’s honor with Tonya and Ruby; King pays his father’s debt; King challenges Elmer to a crap game; they argue over rules; King accuses Elmer of switching the dice; King and Elmer threaten each other; there are plot twists and a resolution of which here I will not speak.