A year ago, Denzel Washington revealed that, in addition to the film adaptation of August Wilson’s “Fences” (which opens in USA theaters this month), he also inked a deal with HBO that will see him bring to the screen, Wilson’s entire American Century Cycle series, which consists of 10 plays portraying the 20th century African American experience, from the early 1900s, just after slavery and the Civil War, to the 1990s.
At the time, Washington shared that the deal with HBO would see him produce film adaptations of all 9 of the 10 plays (since “Fences” is heading to the big screen) for the premium cable TV network, at a pace of one per year, for the next 9 to 10 years. Of course, this is all being done with the full collaboration of the August Wilson Estate.
The list of 10 plays follows, in chronological order, are:
1. 1900s “Gem of the Ocean” – A young man from Alabama visits Aunt Ester, a 285-year-old renowned cleanser of souls for help in absolving the guilt he carries from a crime he’s committed.
2. 1910s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” – Set in Pittsburgh, the story of Seth and Bertha Holly and the migrants who pass through their boardinghouse during the Great Migration of the 1910s.
3. 1920s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – Set in Chicago in 1927, the play explores issues of race, art, religion and the historic exploitation of black recording artists by white producers.
4. 1930s “The Piano Lesson” – Set in 1936 Pittsburgh, the story of a brother and sister who have different ideas on what to do with the piano they own – keep or sell it.
5. 1940s “Seven Guitars” – The story of a blues singer just released from prison and ready to right the past year’s wrongs.
6. 1950s “Fences” – Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, the story of Troy Maxson, a restless trash-collector and former baseball athlete struggling to provide for his family.
7. 1960s “Two Trains Running” – The story of a local diner owner who fights to stay open as a municipal project encroaches on his establishment.
8. 1970s “Jitney” – Set in a worn-down gypsy cab station in Pittsburgh, the story of men hustling to make a living as jitneys — unofficial and unlicensed taxi cabs.
9. 1980s “King Hedley II” – The story of an ex-convict trying to rebuild his life by selling stolen refrigerators so that he can save enough money to buy a video store.
10. 1990s “Radio Golf” – A powerful African American politician runs for the highest office of his career, but as he steps into prominence, his plans collide with his past.
According to a report from UK theatre, entertainment and performing arts industry website The Stage, Washington will next tackle “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” for HBO. The actor confirmed this during a “Fences” Q&A in London this week, adding that a screenplay for the adaptation is already complete and ready to be filmed.
No other details were shared about the production, specifically casting, and ETA; also whether Denzel planned to direct.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” tells a story of how racism affects the life and career of a blues singer, Gertrude (Ma) Rainey (1886-1939), one of the first black singers to be signed to a white label. The drama concentrates on the interaction of her band members – their banter, conflicts and lamentations. The play opened at Broadway’s Cort Theatre in October 1984, directed by the late great Lloyd Richards, with Theresa Merritt in the title role. Nominated for a Tony Award, Ma Rainey’s won the 1984 New York Drama Critics Circle Award. The play was revived in February 2003 starring Whoopi Goldberg and Charles S. Dutton.
Coincidentally, a new production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” directed by Phylicia Rashad, recently closed (in October) at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Tony-winner Lillias White played the title role. She was joined by Keith David, Glynn Turman and Damon Gupton.
Check out a preview of the production in the video below: