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Wilson, August

August Wilson

1945–2005

Playwright, poet

August Wilson carved his signature on American theater by capturing the changing texture of black life in America his ten plays, each covering a different decade of the twentieth century. About his achievement, he remarked in American Theatre: "From the beginning, I decided not to write about historical events or the pathologies of the black community. The details of our struggle to survive and prosper, in what has been a difficult and sometimes bitter relationship with a system of laws and practices that deny us access to the tools necessary for productive and industrious life, are available to any serious student of history or sociology. Instead, I wanted to present the unique particulars of black American culture as the transformation of impulse and sensibility into codes of conduct and response, into cultural rituals that defined and celebrated ourselves as men and women of high purpose." He did. And the skill with which he did won him two Pulitzer Prizes, a Tony Award, and seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, in addition to twenty-three honorary degrees.

When Wilson began writing his plays, he had little experience with theater, having only seen two plays, and no formal training. Unencumbered by theatrical history, Wilson created his own rules for his plays. Wilson had no particular method of writing his plays, but admitted to relying on what he called the "4 B's": the Blues; fellow playwright, Amiri Baraka; author, Jorge Luis Borges, and painter, Romare Bearden, to tell what he needs to tell. Regarding Bearden, Wilson claimed, "When I saw his work, it was the first time that I had seen black life presented in all its richness, and I said, 'I want to do that—I want my plays to be the equal of his canvases.'" His ingenuity has forever changed American theater.

Plays Explored African-American Identity

Called "one of the most important voices in the American theater today" in the 1980s by Mervyn Rothstein in the New York Times, August Wilson's legacy will be as a giant of American theater. As James Earl Jones wrote in Time, Wilson "didn't just write a great play, he has written volumes of good, better and best plays." He wrote a string of acclaimed plays since his Ma Rainey's Black Bottom first excited the theater world in 1984. His authentic sounding characters have brought a new understanding of the black experience to audiences in a series of plays, each one addressing people of color in each decade of the twentieth century. Although Wilson's "decade" plays were not written in chronological order, the consistent, and key, theme in Wilson's dramas is the sense of disconnection suffered by blacks uprooted from their original homeland. He told the Chicago Tribune that "by not developing their own tradition, a more African response to the world, [African Americans] lost their sense of identity." Wilson devoted himself to helping black people know their roots in order to help them understand themselves, and his plays demonstrate the black struggle to gain this understanding—or escape from it. Charles Whittaker, a critic for Ebony in 2001 wrote, "Each of the eight plays he has produced to date is set in a different decade of the 20th century, a device that has enabled Wilson to explore, often in very subtle ways, the myriad and mutating forms of the legacy of slavery."

Most of the ideas for Wilson's plays came from images, snippets of conversation, or lyrics from blues songs captured by his ever-vigilant writer's eye and ear. Virtually all of his characters end up singing the blues to show their feelings at key moments during his plays. The play Fences evolved from his seeing an image of a man holding a baby, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone from the depiction of a struggling mill hand in a collage by acclaimed black painter Romare Bearden, whom Wilson has cited as a particularly strong influence on his work. The blues always had the greatest influence on Wilson, however. "I have always consciously been chasing the musicians," Wilson told interviewer Sandra G. Shannon in African American Review. "It's like our culture is in the music. And the writers are way behind the musicians I see. So I'm trying to close the gap."

August Wilson grew up as the fourth of six children in a black slum of Pittsburgh, his home a two-room apartment without hot water or a telephone. Relying on welfare checks and wages from house cleaning jobs, his mother, Daisy Wilson, managed to keep her children clothed and fed. August's father, Frederick August Kittel, a baker by trade, was a white German immigrant who never lived with the family and rarely made an appearance at the apartment. August Wilson officially erased his connection to his real father when he adopted his mother's name in the 1970s. David Bedford became Wilson's stepfather when the boy was a teenager, but their relationship was rocky. An exconvict whose race prevented him from earning a football scholarship to college, Bedford would become a source for the play Fences, whose protagonist is a former baseball player blocked from the major leagues by segregation.

Learning to read at the age of four, Wilson consumed books voraciously. At first he read the Nancy Drew mysteries his mother managed to buy for the family, but by age 12 he was a regular at the local library. Despite his interest in the written word, August Wilson was an unexceptional student who developed a reputation for yelling answers out of turn in class. The mostly white parochial high school he attended also gave him a harsh dose of racism. When he turned in a well-written term paper on Napoleon, Wilson was accused of plagiarism by a teacher who would not believe a black child could do that well on his own. Wilson would often find notes on his desk reading "Nigger go home." At home, his family had to endure racial taunts when they moved to the mostly white Hazelwood area of Pittsburgh.

Pursued Writing from a Young Age

At age 15, sick of the racism that surrounded him, Wilson dropped out of school and began to educate himself, beginning in the "Negro" section of the public library. Reading works by Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, and other black writers, Wilson was caught up in the power of words. His fascination with language made him an avid listener, and he soaked up the conversations he overheard in coffee shops and on street corners, using the tidbits of conversations to construct stories in his head.

At a Glance …

Born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945, in Pittsburgh, PA; died on October 2, 2005, in Seattle, WA; son of Frederick August Kittel (a baker) and Daisy Wilson (a housekeeper); married Brenda Burton, 1969 (divorced, 1972); married Judy Oliver (a social worker), 1981 (divorced); married Constanza Romero (costume designer), 1988; children: Sakina Ansari (with Burton); Azula (with Romero).

Career: Playwright. Worked as a sheet-metal worker, porter, toy-store stock worker, gardener, dishwasher, and short-order cook; poet, 1970s; Black Horizons on the Hill (theater company), Pittsburgh, PA, co-founder, 1968.

Awards: Pulitzer Prize, best drama, for Fences, 1987, and for The Piano Lesson, 1990; New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, 1984, for Fences, 1987, and for Joe Turner's Come and Gone, 1988; Tony Award, best drama, for Fences, 1986–87; American Theater Critics Award, 1986, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1998; American Academy of Arts and Letters, inductee, 1995; National Humanities Medal from the President of the United States, 1999; Harold Washington Literary Award, 2001.

By his late teens, Wilson had dedicated himself to the task of becoming a writer. His mother wanted him to become a lawyer, but when her son continued to work at odd jobs, she got fed up with what she considered his lack of direction and kicked him out of the house. He enlisted in the U.S. Army, but somehow got himself discharged a year later. At age 20 he moved into a boarding house and began writing lines of poetry on paper bags while sitting in a local restaurant, gathering inspiration from tales swapped by elderly men at a nearby cigar store.

The symbolic starting point of Wilson's serious writing career came in 1965 when he bought a used typewriter, paying for it with 20 dollars that his sister gave him for writing her a rush term paper on Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. Wilson immersed himself in the works of Dylan Thomas and John Berryman. He also loved Amiri Baraka's poems and plays because of their lively rhythms and street-smart language. Although some of Wilson's poems were published in some small magazines over the next few years, he failed to achieve recognition as a poet.

In the late 1960s, Wilson discovered the writings of Malcolm X and, according to Chip Brown in Esquire, took up the banner of cultural nationalism. "Cultural nationalism meant black people working toward self-definition, self-determination," Wilson told Brown. "It meant that we had a culture that was valid and that we weren't willing to trade it to participate in the American Dream." In 1969 Wilson and Rob Penny, a playwright and teacher, founded the black activist theater company Black Horizons on the Hill, which focused on politicizing the community and raising black consciousness. Black Horizons gave Wilson the chance to present his own early plays, mostly in public schools and community centers. Wilson never fully embraced the religion of Black Nationalism, however, which contributed to the failure of his first marriage to Brenda Burton, a member of the Muslim Nation of Islam.

