August Wilson

August Wilson

Infobox Playwright
name = August Wilson

caption =
birth_name = Frederick August Kittel
birth_date = birth date|1945|04|27|df=y
birth_place = Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA
death_date = death date and age|2005|10|2|1945|04|27|df=y
death_place = Seattle, Washington, USA
occupation = Author, playwright
nationality = United States
magnum_opus = "The Pittsburgh Cycle"
spouse = nowrap|Constanza Romero (1994-2005)
Judy Oliver (1981-1990)
Brenda Burton (1969-1972)
children = 2 daughters

August Wilson (April 27, 1945October 2, 2005) was an American playwright. His literary legacy is the ten play series, "The Pittsburgh Cycle", for which he received two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. Each is set in a different decade, depicting the comic and tragic aspects of the African-American experience in the twentieth century.


Early years

Born Frederick August Kittel in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Wilson was the fourth of six children. His father was a German immigrant baker, also named Frederick August Kittel, who seldom spent time with his family, and his mother was an African American cleaning woman, Daisy Wilson, from North Carolina. Earlier, Wilson's maternal grandmother walked from North Carolina to Pennsylvania in search of a better life. Wilson's parents stayed together until he was five. His mother raised their children in a two-room apartment above a grocery store at 1727 Bedford Avenue, which was dedicated as an official state historic landmark on May 30, 2007. [cite news | url= | title=State Memorializes August Wilson's Childhood Home | last=The Associated Press | date=31 May 2007 | work=Pittsburgh Tribune-Review | accessdate=2008-10-03] This economically-depressed neighborhood was inhabited predominantly by many black Americans, and Jewish and Italian immigrants.

During August's teenage years in the late 1950s, his mother married David Bedford, and the Bedford family moved from the Hill to a then predominantly white working class neighborhood, Hazelwood. There, they encountered racial hostility; bricks were thrown through a window at their new home.

Wilson was the only black student at the Central Catholic High School in 1959; threats and abuse drove him away, but Connelley Vocational High School proved unchallenging. He dropped out of Gladstone High School in the 10th grade in 1960 when a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a 20-page paper on Napoleon.

Later life

Wilson made such extensive use of the Carnegie Library to educate himself that they later awarded him a degree, the only such one they have bestowed. Wilson, who had learned to read at age four, began reading black writers there at age 12 and spent the remainder of his teen years educating himself by reading Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, and others.

By this time, Wilson knew that he wanted to be a writer, but this created tension with his mother, who wanted him to become a lawyer. She forced him to leave the family home and he enlisted in the United States Army for a three-year stint in 1962, but left after one year and went back to working odd jobs such as a porter, short-order cook, gardener, and dishwasher.

August Kittel changed his name to August Wilson to honor his mother after his father's death in 1965. That same year he discovered the blues as sung by Bessie Smith and bought a typewriter for US$20. [cite interview | subject=August Wilson | interviewer=Bonnie Lyons | cointerviewers=George Plimpton | title=The Art of Theatre No. 14 | url= | format=Transcript/.PDF | program="The Paris Review", Issue 153 | year=1999 | month=Winter | accessdate=2008-10-05]

In 1968, Wilson co-founded the Black Horizon Theater in the Hill District of Pittsburgh along with his friend Rob Penny. His first play, "Recycling", was performed for audiences in small theaters and public housing community centers. Among these early efforts was "Jitney" which he revised more than two decades later as part of his 10-play cycle on 20th century Pittsburgh.

Wilson was married three times. His first marriage was to Brenda Burton in 1969. That same year, his stepfather David Bedford died. Wilson's oldest daughter, Sakina Ansari Wilson, was born January 22, 1970. The marriage ended in 1972.

In 1976 Dr. Vernell Lillie, founder of the Kuntu Repertory Theatre at the University of Pittsburgh two years earlier, directed Wilson's "The Homecoming". That same year Wilson saw "Sizwe Banzi is Dead" at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, his first professional play. Wilson, Penny, and poet Maisha Baton also started the Kuntu Writers Workshop to bring African-American writers together and to assist them in publication and production. Both organizations are still active.

In 1978 Wilson moved to Saint Paul, Minnesota at the suggestion of his friend director Claude Purdy, who helped him secure a job writing educational scripts for the Science Museum of Minnesota. In 1980 he received a fellowship for the Minneapolis Playwrights Center. Wilson had a long association with the Penumbra Theatre Company of St Paul, which gave the premieres of some Wilson plays.

In 1981 he was married to Judy Oliver, a social worker. They divorced in 1990. In 1994 Wilson left St Paul for Seattle, where he would develop a relationship with Seattle Repertory Theatre. Seattle Rep would ultimately be the only theater in the country to produce all of his works (his ten-play cycle and his one-man show "How I Learned What I Learned").

Wilson received many honorary degrees, including an honorary Doctor of Humanities from the University of Pittsburgh, where he served as a member of the University's Board of Trustees from 1992 until 1995. [cite news | author=Bruce Steele | title=Remembering August Wilson 1945-2005 | url= | archiveurl= | work=The Pitt Chronicle | publisher=The University of Pittsburgh | date=10 October 2005 | archivedate=2009-09-30| accessdate=2008-10-01]


On August 26, 2005, he told his hometown newspaper, "The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette", that he had been diagnosed with liver cancer in June 2005 and been given three to five months to live. He died on October 2, 2005 at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery (Section 7, Row 25) in suburban Pittsburgh on October 8, 2005. He was survived by his third wife, costume designer Constanza Romero, and his two daughters, Sakina Ansari and Azula Carmen (daughter of Constanza).

