August Wilson Biography

Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111226319-Wilson_A.jpgAugust Wilson Published by Salem Press, Inc.

August Wilson was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1945. The son of a white father who was rarely around his family and a black mother who struggled to raise her six children on welfare and her meager income from janitorial jobs, Wilson learned at first hand about the hardships and prejudice facing black people in American society.

When the family moved to a predominantly white neighborhood, bricks were thrown through their windows, and Wilson’s schools days at Central Catholic High School were clouded by the racial epithets he often found scrawled on his desk. Wilson’s mother, a proud, determined woman who insisted that her children spend time each day reading, imbued young August with a sense of pride and self-esteem.

Wilson’s formal schooling ended in the ninth grade. Refusing to believe that a well-researched and footnoted paper that Wilson submitted could be his own work, his teacher gave him a failing grade. Wilson tore up the paper and never returned to school, choosing instead to educate himself at the local public library, where he read extensively on a wide range of subjects. There, he discovered for the first time the works of black authors such as Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright.

Wilson’s teens were for him a time of great anger and frustration, which found occasional release in outbursts of rage as he and his friends smashed the black lawn jockeys that they found in front of white homes. During the 1960’s, Wilson joined several Black Power organizations, and for many years he adopted a militant stance toward society’s racial injustices.

He supported himself during this period with a brief stint in the Army and by working as a short-order cook and a stock clerk. A keen observer of the world around him, he also began storing up the details of life in the black community that would later inform his plays, lending to them the authenticity that has made them successful.

Wilson’s career as a writer began almost by chance when he was twenty. His older sister paid him twenty dollars to write a college term paper for her, and he used the money to buy himself a used typewriter. Still supporting himself with odd jobs, Wilson began writing poetry and became associated with the Black Arts movement in...

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August Wilson Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Wilson’s groundbreaking cycle of plays chronicling the black experience in the twentieth century brought a vital new voice to the American theater. The stories that he told and the complex characters that he created offered powerful dramatic portraits of lives that have often been marginalized or forgotten altogether. Believing that only by embracing their history can African Americans find a true sense of their heritage, Wilson drew on important periods in black history as background material for his plays. His poetic explorations of African American lives and culture embodied the sentiment that he once expressed in an interview: “Claim what is yours.”

August Wilson Biography (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

August Wilson considered contact with one’s roots to be a crucial source of strength, and his plays have explored and celebrated African American culture. Wilson’s plays also acknowledge the white racism that has marked African American history. Black experience in America contains, Wilson noted, “all the universalities.” His work has received wide acclaim, winning Pulitzers and numerous other awards.

Wilson’s father was a white baker from Germany, and his mother was a black cleaning woman who had moved to Pittsburgh from rural North Carolina. His father “wasn’t around much,” according to Wilson, and he and his brothers and sisters grew up in a financially strapped single-parent household “in a cultural environment which was black.” At age twelve Wilson discovered and read through the small “Negro section” of the public library.

In 1965, he decided to become a writer and adopted his mother’s maiden name, becoming August Wilson (which he legally formalized in the early 1970’s) instead of Frederick August Kittel. He began living on his own in a rooming house in the black area of Pittsburgh, known as the Hill, while writing poetry and supporting himself in a series of menial jobs. In 1965, he also discovered the blues, which he acknowledged as “the greatest source of my inspiration.” Wilson identified three other B’s as influences: Amiri Baraka, some of whose plays Wilson directed in the 1960’s at the...

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August Wilson Biography (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

August Wilson was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 27, 1945, in the Hill District, a black neighborhood. He was one of six children born to Daisy Wilson from North Carolina, and a German baker, Frederick August Kittel, who eventually abandoned the family. Wilson left school at fifteen when a teacher refused to take his word that a twenty-page paper on Napoleon was his own work. He spent the next few weeks in the library, pretending to be at school. It was through reading, especially all the books he could find in the “Negro” subject section, that Wilson educated himself.