Found His Voice in His First Play

To find the voice that would make him famous as a playwright, Wilson needed to gain distance from his roots. This opportunity came in 1978 when he visited his friend Claude Purdy in St. Paul, Minnesota, and decided to stay there. Purdy urged Wilson to write a play and Wilson felt more ready than ever before. "Having moved from Pittsburgh to St. Paul, I felt I could hear voices for the first time accurately," he told the New York Times. In ten days of writing while sitting in a fish-and-chips restaurant, Wilson finished a draft of Jitney, a play set in a gypsy-cab station. He submitted the play to the Minneapolis Playwrights Center and won a $200-a-month fellowship.

Jitney and Wilson's next work, Fullerton Street, were produced at the Allegheny Repertory Theater in Pittsburgh. Jitney earned Wilson acceptance at the 1982 National Playwrights Conference, where he honed his rewriting skills. Now convinced that he was going somewhere, he quit his job writing scripts for the Science Museum of Minnesota so he could have more time to compose his own works. Financial support was provided primarily by his second wife, Judy Oliver, who was a social worker.

Wilson's breakthrough came with the combination of a good play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and a supportive director, Lloyd Richards, artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater. The play came to Richards's attention at the National Playwrights Conference in 1983. "The talent was unmistakable," Richards told Brown. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom began a long collaboration between the seasoned director and the novice playwright: Richards has gone on to direct all of Wilson's plays. He has also served as spokesperson and promoter for the publicity-shy Wilson, and as the father he never had. Wilson explained their relationship to Shannon: "Another way I look at it, since I love boxing, is that I am the boxer and he is the trainer. He's my trainer—'My boy August will get them.'"

Found Fame with "Ma Rainey"

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom tapped the playwright's interest in the blues and its importance in American black history. He told Newsday in 1987, "I see the blues as a book of literature and it influences everything I do…. Blacks' cultural response to the world is contained in blues." His interest in blues singer Gertrude "Ma" Rainey went back to 1965, when he heard a recording by Bessie Smith, who had taken lessons from Rainey. Set in 1927, the play deals with how black singers were exploited by whites who took in the lion's share of profits generated by these entertainers. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom opened on Broadway at the Cort Theatre in 1984 and was a popular and critical success, running for 275 performances. In his review, Frank Rich of the New York Times called it "a searing inside account of what white racism does to its victims." Critics offered high praise of Wilson's true-to-life dialogue, although some complained that the play was too talky.

Wilson's next play, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, is about a freed black man who comes north to search for his wife, who disappeared during his enslavement. It focuses on the theme of African Americans moving from the agricultural South to a new set of hardships in the industrial cities of the North in the early twentieth century. Joe Turner expresses Wilson's belief that blacks would have been stronger if they had not migrated from country to city, since they came from agrarian roots in Africa. Although the play failed at the box office, many critics loved it. Rich's review in the New York Times in 1986 said that it was "as rich in religious feeling as in historical detail."

Wilson struck gold with Fences, which hit Broadway while Joe Turner was still playing there. Set in the 1950s, its subject is Troy Maxson, a trash collector whose dreams of playing professional baseball were thwarted by white racism. Maxson's bitterness leads him to deny his son the athletic success that was not possible for blacks in the past. The title demonstrates Wilson's concern with choices and responsibility, since fences can keep people in as well as out. Like all of Wilson's characters, Maxson is a complex man who, while having moral lapses, also worked hard to provide for his family. The play, which won the Pulitzer Prize and other awards, opened on Broadway in 1987 with James Earl Jones in the starring role.

When Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for The Piano Lesson in 1990, he became the seventh playwright to win at least twice. A largely realistic play, The Piano Lesson focuses on a family conflict over an heirloom piano. Berniece Charles's slave ancestors were traded for the piano, and another family member carved African-style portraits of them on it. Later Berniece's father died reclaiming it. Now Berniece's brother Boy Willie wants to sell it to buy farmland, and the issue threatens to tear the family apart. A Time critic hailed it as Wilson's "richest" play yet.

In Two Trains Running, which opened in New York City in 1992, Wilson probed the turbulent era of the late 1960s, when racial strife and the Vietnam War convulsed the nation. While many critics considered the play overly metaphorical and lacking in a strong female character, Rich called it Wilson's "most adventurous and honest attempt to reveal the intimate heart of history" and "a penetrating revelation of a world hidden from view to those outside it." William A. Henry III added in Time magazine that it was "Wilson's most delicate and mature work."

Developed Complex, Dignified Characters

Wilson's plays clearly demonstrate the tensions between blacks who want to hold onto their African heritage and those who want to break away from it. As a result of being pulled in different directions, violence often breaks out among blacks in Wilson's plays, yet that violence is often misdirected. Wilson dramatized this dilemma in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, when the character Levee stabs a fellow musician who unintentionally stepped on his shoe, instead of attacking the white man who had stolen his music. When Cory Maxson threatens to assail his father with a baseball bat in Fences, he mocks his father's manhood and shows the futility of his past as a Negro baseball player. Wilson devoted his career to dramatizing these tensions within the black community while at the same time upholding the dignity of the individuals as they struggled with their past.

During the early 1990s, Wilson wrote Seven Guitars, a play that takes place during the post-World War II years. Seven Guitars features the story of a blues guitarist, who is murdered, and his circle of friends. The friends gather at the wake, and their stories are told in flashback form. Interestingly, Wilson often introduces characters in his plays that become the main characters in subsequent plays. In Seven Guitars King Hedley was "a cracked old man who sees ghosts" and becomes obsessed with fathering a child, a "new Messiah." Wilson's next play, King Hedley II, takes place in the 1980s. The character King Hedley II is an ex-con who returns home and must deal with his past as well as figure out how to go "ligit." King Hedley II was first seen in the fall of 1999 at the Pittsburgh Public Theater and made it to Broadway in the summer of 2001, playing for twelve weeks. By that time Wilson had already constructed the framework for his next play whose main character, who was alluded to in King Hedley II, is a 366-year-old mystical woman, Aunt Esther.

Aunt Esther presides over Gem of the Ocean, a story about the still oppressive life for former slaves post-Civil War Pittsburgh. Set in the first decade of the twentieth century, it is the predecessor of his other plays. The story weaves an elaborate tale of the ancient Aunt Esther taking Citizen Barlow, who is desperately trying to claim the freedom afforded him by Abraham Lincoln in 1865, on a magical trip in a boat made out of her bill of sale from slavery. It premiered in Chicago in 2003 and made it to Broadway in the winter of 2004, his eighth play to land on the famed avenue in twenty years. Ben Brantley of the New York Times called Gem "a touchstone for everything else he has written."

The last of his 100-year project, Radio Golf, premiered at the Yale Repertory Theater in 2005. Set in the 1990s, Radio Golf concluded his saga with a calling to black Americans to concern themselves with their community. The story involves the efforts two black businessmen as they struggle to navigate the political and economic challenges for the construction of a new commercial development. Wilson discussed his motivation for writing Radio Golf with Suzan-Lori Parks in American Theatre, saying "One of the things with Radio Golf is that I realized I had to in some way deal with the black middle class, which for the most part is not in the other nine plays. My idea was that the black middle class seems to be divorcing themselves from that community, making their fortune on their own without recognizing or acknowledging their connection to the larger community." Critics praised the play as a triumph; artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre David Esbjornson told Variety: "I think it's one of his best pieces." But discussion of the play was overshadowed in the press by public concern for the playwright's health, which had begun to decline during preparations for the play's premiere.

