Aunt Ester Takes Center Stage in a Celebration of August Wilson Works

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As Talvin Wilks envisions it, the "Aunt Ester Cycle" performance series could be the start of something big.

Wilks is the curator of the performance series that began Tuesday and continues through Nov. 22 at the August Wilson Center, Downtown.

It celebrates the work of Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson through an exploration of Aunt Ester, a character whose name and spirit are evoked in several of the plays from his 10-play chronicle of the black experience in the 20th century. She appears in only one -- "Gem of the Ocean."

"Gem of the Ocean" and a conversation with actors and directors who have brought Aunt Ester to the stage opened the series on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The series continues through Nov. 22, with performances of Wilson's "Two Trains Running" and "Radio Golf," plus "Reconstructing 'King Hedley II,'" a director-led exploration of scenes from that play, and three performances of "The Women of the Hill," a newly created performance piece about the experiences of black women who live in the Hill District.

The initial intention was celebratory, Wilks says.

"The whole idea is that it's a festival," he says. "It's grass- roots. It's networking. It's national.

"The idea was to have an annual festival with a different focus. The goal is that it will be developed through a collective, a consortium of African-American theaters."

That meant including theaters and performers from around the nation as well as those here in Pittsburgh.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, St. Louis Black Rep performed its 2007 production of "Gem of the Ocean." On Saturday and Sunday, Penumbra Theatre will perform the production of "Radio Golf" that it staged in October at its home in St. Paul.

To advance the August Wilson Center's core mission of supporting local theaters and artists, Wilks included two Pittsburgh-based productions:

"The Women of the Hill," a newly commissioned work by Wilks and Ping Chong, who served as co-writers and co-directors for an ensemble piece that grew out of conversations with female residents of the Hill District.

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company's 2008 production of "Two Trains Running" that plays tonight and Friday.

Wilks and Chong are long-term collaborators who have created eight similar productions that focus on multicultural communities and issues.

"It's a project that's very dear to me. ... The idea of giving voice to a community is important to me in terms of social action and social justice issues. The dividend is you get to know a community," Chong says.

What evolved was a multi-layered ensemble piece in which six black women who range in age from 36 to 74 tell their stories through music, words and motion.

"It's a celebration of history and community," Wilks says.

"It's deceptively simple but incredibly powerful," Chong says. While it's likely to attract blacks, Chong hopes a larger community will attend and see the Hill District and its residents in a different light.

To bring "Two Trains Running" back to life, director Mark Southers had to replace three of the original production's actors. …