Later, he worked at odd jobs and spent time on street corners and at a cigar store called Pat’s Place, listening to old men tell stories. Coming into adulthood during the Black Power movement of the 1960’s, Wilson was influenced by it and participated in the Black Arts movement in Pittsburgh, writing and publishing poetry in black journals. With longtime friend Rob Penny, he founded the Black Horizons Theatre Company in Pittsburgh in 1968. He produced and directed plays, but his efforts at playwriting in those years failed, he later recalled, because he “didn’t respect the way blacks talked” so he “always tried to alter it.” He formed a connection with the Penumbra company in St. Paul and moved there in 1978. It was in this much smaller black community that he learned to regard the “voices I had been brought up with all my life” with greater respect.

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August Wilson Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

August Wilson’s long-range project—a cycle of ten plays about the African American experience, one taking place in each decade of the twentieth century—is to chronicle the struggle of the black family to reconcile its necessary integration into white society with its desire (and, Wilson would say, need) to retain its heritage. Himself a child of mixed parentage, he was born in 1945 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District to a German baker and Daisy Wilson, a black displaced North Carolinian. Reared by his mother and his black stepfather, David Bedford, Wilson dropped out of high school at the age of fifteen, preferring to educate himself in the public library, where he read all the works he found on a shelf marked “Negro,” including novels and essays by Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and others, as well as the work of such poets as Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and Amiri Baraka.

Wilson’s sensitivity to the problems of black America shows the influence of the Black Power movement of the late 1960’s, and he referred to himself as a Black Nationalist. With his longtime friend Rob Penny, Wilson cofounded the company Black Horizon on the Hill Theatre. Wilson was, however, a poet first, and he began publishing in black literary journals as early as 1971. His connection with Penumbra, a black theater in St. Paul, brought Wilson to Minnesota in 1978, where he lived until moving to Seattle in 1990. Wilson lived in Seattle until his death from liver cancer in 2005.

Perhaps the most influential person in Wilson’s playwriting life was Lloyd Richards, who, as director of the National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Center in Waterford, Connecticut, first encouraged Wilson to pursue a life of writing for the stage and staged his plays throughout the 1990’s. After working on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in the staged reading process at the conference in 1982, Richards brought the play to Yale Repertory Theater for a 1984 production that subsequently appeared on Broadway. This collaboration was followed by work at the conference on Fences, which later opened at Yale and followed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to Broadway. There Fences was, in 1987, awarded the Pulitzer Prize, which was later also awarded to The...

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August Wilson Biography (eNotes Publishing)

August Wilson’s accomplishments are not merely unique to African-American theater but to theater as a whole. His epic, landmark plays about African Americans in the twentieth century are one of the boldest undertakings by any writer. What makes his achievement even more notable is the level of quality Wilson maintained over ten plays. The Pittsburgh Cycle has been nominated for virtually every theatrical award imaginable, and two of the plays, Fences and The Piano Lesson, won Pulitzer Prizes. The remaining works—Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Seven Guitars, Two Trains Running, Jitney, King Hedley II, and Radio...

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August Wilson Biography (Drama for Students)

August Wilson in 1989 Published by Gale Cengage

August Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel, on April 27, 1945. in a ghetto area of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, known as "The Hill." Wilson's white father, a German baker named August Kittel. abandoned the family when Wilson was a child. Wilson's mother, Daisy Wilson Kittel. worked as a cleaning woman to raise her six children. Later, after Wilson's mother had remarried, his stepfather moved the family to a white neighborhood where Wilson was subjected to unbridled racism. At age 15. Wilson dropped out of school after being falsely accused of plagiarism; after that episode, he continued his education on his own, with periods of extensive reading at the public library.

Wilson began his career writing poetry and short stories but switched to drama in 1978 when he was invited to write plays for a black theatre in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Several fellowships enabled Wilson to concentrate on writing plays as a full-time venture. Although his early efforts, Fullerton Street (1980), Black Bun and the Sacred Hills (1981), and Jitney (1982), received little attention, he gained recognition with his 1984 play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which was accepted for a staged reading at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center's National Playwright's Conference in 1982. The following year, Fences was also presented at the O'Neill conference, and in 1986 Joe Turner's Come and Gone became Wilson's third play to be produced at the conference.