Led Motivated Life

August Wilson had refused to give in to the temptations of Hollywood. He moved to Seattle in 1994, where he focused intently on his play writing. Wilson remarked that he rarely watched television, went to the movies, or even attended plays. His daily routine consisted of writing longhand while sitting in restaurants starting around noon, then typing up his work at night, often until 4:00 a.m. Wilson never let his success alter his work. He told the New York Times: "I always tell people I'm a struggling playwright. I'm struggling to get the next play down on paper." This focus enabled him to be one of the most prolific writers for the American theater.

Diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer in 2005, Wilson died in Seattle on October 2, 2005. The American theater community publicly mourned his passing. "He was a giant figure in American theater," the playwright Tony Kushner said, according to the New York Times. "Heroic is not a word one uses often without embarrassment to describe a writer or playwright, but the diligence and ferocity of effort behind the creation of his body of work is really an epic story." "The death of August Wilson does not simply leave a hole in the American theater," Peter Marks wrote in the Washington Post, "but a huge yawning wound, one that will have to wait to be stitched closed by some expansive, poetic dramatist yet to emerge." In honor of Wilson's achievements, the Virginia Theater on Broadway was renamed the August Wilson Theater on October 17, 2005.

Selected writings

Staged plays

Jitney, first produced at Allegheny Repertory Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA, 1982.
Fullerton Street, produced at Allegheny Repertory Theater.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, first produced at Yale Repertory Theater, New Haven, CT, 1984; produced on Broadway at Cort Theatre, October, 1984.
Fences, first produced at Yale Repertory Theater, 1985; produced on Broadway at 46th Street Theatre, March, 1987.
Joe Turner's Come and Gone, first produced at Yale Repertory Theater, 1986; produced on Broadway at Barrymore Theatre, March, 1988.
The Piano Lesson, first produced at Yale Repertory Theater, 1987; produced on Broadway at Walter Kerr Theatre, 1990.
Two Trains Running, first produced at Yale Repertory Theater, 1991; produced on Broadway at Walter Kerr Theatre, 1992.
Seven Guitars, first produced in 1996.
King Hedley II, first produced at Pittsburgh Public Theater, 1999.
Gem of the Ocean, first produced in Chicago, 2003; produced on Broadway at Walter Kerr Theatre, 2004.
Radio Golf, premiered at the Yale Repertory Theater, 2005.

Published plays

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, New American Library, 1985.
Fences, New American Library, 1986.
Joe Turner's Come and Gone, New American Library, 1988.
The Piano Lesson, Dutton, 1990.
Three Plays (contains Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991.
Two Trains Running, Dutton, 1992.
Seven Guitars, Dutton, 1996.
The Ground on which I Stand, New York Theatre Communications Group, 2001.
Jitney, Overlook Press, 2001.
King Hedley II, Theatre Communications Group, 2005.

Sources

Books

Bloom, Harold, ed. August Wilson, Chelsea House, 2002.

Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992.

Contemporary Dramatists, 6th ed. St. James Press, 1999.

Shannon, Sandra G., The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, Howard University Press, 1994.

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen, August Wilson: A Literary Companion, McFarland, 2004.

Wolfe, Peter, August Wilson, Twayne, 1999.

Periodicals

African American Review, Vol. 27, No. 4, 1994, pp. 539-59; Spring 2001, p. 93.

American Theatre, September, 1996, p. 14; May-June 2003, p. 20; November 2005, p. 26.

American Visions, August 2000, p. 14.

Chicago Tribune, September 16, 1984, p. 13.

Commonweal, July 13, 1990, p. 422.

Contemporary Literature, Spring 1999, p. 1.

Ebony, September 2001, p. 80.

Esquire, April 1989, pp. 116-27.

Essence, August 2001, p. 58.

Nation, June 11, 1990, p. 832; June 8, 1992, p. 799.

New Leader, June 3, 1996, p. 23; July, 2001, p. 45.

New Republic, May 21, 1990, pp. 28-30.

New Yorker, April 30, 1990, pp. 82-83.

New York Newsday, March 27, 1987, sec. 2, p. 11; April 20, 1987, p. 47.

New York Times, October 22, 1984, p. C12; April 15, 1990, pp. B1, B8; April 14, 1992, pp. C13, C17; June 3, 1992, pp. C1, C8; December 7, 2004, p. E1; October 3, 2005, p. A1; October 4, 2005, p. E4.

New York Times Magazine, March 15, 1987, pp. 36-40, 49, 70; September 10, 1989, pp. 18-19, 58-60.

People Weekly, May 13, 1996, p. 63.

St. Louis Dispatch, January 6, 2002, pp. G1, D4.

Tennessee Tribune, September 22, 2005, p. C10.

Theater, Fall-Winter 1984, pp. 50-55.

Time, April 23, 1990, p. 99; April 27, 1992, pp. 65-66; July 9, 2001, p. 84; May 2, 2005, p. 66.

Variety, October 10-16, 2005, p. 89.

Washington Post, December 19, 2004, p. N1; October 4, 2005, p. C1.

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Wilson, August 1945–

August Wilson 1945

Playwright

Grew Up Poor in Pittsburgh

Poetry Writing an Early Focus

Found a Voice

Play Shown on Broadway

A Struggling Playwright

Selected writings

Sources

August Wilson is one of Americas most prolific writers, whose plays, like those written by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, are produced throughout the country on a regular basis. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, and has earned twenty three honorary degrees. He has no particular method of writing his plays, but admits to relying on what he calls the 4 Bs: the Blues; fellow playwright, Amiri Bakara; author, Jorge Luis Borges, and painter, Romare Bearden to tell what he needs to tell. Regarding Bearden, Wilson claimed, When I saw his work, it was the first time that I had seen black life presented in all its richness, and I said, I want to do thatI want my plays to be the equal of his canvases.

Called one of the most important voices in the American theater today by Mervyn Rothstein in the New York Times, August Wilson has written a string of acclaimed plays since his Ma Raineys Black Bottom first excited the theater world in 1984. His authentic sounding characters have brought a new understanding of the black experience to audiences in a series of plays, each one addressing people of color in each decade of the twentieth century. Although Wilsons decade plays have not been written in chronological order, the consistent, and key, theme in Wilsons dramas is the sense of disconnection suffered by blacks uprooted from their original homeland. He told the Chicago Tribune that by not developing their own tradition, a more African response to the world, [African Americans] lost their sense of identity. Wilson has felt that black people must know their roots to understand themselves, and his plays demonstrate the black struggle to gain this understandingor escape from it. Charles Whittaker, a critic for Ebony wrote, Each of the eight plays he has produced to date is set in a different decade of he 20th century, a device that has enabled Wilson to explore, often in very subtle ways, the myriad and mutating forms of the legacy of slavery.

Most of the ideas for Wilsons plays have come from images, snippets of conversation, or lyrics from blues songs captured by his ever-vigilant writers eye and ear. Virtually all of his characters end up singing the blues to show their feelings at key moments during his plays. The play Fences evolved from his seeing an image of a man holding a baby, and Joe Turners Come and Gone from the depiction of a struggling mill hand in a collage by acclaimed black painter Romare Bearden, whom Wilson has cited as a particularly strong influence on his work. The blues have always had the greatest influence on Wilson, however. I have always consciously been chasing the musicians, Wilson told interviewer Sandra G. Shannon in African American Review. Its like our culture is in the music. And the writers are way behind the musicians I see. So Im trying to close the gap.

Grew Up Poor in Pittsburgh

August Wilson grew up as the fourth of six children in a black slum of Pittsburgh, his home a two-room apartment without hot water or a telephone. Relying on welfare checks and wages from house cleaning jobs,

At a Glance

Born Frederick August Kittell, April 27, 1945 in Pittsburgh, PA; son of Frederick August Kittel (a baker) and Daisy Wilson (a housekeeper); married Brenda Burton, 1969 (divorced, 1972); married Judy Oliver (a social worker), 1981 (divorced); married Constanza Romero (costume designer), 1988; children: Sakina Ansari (with Burton); Azula (with Romero). Military service: U.S. Army, 196263,

Career: Playwright. Worked as a sheet-metal worker, porter, toy-store stock worker, gardener, dishwasher, and short-order cook; published poems in Black World and Black Lines, 197172; co-founded Black Horizons on the Hill (theater company), Pittsburgh, PA, 1968; wrote scripts for Science Museum of Minnesota.

