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Aunt Ester in August Wilson's American Century Cycle

Originally written in February 2019 by Taylor Barfield

Beginning in 1904 with Gem of the Ocean and ending in 1997 with Radio Golf, August Wilson’s ten-play American Century Cycle chronicles African American life in the 20th century. Most of the cycle takes place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District and across the decades, we learn the history, culture, and spiritual journeys of the Black people who have made the Hill their home.

Four of the ten plays feature the character Aunt Ester, who has been described as “the most significant persona of the cycle.” August Wilson himself called her “the embodiment of African wisdom and tradition.” Aunt Ester is said to have arrived in America in 1619, or when the first Africans were brought to this country during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. She carries the memory of Black people in America and with the special power of remembrance, helps many people in the Hill discover the tools they need to not only rid themselves of guilt and shame, but to carry the legacy of the culture forward.

The character of Aunt Ester follows in the tradition of many African cultures. Before enslaved Africans were forced to travel the Middle Passage, a tradition of carrying history through word of mouth was well established. A sacred storyteller, called a griot, embodied the history and music of a community. Like Aunt Ester, a griot’s role was to carry memory, anchoring the community in the past and guiding it toward the future.

Aunt Ester first appeared as an offstage character in Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Set in Memphis Lee’s Diner in 1969, characters such as Memphis Lee, Holloway, and Sterling (also present in Radio Golf) go to her house located at 1839 Wylie Avenue. These characters recount their stories of “going up to the house with the red door” to get their “souls washed.” Holloway says simply, “She make you right with yourself…Aunt Ester got a power cause she got an understanding. Anybody live as long as she has is bound to have an understanding.” Her house becomes a sort of symbol in the plays—the site of memory and cleansing. Behind the red door lies the secret to Black American life.

Aunt Ester next appears as an offstage force in Wilson’s King Hedley II, set in 1985. In that play, the Hill’s then 366-year-old keeper of memory dies, severing the community’s link to their cultural past. Characters in that play like King, Ruby, and Stool Pigeon reminisce about the profound impact that Aunt Ester had on their lives and lament her loss. Stool Pigeon says, “Aunt Ester knew all the secrets of life but that’s all gone now. She took all that with her. I don’t know what we gonna do. We in trouble now.”

Wilson doesn’t reveal the full weight of what Aunt Ester means to the Hill District until Gem of the Ocean, which focuses on her story in 1904. In this play Aunt Ester appears onstage and audiences witness her wisdom and memory in action.

Finally, Aunt Ester appears in Radio Golf. Set in 1997, Aunt Ester has been gone for 12 years and 1839 Wylie Avenue is set to be demolished to make room for high-rise condos and high-end businesses. The scheduled demolition sparks a conflict that spans generations about Aunt Ester’s legacy in the community and how the Hill District should move forward into the 21st century.