Staged readings lean on power of August Wilson’s works

It all started with a conversation between Adams Village resident Clifford Odle and Barbara Lewis, who heads the William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black Culture at UMass. They agreed that a retrospective on the works of acclaimed playwright August Wilson would be a wonderful opportunity to showcase Boston-area black actors and stage directors, several of whom live here in Dorchester.

For the past five years Odle, a playwright, director and actor, has been a Lecturer in Acting at UMass. He had had the good fortune to work on two of the Huntington Theatre Company’s productions of Wilson’s works, where, he tells the Reporter, “I got to hang out with August Wilson. He’s very soft-spoken with an incredible sense of humor, and he’s a great, great story teller.”

Now thanks to a last-minute grant, the Trotter Institute along with the university’s Department of Performing Arts is presenting “The Emancipated Century,” a series of partially staged readings of Wilson’s acclaimed ten-play cycle exploring the history of African Americans. The series features both professional and non-professional actors doing the uncut original scripts. Performances are scheduled at several different venues through December and are free to the public thanks to a Creative Economy Grant from the UMass President’s Office.

Each of Wilson’s ten plays takes place in a different decade of twentieth century, but they are almost all physically set in the Hill District of Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh. Event organizers feel that “The cycle’s vast dramatic canvas is pertinent in the year marking the 150th birthday of the Emancipation Proclamation, and resonates deeply today given the nation’s divided reactions to the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 rollback.”

The plays are being staged in chronological order, not in the order in which they were written, so the series began on August 5 at UMass’ McCormack Theatre with “Gem of the Ocean.” Set in 1904, this play centers on Aunt Ester, a 285-year-old “soul cleanser” and former slave who uses her mystical powers to help Solly Two Kings and Citizen Barlow.

Then just this past Monday at the Strand Theatre, the series continued with “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” concerning the liberation of a displaced slave forced back into servitude by the governor’s corrupt brother in 1911.

The next installment will also be at the Strand, on Mon., Sept. 9 at 7 p.m. In “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the only play not set in Pittsburgh, tempers flare in the 1920’s as a black back-up group quarrel as they wait on their legendary blues vocalist and the white studio technicians during an ill-fated recording session.

Though only 18 people attended the first reading, Odle is confident that the return of students in September will get the number of attendees snowballing for the later fall presentations. Organizers invite playgoers to comment through Facebook and their website. Those who prefer live exchanges can participate in public conversations in a humanities program supported by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, Re-visioning Tomorrow: Emancipation for a New Century. These six public forums will be held in places like the Clarendon YWCA and Trinity Church. Details on upcoming performances and forums are at theemancipatedcentury.com.