Awards: Pulitzer Prize, best drama, for Fences, 1987, and for The Piano Lesson, 1990; New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Ma Raineys Black Bottom, 1984, for Fences, 1987, and for Joe Turners Come and Gone, 1988; Tony Award, best drama, for Fences, 198687; American Theater Critics Award, 1986, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1998; Harold Washington Literary Award, 2001.

his mother, Daisy Wilson, managed to keep her children clothed and fed. Augusts father, Frederick August Kittel, a baker by trade, was a white German immigrant who never lived with the family and rarely made an appearance at the apartment. August Wilson officially erased his connection to his real father when he adopted his mothers name in the 1970s. David Bedford became Wilsons stepfather when the boy was a teenager, but the relationship between father and son was rocky. An ex-convict whose race prevented him from earning a football scholarship to college, Bedford would become a source for the play Fences, whose protagonist was a former baseball player blocked from the major leagues by segregation.

Learning to read at the age of four, Wilson consumed books voraciously. At first he read the Nancy Drew mysteries his mother managed to buy for the family, but by age 12 he was a regular at the local library. Despite his interest in the written word, August Wilson was an unexceptional student who developed a reputation for yelling answers out of turn in class. The mostly white parochial high school he attended also gave him a harsh dose of racism. When he turned in a well-written term paper on Napoleon, Wilson was accused of plagiarism by a teacher who would not believe a black child could do that well on his own. Wilson would often find notes on his desk reading Nigger go home. At home, his family had to endure racial taunts when they moved to the mostly white Hazelwood area of Pittsburgh.

At age 15, sick of the racism that surrounded him, Wilson dropped out of school and began to educate himself, beginning in the Negro section of the public library. Reading works by Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, and other black writers, Wilson was caught up in the power of words. His fascination with language made him an avid listener, and he soaked up the conversations he overheard in coffee shops and on street corners, using the tidbits of conversations to construct stories in his head.

Poetry Writing an Early Focus

By his late teens, Wilson had dedicated himself to the task of becoming a writer. His mother wanted him to become a lawyer, but when her son continued to work at odd jobs, she got fed up with what she considered his lack of direction and kicked him out of the house. He enlisted in the U.S. Army, but somehow got himself discharged a year later. At age 20 he moved into a boarding house and began writing lines of poetry on paper bags while sitting in a local restaurant, gathering inspiration from tales swapped by elderly men at a nearby cigar store.

The symbolic starting point of Wilsons serious writing career came in 1965 when he bought a used typewriter, paying for it with twenty dollars that his sister gave him for writing her a rush term paper on Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. Wilson immersed himself in the works of Dylan Thomas and John Berryman. He also loved Amiri Barakas poems and plays because of their lively rhythms and street-smart language. Although some of Wilsons poems were published in some small magazines over the next few years, he failed to achieve recognition as a poet.

In the late 1960s, Wilson discovered the writings of Malcolm X and, according to Chip Brown in Esquire, took up the banner of cultural nationalism. Cultural nationalism meant black people working toward self-definition, self-determination, Wilson told Brown. It meant that we had a culture that was valid and that we werent willing to trade it to participate in the American Dream. In 1969 Wilson and Rob Penny, a playwright and teacher, founded the black activist theater company Black Horizons on the Hill, which focused on politicizing the community and raising black consciousness. Black Horizons gave Wilson the chance to present his own early plays, mostly in public schools and community centers. Wilson never fully embraced the religion of black nationalism, however, which contributed to the failure of his first marriage to Brenda Burton, a member of the Muslim Nation of Islam.

Found a Voice

To find the voice that would make him famous as a playwright, Wilson needed to gain distance from his roots. This opportunity came in 1978 when he visited his friend Claude Purdy in St. Paul, Minnesota, and decided to stay there. Purdy urged Wilson to write a play and Wilson felt more ready than ever before. Having moved from Pittsburgh to St. Paul, I felt I could hear voices for the first time accurately, he told the New York Times. In ten days of writing while sitting in a fish-and-chips restaurant, Wilson finished a draft of Jitney, a play set in a gypsy-cab station. He submitted the play to the Minneapolis Playwrights Center and won a $200-a-month fellowship.

Jitney and Wilsons next work, Fullerton Street, were produced at the Allegheny Repertory Theater in Pittsburgh. Jitney earned Wilson acceptance at the 1982 National Playwrights Conference, where he honed his rewriting skills. Now convinced that he was going somewhere, he quit his job writing scripts for the Science Museum of Minnesota so he could have more time to compose his own works. Financial support was provided primarily by his second wife, Judy Oliver, who was a social worker.

Wilsons breakthrough came with the combination of a good play, Ma Raineys Black Bottom, and a supportive director, Lloyd Richards, artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater. The play came to Richardss attention at the National Playwrights Conference in 1983. The talent was unmistakable, Richards told Brown. Ma Raineys Black Bottom began a long collaboration between the seasoned director and the novice playwright: Richards has gone on to direct all of Wilsons plays. He has also served as spokesperson and promoter for the publicity-shy Wilson, and as the father he never had. Wilson explained their relationship to Shannon: Another way I look at it, since I love boxing, is that I am the boxer and he is the trainer. Hes my trainerMy boy August will get them.

Play Shown on Broadway

Ma Raineys Black Bottom tapped the playwrights interest in the blues and its importance in American black history. He told Newsday in 1987, I see the blues as a book of literature and it influences everything I do. Blacks cultural response to the world is contained in blues. His interest in blues singer Gertrude Ma Rainey went back to 1965, when he heard a recording by Bessie Smith, who had taken lessons from Rainey. Set in 1927, the play deals with how black singers were exploited by whites who took in the lions share of profits generated by these entertainers. Ma Raineys Black Bottom opened on Broadway at the Cort Theatre in 1984 and was a popular and critical success, running for 275 performances. In his review, Frank Rich of the New York Times called it a searing inside account of what white racism does to its victims. Critics offered high praise of Wilsons true-to-life dialogue, although some complained that the play was too talky.

Wilsons next play, Joe Turners Come and Gone, is about a freed black man who comes north to search for his wife, who disappeared during his enslavement. It focuses on the theme of African Americans moving from the agricultural South to a new set of hardships in the industrial cities of the North in the early twentieth century. Joe Turner expresses Wilsons belief that blacks would have been stronger if they had not migrated from country to city, since they came from agrarian roots in Africa. Although the play failed at the box office, many critics loved it. Richs review in the New York Times in 1986 said that it was as rich in religious feeling as in historical detail.

Wilson struck gold with Fences, which hit Broadway while Joe Turner was still playing there. Set in the 1950s, its subject is Troy Maxson, a trash collector whose dreams of playing professional baseball were thwarted by white racism. Maxsons bitterness leads him to deny his son the athletic success that was not possible for blacks in the past. The title demonstrates Wilsons concern with choices and responsibility, since fences can keep people in as well as out. Like all of Wilsons characters, Maxson is a complex man who, while having moral lapses, also worked hard to provide for his family. The play, which won the Pulitzer Prize and other awards, opened on Broadway in 1987 with James Earl Jones in the starring role.

When Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for The Piano Lesson in 1990, he became the seventh playwright to win at least twice. A largely realistic play, The Piano Lesson focuses on a family conflict over an heirloom piano. Berniece Charless slave ancestors were traded for the piano, and another family member carved African-style portraits of them on it. Later Bernieces father died reclaiming it. Now Bernieces brother Boy Willie wants to sell it to buy farmland, and the issue threatens to tear the family apart. A Time critic hailed it as Wilsons richest play yet.