On October 16, 2005, only 14 days after Wilson's death, the Virginia Theatre in New York's Broadway theatre district was renamed the August Wilson Theatre. This is the first Broadway theatre to bear the name of an African-American.

In addition, the vacated Republican Street between Warren Avenue N. and 2nd Avenue N. on the Seattle Center grounds has been renamed August Wilson Way. [cite news | author=Kathy Mulady | title=Visions For a New Seattle Center Being Made Public | url= | work=The Seattle Post-Intelligencer | date=12 June 2007 | accessdate=2008-10-05]


Wilson's best known plays are "Fences" (1985) (which won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award), "The Piano Lesson" (1990) (a Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award), "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom", and "Joe Turner's Come and Gone".

Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle," also often referred to as his "Century Cycle," consists of ten plays—nine of which are set in Pittsburgh's Hill District, an African-American neighborhood that takes on a mythic literary significance like Thomas Hardy's Wessex, William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, or Irish playwright Brian Friel's Ballybeg. The plays are each set in a different decade and aim to sketch the Black experience in the 20th century.

The Pittsburgh Cycle

* 1900s - "Gem of the Ocean" (2003)
* 1910s - "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" (1984)
* 1920s - "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (1982) - set in Chicago
* 1930s - "The Piano Lesson" (1989) - Pulitzer Prize
* 1940s - "Seven Guitars" (1995)
* 1950s - "Fences" (1985) - Pulitzer Prize
* 1960s - "Two Trains Running" (1990)
* 1970s - "Jitney" (1983)
* 1980s - "King Hedley II" (2001)
* 1990s - "Radio Golf" (2005)

Although the plays are not strictly connected to the degree of a serial story, some characters appear (at various ages) in more than one of the cycle's plays. Children of characters in earlier plays may appear in later plays. The character most frequently mentioned in the cycle is Aunt Ester, a "washer of souls". She is reported to be 285 years old in "Gem of the Ocean", which takes place in her home at 1839 Wylie Avenue, and 322 in "Two Trains Running". She dies in 1985, during the events of "King Hedley II". Much of the action of "Radio Golf" revolves around the plan to demolish and redevelop that house, some years after her death. The plays often include an "apparently" mentally-impaired oracular character (different in each play)—for example, Hedley [Sr.] in "Seven Guitars", or Hambone in "Two Trains Running".

Honours and awards

* 1985: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"
* 1985: Tony Award nomination for Best Play, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"
* 1987: Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play, "Fences"
* 1987: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, "Fences"
* 1987: Pulitzer Prize for Drama, "Fences"
* 1987: Tony Award for Best Play, "Fences"
* 1988: Literary Lion Award from the New York Public Library
* 1988: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone"
* 1988: Tony Award nomination for Best Play, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone"
* 1990: Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play, "The Piano Lesson"
* 1990: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, "The Piano Lesson"
* 1990: Tony Award nomination for Best Play, "The Piano Lesson"
* 1990: Pulitzer Prize for Drama, "The Piano Lesson"
* 1992: American Theatre Critics' Association Award, "Two Trains Running"
* 1992: New York Drama Critics Circle Citation for Best American Play, "Two Trains Running"
* 1992: Tony Award nomination for Best Play, "Two Trains Running"
* 1996: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, "Seven Guitars"
* 1996: Tony Award nomination for Best Play, "Seven Guitars"
* 1999: National Humanities Medal
* 2000: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, "Jitney"
* 2000: Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play, "Jitney"
* 2001: Tony Award nomination for Best Play, "King Hedley II"
* 2002: Olivier Award for Best new Play, "Jitney"
* 2004: The Freedom of Speech Award at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.
* 2005: Make Shift Award at the U.S. Confederation of Play Writers.
* 2007: Tony Award nomination for Best Play, "Radio Golf"



*"August Wilson: A Casebook (Casebooks on Modern Dramatists, Volume 15)", edited by Marilyn Elkins, Garland Publishing (November 1, 1999), ISBN 0-8153-3634-9
*"The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson" by Sandra Shannon, Howard University Press (1995)
*"August Wilson and Black Aesthetics" by Sandra Shannon, Palgrave MacMillan (2004)
*"August Wilson's Fences: A Reference" Guide by Sandra Shannon, Greenwood Publishing (2003)
*"Playwright August Wilson dies at 60". [ CNN] . Retrieved Oct. 3, 2005.
*"August Wilson," in [ "In Their Company: Portraits of American Playwrights"] , Photographs by Ken Collins, Interviews by Victor Wishna (New York: Umbrage Editions, 2006).
*"Pittsburgh in Stages: Two Hundred Years of Theater" by Lynne Conner, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007.

External links

* [ August Wilson Theatre Broadway]
* [ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obituary]
* [ New York Times obituary]
* [ Post-Gazette special index on August Wilson]
* [ NPR Intersections: August Wilson, Writing to the Blues] audio interview
* [ Theater Is to Be Renamed for a Dying Playwright]
* [ A detailed biography at]
* [ "The Paris Review" Interview with August Wilson]
* [ "August Wilson Center for African American Culture"]
* [ "August Wilson's Radio Golf on Broadway"]
* [ BroadwayWorld Article: Kennedy Center Presents: 'August Wilson's 20th Century' Cast & Dates]
* [ Comprehensive August Wilson fansite]

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