Each of these plays followed their initial readings at the O'Neill with productions at the Yale Repertory Theatre and later stagings on Broadway. In 1987, The Piano Lesson opened al the Yale Repertory Theatre; Two Trains Running followed three years later. Wilson's Seven Guitars opened at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 1995. Wilson has stated that he envisions his plays as representative of the black experience in America, since each play is set in a different decade.

Wilson married for the first time in 1969, but the marriage ended after three years and the birth of a daughter, Sakina Ansari. He married for a second time in 1981; this marriage ended in 1990. Wilson has won several honors for his writing, including the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, an Antionette ("Tony") Perry Award, and a Pulitzer Prize for Fences. The Piano Lesson was also awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1990. Several of his other works have been nominated for Tony Awards.

August Wilson Biography (Drama for Students)

August Wilson (on left) Published by Gale Cengage

Wilson was born as Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Wilson’s white German father largely deserted the family shortly after the playwright was born, and Wilson’s mother, Daisy Wilson Kittel, was forced to support her large family by working a number of cleaning jobs. Daisy married David Bedford, an African-American man, when Wilson was an adolescent. Bedford moved the family to a mostly white suburb, where they experienced extreme racial intimidation. Although Daisy encouraged the playwright and his five siblings to pursue an education, the racist treatment he received in the formal school system encouraged Wilson to drop out as a teenager. Instead, Wilson educated himself in his local library, focusing mainly on black writers.

In 1965, at the age of twenty, Wilson moved into a rooming house with a group of black intellectuals and began publishing his poetry in several small periodicals. Wilson was profoundly affected by the Black Power movement in the 1960s and cofounded the Black Horizons on the Hill Theater in Pittsburgh in 1968 to show his support. The theater, which was in operation until 1978, provided a medium for Wilson and others to raise awareness of African-American culture and issues. In 1978, Wilson moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he wrote his first play, Jitney, which was first produced in 1982. Set in a Pittsburgh taxi station, the play was successful in his local theater.

In 1984, however, Wilson’s drama reached Broadway with the production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which Wilson revised with the help of Lloyd Richards, a Broadway director who would collaborate with Wilson on many of his plays. The play was the first of Wilson’s ambitious, ten-play historical cycle. In this group of plays, Wilson announced that he would chronicle the African-American experience in the twentieth century, providing one play for each decade. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, first produced in 1986, is the third play in this series and examines life in the 1910s, when many African Americans were migrating North. His latest play is King Hedley II, which was produced on Broadway in 2001.

For a professional dramatic career that has spanned only two decades, Wilson has amassed an impressive number of awards from the dramatic community. Chief among these are the Pulitzer Prizes that Wilson won for Fences (1986) and The Piano Lesson (1990). Wilson is the only African-American playwright who has won two Pulitzer Prizes. Wilson also won an Antoinette Perry ("Tony") Award for best play for Fences in 1987.

August Wilson Biography (Drama for Students)

August Wilson Published by Gale Cengage

Born in 1945 to a white father, Frederick August Kittle, and a black mother, Daisy Wilson August Wilson grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A voracious reader who credits his mother for his love of language, Wilson dropped out of school in the ninth grade, educating himself at libraries. In 1962, Wilson enlisted in the U.S. Army but was discharged a year later. In 1965, he decided to become a writer, buying his first typewriter for twenty dollars. In 1968, he helped to found Pittsburgh’s Black Horizons on the Hill Theater, with the goal of ‘‘politicizing the community.’’ Wilson was heavily involved with the civil rights movement during this time and described himself as a ‘‘Black Nationalist.’’ After he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1978, Wilson’s career began to gather steam. Following the oft-given advice to write what you know, Wilson created characters that spoke like people he knew in black neighborhoods of Pittsburgh.