In Two Trains Running, which opened in New York City in 1992, Wilson probed the turbulent era of the late 1960s, when racial strife and the Vietnam War convulsed the nation. While many critics considered the play overly metaphorical and lacking in a strong female character, Rich called it Wilsons most adventurous and honest attempt to reveal the intimate heart of history and a penetrating revelation of a world hidden from view to those outside it. William A. Henry III added in Time magazine that it was Wilsons most delicate and mature work.

A Struggling Playwright

Wilsons plays clearly demonstrate the tensions between blacks who want to hold onto their African heritage and those who want to break away from it. As a result of being pulled in different directions, violence often breaks out among blacks in Wilsons plays, yet that violence is often misdirected. Wilson dramatized this dilemma in Ma Raineys Black Bottom, when the character Levee stabs a fellow musician who unintentionally stepped on his shoe, instead of attacking the white man who had stolen his music. When Cory Maxson threatens to assail his father with a baseball bat in Fences, he mocks his fathers manhood and shows the futility of his past as a Negro baseball player. Wilson has devoted his career to dramatizing these tensions within the black community even while he upholds the dignity of the individuals who struggle with their past.

During the early 1990s, Wilson wrote Seven Guitars, a play that takes place during the post-World War II years. Seven Guitars features the story of a blues guitarist, who is murdered, and his circle of friends. The friends gather at the wake, and their stories are told in flashback form. Interestingly, Wilson often introduces characters in his plays that become the main characters in subsequent plays. In Seven Guitars King Hedley was a cracked old man who sees ghosts and becomes obsessed with fathering a child, a new Messiah. Wilsons next play, King Hedley II, takes place in the 1980s. The character, King Hedley II is an ex-con who returns home and must deal with his past as well as figure out how to go ligit. King Hedley II was first seen in the fall of 1999 at the Pittsburgh Public Theater and made it to Broadway in the summer of 2001, playing for twelve weeks. He has already constructed the framework for his next play whose main character, who was alluded to in King Hedley II, is a 366 year old mystical woman, Aunt Esther.

August Wilson has refused to give in to the temptations of Hollywood. He moved to Seattle in the early 1990s, where he has remained remarkably focused on his play writing. Wilson has said that he rarely watches television, goes to the movies, or even attends plays. His daily routine consists of writing longhand while sitting in restaurants starting around noon, then typing up his work at night, often until 4:00 a.m. Despite his success, Wilson told the New York Times: I always tell people Im a struggling playwright. Im struggling to get the next play down on paper. Though the lives of many of his characters are bleak, he also has maintained a degree of optimism about the situation of people of color in the United States. Black culture is still alive, still vital. The human spirit cannot and will not be broken.

Selected writings

Staged plays

Jitney, first produced at Allegheny Repertory Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA, 1982.

Fullerton Street, produced at Allegheny Repertory Theater.

Ma Raineys Black Bottom, first produced at Yale Repertory Theater, New Haven, CT, 1984; produced on Broadway at Cort Theatre, October, 1984.

Fences, first produced at Yale Repertory Theater, 1985; produced on Broadway at 46th Street Theatre, March, 1987.

Joe Turners Come and Gone, first produced at Yale Repertory Theater, 1986; produced on Broadway at Barrymore Theatre, March, 1988.

The Piano Lesson, first produced at Yale Repertory Theater, 1987; produced on Broadway at Walter Kerr Theatre, 1990.

Two Trains Running, first produced at Yale Repertory Theater, 1991; produced on Broadway at Walter Kerr Theatre, 1992.

Seven Guitars, first produced in 1996.

King Hedley II, first produced at Pittsburgh Public Theater, 1999.

Published plays

Ma Raineys Black Bottom, New American Library, 1985.

Fences, New American Library, 1986.

Joe Turners Come and Gone, New American Library, 1988.

The Piano Lesson, Dutton, 1990.

Three Plays (contains Ma Raineys Black Bottom, Fences, and Joe Turners Come and Gone), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991.

Two Trains Running, Dutton, 1992.

Seven Guitars, Plume.

Sources

Books

Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992.

Contemporary Dramatists, 6th ed. St. James Press, 1999.

Shannon, Sandra G., The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, Howard University Press, 1994.

Periodicals

African American Review, Vol. 27, No. 4, 1994, pp.53959; Spring 2001, p. 93.

American Theatre, September, 1996, p 14.

American Visions, August 2000, p. 14.

Chicago Tribune, September 16, 1984, p. 13.

Commonweal, July 13, 1990, p. 422.

Contemporary Literature, Spring 1999, p. 1.

Ebony, September 2001, p. 80.

Esquire, April 1989, pp. 11627.

Essence, August 2001, p. 58.

Nation, June 11, 1990, p. 832; June 8, 1992, p. 799.

New Republic, May 21, 1990, pp. 2830.

New Yorker, April 30, 1990, pp. 8283.

New York Newsday, March 27, 1987, sec. 2, p. 11;April 20, 1987, p. 47.

New York Times, October 22, 1984, p. C12; April 15, 1990, pp. Bl, B8; April 14, 1992, pp. C13, C17; June 3, 1992, pp. C1, C8.

New York Times Magazine, March 15, 1987, pp.3640, 49, 70; September 10, 1989, pp. 1819, 5860.

People Weekly, May 13, 1996, p. 63.

St. Louis Dispatch, January 6, 2002, pp. G1, D4.

Theater, Fall-Winter 1984, pp. 5055.

The New Leader, June 3, 1996, p. 23; July, 2001, p.45.

Time, April 23, 1990, p. 99; April 27, 1992, pp. 6566; July 9, 2001, p.84.

Ed Decker and Christine Miner Minderovic

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Wilson, August 1945–

August Wilson 1945

Playwright

Grew Up Poor in Pittsburgh

Poetry Writing an Early Focus

On Broadway

A Straggling Playwright

Selected writings

Sources

Called one of the most important voices in the American theater today by Mervyn Rothstein in the New York Times, August Wilson has written a string of acclaimed plays since his Ma Raineys Black Bottom first excited the theater world in 1984. His authentic sounding characters have brought a new understanding of the black experience to audiences in a series of five plays, each one addressing people of color in a different decade of the twentieth century. A key theme in Wilsons dramas is the sense of disconnection suffered by blacks uprooted from their original homeland. He told the Chicago Tribune that by not developing their own tradition, a more African response to the world, [African Americans] lost their sense of identity. Wilson has felt that black people must know their roots to understand themselves, and his plays demonstrate the black struggle to gain this understandingor escape from it.

Most of the ideas for Wilsons plays have come from images, snippets of conversation, or lyrics from blues songs captured by his ever-vigilant writers eye and ear. Virtually all of his characters end up singing the blues to show their feelings at key moments during his plays. The play Fences evolved from his seeing an image of a man holding a baby, and Joe Turners Come and Gone developed from the depiction of a struggling mill hand in a collage by acclaimed black painter Romare Bearden, whom Wilson has cited as a particularly strong influence on his work. The blues have always had the greatest influence on Wilson, however. I have always consciously been chasing the musicians, Wilson told interviewer Sandra G. Shannon in African American Review. Its like our culture is in the music. And the writers are way behind the musicians l see. So Im trying to close the gap.

