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August Wilson and Beyond

ENGL 2222.401
also offered as: AFRC 2325/THAR 2325
MW 1:45-3:14pm

Fall 2023 Instructors: Margit Edwards, Lecturer in the Theatre Arts ProgramSuzana Berger, Director of Arts Partnerships in the Netter Center for Community Partnerships 

The people need to know the story. See how they fit into it.  See what part they play.”

- August Wilson, King Hedley II


If you want to get to know community members from West Philadelphia, collaborate deeply with classmates, gain deeper and more nuanced understandings of African American history and culture, engage in a wide range of learning methods, and explore some of the most treasured plays in the American theatre, then this is the course for you. No previous experience required, just curiosity and willingness to engage.

In this intergenerational seminar, Penn students together with older community members read groundbreaking playwright August Wilson's American Century Cycle: ten plays that form an iconic picture of African American traditions, traumas, and triumphs through the decades, nearly all told through the lens of Pittsburgh's Hill District neighborhood. (Two of Wilson’s plays are receiving fresh attention with recent acclaimed film versions: Fences with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom with Davis and Chadwick Boseman.) Class participants develop relationships with one other while exploring the history and culture that shaped these powerful plays. 


This fall, the class will read six out of the ten plays in Wilson’s American Century Cycle, plus most of the book I Ain’t Sorry For Nothin’ I Done: August Wilson’s Process of Playwriting, and other writings that contextualize the material. (The full list of Century Cycle plays is Jitney, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,Fences,Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars,King Hedley II,Gem of the Ocean,Radio Golf.)


As an Academically Based Community Service (ABCS) course, the class plans and hosts events for a multigenerational, West Philadelphia-focused audience with community partners West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance / Paul Robeson House & Museum, and Theatre in the X. Class members come to a deeper understanding of Black life in Philadelphia through stories community members share in oral history interviews. These stories form the basis for an original performance the class creates, presented at an end-of-semester gathering. Wilson's plays provide the bridge between class members from various generations and backgrounds. The group embodies collaborative service through the art and connection-building conversations it offers to the community.

For an up-close look at the way this course operates, see this article featuring the year the class collaborated with Paul Robeson House and Sayre High School:

For more information on the 2023 professors, visit