Grew Up Poor in Pittsburgh

August Wilson grew up as the oldest of six children in a black slum of Pittsburgh, his home a two-room apartment without hot water or a telephone. Relying on welfare checks and wages from house cleaning jobs, his mother, Daisy Wilson, managed to keep her children clothed and fed. Augusts father, a white, German immigrant, never lived with the family and rarely made an appearance at the apartment. August Wilson officially erased his connection to his real father when he adopted his mothers name in

At a Glance

Born in 1945 in Pittsburgh, PA; son of Frederick August Kittel (a baker) and Daisy Wilson (a housekeeper); married Brenda Burton, 1969 (divorced, 1972); married Judy Oliver (a social worker), 1981; children: Sakina Ansari (with Burton).

Playwright. Worked as a sheet-metal worker, porter, toy-store stock worker, gardener, dishwasher, and short-order cook; published poems in Black World and Black Lines, 1971-72; co-founded Black Horizons on the Hill (theater comapny), Pittsburgh, PA, 1968; wrote scripts for Science Museum of Minnesota. Military service; U.S. Army, 1962-63.

Awards: Pulitzer Prize, best drama, for Fences, 1987, and for The Piano Lesson, 1990; New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Ma Raineys Black Bottom, 1984, for fences, 1987, and for joe Turners Come and Gone, 1988; Tony Award, best drama, for Fences, 1986-87.

Address: Agent Joanne Phillippi, 5537 11th Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55417.

the 1970s. David Bedford became Wilsons stepfather when the boy was a teenager, but the relationship between father and son was rocky. An ex-convict whose race prevented him from earning a football scholarship to college, Bedford would become a source for the play Fences, whose protagonist was a former baseball player blocked from the major leagues by segregation.

Learning to read at the age of four, Wilson consumed books voraciously. At first he read the Nancy Drew mysteries his mother managed to buy for the family, but by age 12 he was a regular at the local library. Despite his interest in the written word, August Wilson was an unexceptional student who developed a reputation for yelling answers out of turn in class. The mostly white parochial high school he attended gave him a harsh dose of racism. When he turned in a well-written term paper on Napoleon, Wilson was accused of plagiarism by a teacher who would not believe a black child could do that well on his own. Wilson would often find notes on his desk reading Nigger go home. At home, his family had to endure racial taunts when they moved to the mostly white Hazelwood area of Pittsburgh.

At age 15, sick of the racism that surrounded him, Wilson dropped out of school and began to educate himself, beginning in the Negro section of the public library. Reading works by Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Lang-ston Hughes, Ama Bontemps, and other black writers, Wilson was caught up in the power of words. His fascination with language made him an avid listener, and he soaked up the conversations he overheard in coffee shops and on street corners, using the tidbits of conversations to construct stories in his head.

Poetry Writing an Early Focus

By his late teens, Wilson had dedicated himself to the task of becoming a writer. His mother wanted him to become a lawyer, but when her son continued to work at odd jobs, she got fed up with what she considered his lack of direction and kicked him out of the house. He enlisted in the U.S. Army, but somehow got himself discharged a year later. At age 20 he moved into a boarding house and began writing lines of poetry on paper bags while sitting in a local restaurant, gathering inspiration from tales swapped by elderly men at a nearby cigar store.

The symbolic starting point of Wilsons serious writing career came in 1965 when he bought a used typewriter, paying for it with twenty dollars that his sister gave him for writing her a rush term paper on Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. Wilson immersed himself in the works of Dylan Thomas and John Berryman. He also loved Amiri Barakas poems and plays because of their lively rhythms and street-smart language. Although some of Wilsons poems were published in some small magazines over the next few years, he failed to achieve recognition as a poet.

In the late 1960s, Wilson discovered the writings of Malcolm X and, according to Chip Brown in Esquire, took up the banner of cultural nationalism. Cultural nationalism meant black people working toward self-definition, self-determination, Wilson told Brown. It meant that we had a culture that was valid and that we werent willing to trade it to participate in the American Dream. In 1969 Wilson and Rob Penny, a playwright and teacher, founded the black activist theatre company Black Horizons on the Hill, which focused on politicizing the community and raising black consciousness. Black Horizons gave Wilson the chance to present his own early plays, mostly in public schools and community centers. Wilson never fully embraced the religion of black nationalism, however, which contributed to the failure of his first marriage to Brenda Burton, a member of the Muslim Nation of Islam. To find the voice that would make him famous as a playwright, Wilson needed to gain distance from his roots.

This opportunity came in 1978 when he visited his friend Claude Purdy in St. Paul, Minnesota, and decided to stay there. Purdy urged Wilson to write a play and Wilson felt more ready than ever before. Having moved from Pittsburgh to St. Paul, I felt I could hear voices for the first time accurately, he told the New York Times. in ten days of writing while sitting in a fish-and-chips restaurant, Wilson finished a draft of Jitney, a play set in a gypsy-cab station. He submitted the play to the Minneapolis Playwrights Center and won a $200-a-month fellowship.

Jitney and Wilsons next work, Fullerton Street, were produced at the Allegheny Repertory Theater in Pittsburgh. Jitney earned Wilson acceptance at the 1982 National Playwrights Conference, where he honed his rewriting skills. Now convinced that he was going somewhere, he quit his job writing scripts for the Science Museum of Minnesota so he could have more time to compose his own works. Financial support was provided primarily by his second wife, Judy Oliver, who was a social worker.

Wilsons breakthrough came with the combination of a good play, Ma Raineys Black Bottom, and a supportive director, Lloyd Richards, artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater. The play came to Richardss attention at the National Playwrights Conference in 1983. The talent was unmistakable, Richards told Brown. Ma Raineys Black Bottom began a long collaboration between the seasoned director and the novice playwright: Richards has gone on to direct all of Wilsons plays. He has also served as spokesperson and promoter for the publicity-shy Wilson, and as the father he never had. Wilson explained their relationship to Shannon: Another way I look at it, since I love boxing, is that I am the boxer and he is the trainer. Hes my trainerMy boy August will get them.

On Broadway

Ma Raineys Black Bottom tapped the playwrights interest in the blues and its importance in American black history. He told Newsday in 1987, I see the blues as a book of literature and it influences everything I do. Blacks cultural response to the world is contained in blues. His interest in blues singer Gertrude Ma Rainey went back to 1965, when he heard a recording by Bessie Smith, who had taken lessons from Rainey. Set in 1927, the play deals with how black singers were exploited by whites who took in the lions share of profits generated by these entertainers. Ma Raineys Black Bottom opened on Broadway at the Cort Theatre in 1984 and was a popular and critical success, running for 275 performances. In his review, Frank Rich of the New York Times called it a searing inside account of what white racism does to its victims. Critics offered high praise of Wilsons true-to-life dialogue, although some complained that the play was too talky.

Wilsons next play, Joe Turners Come and Gone, is about a freed black man who comes north to search for his wife, who disappeared during his enslavement. It focuses on the theme of African Americans moving from the agricultural South to a new set of hardships in the industrial cities of the North in the early twentieth century. Joe Turner expresses Wilsons belief that blacks would have been stronger if they had not migrated from country to city, since they came from agrarian roots in Africa. Although the play failed at the box office, many critics loved it. Richs review in the New York Times in 1986 said that it was as rich in religious feeling as in historical detail.

Wilson struck gold with Fences, which hit Broadway while Joe Turner was still playing there. Set in the 1950s, its subject is Troy Maxson, a trash collector whose dreams of playing professional baseball were thwarted by white racism. Maxsons bitterness leads him to deny his son the athletic success that was not possible for blacks in the past. The title demonstrates Wilsons concern with choices and responsibility, since fences can keep people in as well as out. Like all of Wilsons characters, Maxson is a complex man who, while having moral lapses, also worked hard to provide for his family. The play, which won the Pulitzer Prize and other awards, opened on Broadway in 1987 with James Earl Jones in the starring role.

When Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for The Piano Lesson in 1990, he became the seventh playwright to win at least twice. A largely realistic play, The Piano Lesson focuses on a family conflict over an heirloom piano. Berniece Charless slave ancestors were traded for the piano, and another family member carved African-style portraits of them on it. Later Bernieces father died reclaiming it. Now Bernieces brother Boy Willie wants to sell it to buy farmland, and the issue threatens to tear the family apart. A Time critic hailed it as Wilsons richest play yet.

In Two Trains Running, which opened in New York City in 1992, Wilson probed the turbulent era of the late 1960s, when racial strife and the Vietnam War convulsed the nation. While many critics considered the play overly metaphorical and lacking in a strong female character, Rich called it Wilsons most adventurous and honest attempt to reveal the intimate heart of history and a penetrating revelation of a world hidden from view to those outside it. William A. Henry III added in Time magazine that it was Wilsons most delicate and mature work.

A Straggling Playwright

Wilsons plays clearly demonstrate the tensions between blacks who want to hold onto their African heritage and those who want to break away from it. As a result of being pulled in different directions, violence often breaks out among blacks in Wilsons plays, yet that violence is often misdirected. Wilson dramatized this dilemma in Ma Raineys Black Bottom, when the character Levee stabs a fellow musician who unintentionally stepped on his shoe, instead of attacking the white man who had stolen his music. When Cory Maxson threatens to assail his father with a baseball bat in Fences, he mocks his fathers manhood and shows the futility of his past as a Negro baseball player. Wilson has devoted his career to dramatizing these tensions within the black community even while he upholds the dignity of the individuals who struggle with their past.

August Wilson has refused to give in to the temptations of Hollywood. He moved to Seattle in the early 1990s, where he has remained remarkably focused on his play writing. Wilson has said that he rarely watches television, goes to the movies, or even attends plays. His daily routine consists of writing longhand while sitting in restaurants starting around noon, then typing up his work at night, often until 4:00 a.m. Despite his success, Wilson told the New York Times: I always tell people Im a struggling playwright. Im struggling to get the next play down on paper. Though the lives of many of his characters are bleak, he also has maintained a degree of optimism about the situation of people of color in the United States. Black culture is still alive, still vital. The human spirit cannot and will not be broken.

Selected writings

Staged plays

Jitney, first produced at Allegheny Repertory Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA, 1982.

Fullerton Street, produced at Allegheny Repertory Theater.

Ma Raineys Black Bottom, first produced at Yale Repertory Theater, New Haven, CT, 1984; produced on Broadway at Cort Theatre, October, 1984.

Fences, first produced at Yale Repertory Theater, 1985; produced on Broadway at 46th Street Theatre, March, 1987.

Joe Turners Come and Gone, first produced at Yale Repertory Theater, 1986; produced on Broadway at Barrymore Theatre, March, 1988.

The Piano Lesson, first produced at Yale Repertory Theater, 1987; produced on Broadway at Walter Ken Theatre, 1990.

Two Trains Running, first produced at Yale Repertory Theater, 1991; produced on Broadway at Walter Kerr Theatre, 1992.

Published plays

Ma Raineys Black Bottom, New American Library, 1985.

Fences, New American Library, 1986.

Joe Turners Come and Gone, New American Library, 1988.

The Piano Lesson, Dutton, 1990.

Three Plays (contains Ma Raineys Black Bottom, Fences, and Joe Turners Come and Gone), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991.

Two Trains Running, Dutton, 1992.

Sources

Books

Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992.

Shannon, Sandra G., The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, Howard University Press, 1994.

Periodicals

African American Review, Vol. 27, No. 4, 1994, pp. 539-59.

Chicago Tribune, September 16, 1984, p. 13.

Commonweal, July 13, 1990, p. 422.

Esquire, April 1989, pp. 116-27.

Nation, June 11, 1990, p. 832; June 8, 1992, p. 799.

New Republic, May 21, 1990, pp. 28-30.

New Yorker, April 30, 1990, pp. 82-83.

New York Newsday, March 27, 1987, sec. 2, p. 11; April 20, 1987, p. 47.

New York Times, October 22, 1984, p. C12; April 15, 1990, pp. Bl, B8; April 14, 1992, pp. C13, C17; June 3, 1992, pp. Cl, C8.

New York Times Magazine, March 15, 1987, pp. 36-40, 49, 70; September 10, 1989, pp. 18-19, 58-60,

Theater, fall-winter, 1984, pp. 50-55.

Time, April 23, 1990, p. 99; April 27, 1992, pp. 65-66.

Ed Decker

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August Wilson

August Wilson

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright August Wilson (Frederick August Kittell; born 1945) embarked upon a mission to write a cycle of ten plays addressing central issues that have impacted African Americans in each decade of the 20th century. The first five evolve from the playwright's own commentary upon illconceived, ill-advised, yet sometimes unavoidable choices made by past generations of African Americans and their too frequent negative consequences.

Christened Frederick August Kittell was born in 1945 and later changed his name to August Wilson. He was the namesake of an irresponsible German baker. His father spent little time with his family in their two-room apartment in Pittsburgh's Hill District where Wilson, his mother, and five brothers and sisters survived on public assistance and earnings from her janitorial job. Wilson's move to adopt the maiden name of his African American mother, Daisy Wilson, in the 1970s was not just a means of disavowing his estranged white father. His decision to call himself August Wilson also represented a significant rite of passage marking both his discovery and celebration of ties with Africa. His identification with his mother's roots later became the driving force behind young Wilson's fascination with the language and culture of African Americans.

Against the pleas of his mother, Wilson gave up on formal education in the ninth grade. Memories of former years spent in the Pittsburgh public school system included a devastating accusation by one of his teachers that he was not the original author of a term paper that he had, in fact, written on Napoleon Bonaparte. Offended by the affront to his integrity and bored with the stifling regimentation of Pittsburgh's schools, Wilson turned to the city's tobacco shops, barber shops, and street corners for schooling of a different sort. While mingling among fellow African American residents of the working-class neighborhood where he grew up listening to their uncensored language, Wilson developed an intimate knowledge of their lifestyles. His time spent in this environment would later serve him well in creating credible characters for his cycle of plays depicting the African American experience.

But Pittsburgh's streets and shops did not satisfy Wilson's appetite for knowledge about African Americans. He was drawn to the city's public libraries where he poured over the works of Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and other African American writers. A reader since the age of four, Wilson had no trouble comprehending these works that gave direction to the quest for his own racial consciousness.

From Poet to Playwright

After finally moving out of his mother's house in 1965, Wilson found lodging at a nearby rooming house, took a job as a short-order cook, and tried his hand at verse. Armed with a $20 typewriter he purchased with money from his sister Freda, Wilson tried desperately to become a successful poet and writer. This newfound freedom allowed Wilson to mingle with the Bohemian set. He learned their language and their ideals, emerging as a self-proclaimed Dylan Thomas. During this time he also identified with the cultural nationalists such as Amiri Baraka, (then known as LeRoi Jones), who argued for heightened racial consciousness. His initiation into African American aestheticism culminated in a heightened awareness of the importance of the blues, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

In the late 1960s an interest in Malcolm X led him to a total acknowledgement of African American culture as his own. Renouncing his white father, moving out from his mother's house, and living among day to day reminders of this culture cleared the way for Wilson to find out more about his African American ancestors' trek from the fields of North Carolina to the cramped urban shelters of Pittsburgh. What followed this phase of cultural enlightenment in Wilson's life were organized efforts to raise consciousness among Pittsburgh natives. With such an agenda, Wilson co-founded, with director Rob Penny, Pittsburgh's Black Horizons Theater in 1968.

Although Wilson chose to imitate the style of flamboyant British poet Dylan Thomas during an early stage in his evolution into an artist, he soon realized that his African American heritage, grounded in the blues tradition, was at odds with the alien persona he had chosen to idolize. Serendipity was largely responsible for his discovery of the tremendous role music, in particular the blues, played in his writing. After buying a three-dollar record player that only played 78s, he discovered a record store that proved to be a veritable gold mine of the records that were no longer in circulation. Here he found a copy of Bessie Smith's "Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine" and was so moved by its Iyrics that he played it repeatedly. He later recalled, "I'd never heard of Bessie Smith. I listened to it twenty-two times, and I became aware that this stuff was my own. Patti Page, Frank Sinatra—they weren't me. This was me. The music became the wellspring of my work. I took the stuff and ran with it."

It took numerous rejection slips from magazines and several uninspired poetry readings to finally dissuade the would-be poet and nudge him in the direction of the theater. His conversion from poet to playwright was coerced by a supportive friend, Claude Purdy. In 1977 Wilson's poetry reading in Pittsburgh about a character named Black Bart so impressed Purdy that he encouraged Wilson to turn the material into a play. After much complaining that he could not write a play, Wilson sat down to complete the work in one week (Black Bart and the Sacred Hills [1981]).

In 1982 Lloyd Richards—artistic director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater in Waterford, Connecticut, dean of Yale's School of Drama, and director of the Yale Repertory Theater—discovered that among the hundreds of scripts sent to him was Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Although Richards admitted that the play had structural problems, he realized that, aside from these weaknesses, it evidenced an incredibly gifted talent. Over the next eight years Wilson and Richards formed a close alliance. Some have described their unique relationship with words like "avuncular," "paternal," or simply "compatible." At any rate, the two men blended their playwriting and directing talents to produce a string of successful plays. Wilson wrote the plays while Richards directed and polished them in workshop environments such as the Yale Repertory Theater and various regional theaters throughout the United States. Beginning with the initial Broadway success of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom in 1984, the two men collaborated successfully on four more of Wilson's plays: Fences, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, and Two Trains Running. During his collaboration with Richards, all of Wilson's works took similar routes, preliminary staging at the O'Neill Theater Center followed by presentations at the Yale Repertory Theater and other resident non-profit theaters and an eventual Broadway production.

Chronicles of African American History

Gaining confidence as a playwright from close associations with important contacts such as directors Purdy and Richards, Wilson committed himself to writing a series of plays addressing central issues that have impacted African Americans in each decade of the 20th century. Although he initially did not set out to write a history of his people, he rather accidentally realized a pattern of sorts developing in his early works; he had written plays that addressed issues peculiar to 1911, 1927, 1941, 1957, and 1971. The idea of writing one play per decade pleased Wilson, for once he discerned a pattern, he then was able to focus his playwriting skills on what he felt were the most important issues confronting African Americans each decade and then committed himself to writing ten plays emphasizing these issues.

Wilson's first Broadway success, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984), was based upon an imagined day in the life of Gertrude Pridgett "Ma" Rainey, often called the "Mother of the Blues." The play focuses upon rampant greed, insensitivity, and racism in the 1920s recording business. The victims of the time period are typified by Ma Rainey and her band of talented yet frustrated musicians. His second play to reach Broadway, Fences (1985), earned him his first Pulitzer Prize. It portrays the frustration of a former African American League baseball player in the industrial North of the 1950s. In Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1986), Wilson concentrated upon the cultural fragmentation as well as the emotional and physical effects of the accompanying displacement of newly freed African Americans following the Civil War.

The Piano Lesson (1987) earned Wilson a second Pulitzer Prize in the spring of 1990. Central to this play's conflict is an old piano, which simultaneously functions as an emblem of both African folk tradition and American capitalism. The pictorial history carved into its surface by the great-grandfather of the currently embattled siblings, Berneice and Boy Willie, appreciates both its monetary and sentimental values. Berneice wants to preserve it as a family heirloom, while Boy Willie wants to sell it to afford a piece of land. Wilson's chronicle of the 1960s, Two Trains Running, debuted at the Yale Repertory Theater in March 1990 and was making its way through various regional theaters on its way to an almost certain Broadway finale. Set in 1968 in a small restaurant in an African American section of Pittsburgh (apparently its Hill District), Wilson's play tells the story of neighbors sorting out problems, complaining about injustices, loving, fighting, and communing.

Wilson's Seven Guitars hit Broadway in 1995, reuniting him with longtime collaborator Richards. The story, set in Pittsburgh in the 1940s, tells the story of Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton, who died before his career as a blues guitarist could take off. The San Diego Sun reviewed the show as containing "rich, casually revealing language." The Broadway version featured Keith David, famous for his role in Jelly's Last Jam.

"All the ideas and attitudes of my characters come straight out of the blues," Wilson said, during an interview with People magazine. "I look behind the lyrics." Seven Guitars is no exception.

Along with his two Pulitzers, Wilson received the Black Filmakers Hall of Fame Award in 1991. In 1992 he earned the Antoinette Perry Award nomination for best play, as well as the American Theatre Critics' Association Award, for Two Trains Running. He also received the Clarence Muse Award in 1992.

Wilson moved to Seattle in 1990 with his third wife, Constanza Romero, a costume designer who worked on The Piano Lesson with him. Wilson's only daughter, Sakina Ansari, found her career as a social worker in Baltimore.

Further Reading

Because August Wilson is relatively new to the literary world, a critical study of his work remains to be done. However, several excellent sources are available in the form of interviews, feature articles, and theater reviews. For detailed biographical information consult Chip Brown's "The Light in August" in Esquire (April 1989). For information of his plays and his aesthetics, see Bill Moyers' A World of Ideas: Conversations with Thoughtful Men and Women about American Life Today and the Ideas Shaping Our Future (1989) and David Savran's In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights (1988). Magazine feature articles include Nick Charles' "August Wilson: Stages of Black America," in Emerge (April 1990); Hillary DeVries' "A Song in Search of Itself: August Wilson Is a Chronicler of Black America's Recent Past," in American Theater (January 1987); and Ishmael Reed's "A Shy Genius Transforms American Theater," in Connoisseur 217 (March 1987). □

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Wilson, August

August Wilson, 1945–2005, American playwright and poet, b. Pittsburgh as Frederick August Kittel. Largely self-educated, Wilson first attracted wide critical attention with his Broadway debut, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984), a play set in 1927 that dramatizes the clash between the blues diva and a member of her band and the larger conflicts brought about by racist American society. Wilson's plays center on the struggles and identity of African Americans and the deleterious effect of white American institutions on black American life. His works draw heavily on Wilson's own experience growing up in the Hill district of Pittsburgh, a black ghetto where nearly all of his plays are set. His characters are ordinary people whose histories, frustrations, and aspirations Wilson astutely portrays. His cycle of ten dramas written over a period of more than 20 years include various overlapping characters and themes. In addition to Ma Rainey, it includes Jitney (1982), Fences (1987; Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award), Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1988), The Piano Lesson (1990; Pulitzer Prize), Two Trains Running (1992), Seven Guitars (1995), King Hedley II (2001), Gem of the Ocean (2003), and Radio Golf (2005). Acclaimed as landmarks in the history of black American culture, these works focus on the major issues confronting African Americans during each of the decades of the 20th cent. In 2003, Wilson starred in a production of his autobiographical one-man play How I Learned What I Learned.

See studies by M. Elkins, ed. (1994), A. Nadel, ed. (1994), K. Pereira (1995), S. G. Shannon (1995), J. Herrington (1998), Y. Shafer (1998), M. L. Bogumil (1999), Q. Wang (1999), P. Wolfe (1999), H. Bloom, ed. (2002), H. J. Elam, Jr. (2004), and M. E. Snodgrass (2004).

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Wilson, August

Wilson, August (1945– ) US playwright. His plays, the most well known of which include Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1986) and The Piano Lesson (1988), draw extensively on African-American history and culture. Fences won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987.

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