In 1980 the Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis accepted his play, Jitney, a drama set in a Pittsburgh taxi station, and in 1982 the prestigious Eugene O’Neill Center accepted Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The success of this play helped catapult Wilson into the national limelight. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom received the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play and an Antoinette Perry (‘‘Tony’’) Award nomination from the League of New York Theatres and Producers. Wilson’s next effort, Fences, was even more successful, garnering an Outstanding Play Award from the American Theatre Critics, a Drama Desk Outstanding New Play Award, a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Best Play Award, a Pulitzer Prize for drama, a Tony Award for best play, and a Best Broadway play award from the Outer Critics Circle. The latest installment in Wilson’s ambitious plan to write a ten-play cycle—each dealing with a decade in Black American history—is King Hedley II, which opened in 2001 on Broadway. Set during 1985 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, King Hedley II explores the relationship between an ex-convict struggling to understand his life and the impoverished community in which he lives. Wilson continues to write and to speak out, from his home in Seattle, Washington, for the creation of and the funding for black theaters.

August Wilson Biography (Drama for Students)

Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel in 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He grew up in a racially diverse working class neighborhood, the Hill, where he lived with his mother and five siblings. His mother, a single parent, worked as a domestic to support her six children. Her own mother, Wilson’s grandmother, had walked from North Carolina to Pittsburgh in search of better opportunities. Wilson’s mother remarried when he was still young, and the family moved to a white suburb. Wilson met persistent racism in the schools he attended there, and at fifteen he was frustrated enough by this prejudice to leave school and educate himself at the local library. There, he read ‘‘anything’’ he wanted to, and educated himself about the Afro-American literary tradition by reading works by Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Arna Bontemps, amongst others. Their example inspired him to write poetry and short fiction.

Wilson was active in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, particularly the Black Power movement, and one of his contributions to the movement and to his community was to co-found Black Horizon on the Hill, a community theater set up in 1968. Like many community theaters founded during this period, Black Horizon on the Hill aimed to increase political awareness and activism in the local community while also encouraging the development of local talent. Here Wilson premiered his first one-act plays.

In the late-1970s, Wilson moved from Pittsburgh to St. Paul, Minnesota, where his plays finally attracted widespread critical attention. Wilson’s serious theatrical debut was Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, a drama written in 1977 and performed in 1981. His first big hit was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984), which was workshopped at the National Playwright’s Conference before playing at the Yale Repertory Theater and later opening on Broadway. This play was followed by two acclaimed dramas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences (1985) and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1986).

These three plays form part of Wilson’s ambitious series of dramas about African-American experience during the twentieth century (his aim is set a play in each decade of the century). The fourth play in this cycle, The Piano Lesson (1987), is set in the 1930s and explores the different attitudes of a brother and sister to their family inheritance, a piano for which their ancestors were sold and which is engraved with their ancestors’ images. The Piano Lesson’s combination of comedy and tragedy garnered Wilson another Pulitzer Prize and confirmed his reputation as one of America’s most important and innovative playwrights.

Wilson’s earliest writing was poetry, and his training in this field is still evident in his writing, which showcases the lyricism of African-American speech patterns and language and blends naturalist structure with devices that originate in black spiritualism. His social criticism also makes his writing especially rich, while his naturalism makes him heir to a tradition that includes such American greats as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams—a tradition that he has adapted to include powerful representations of African-American experience.

August Wilson Biography (Drama for Students)

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 27, 1945, August Wilson was the fourth of six children in a poor mixed-race family. He was named...

(The entire section is 517 words.)

August Wilson Biography

August Wilson249_1192558029.jpg

Introduction

For some, August Wilson is African-American theater. His plays are the ones most likely to appear in anthologies as representative works of African-American drama. But what truly sets Wilson apart from other authors is his signature achievement of having written ten dramas documenting the African-American experience. Dubbed “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” the plays each take place in a different decade of the twentieth century. Stylistically, Wilson’s work combines seemingly disparate elements to create a uniquely poetic take on realism; his characters, for example, speak in the vernacular, but the words flow as if they were reciting verse. Sprinkled with mystical elements (such as a recurring character who is several hundred years old), Wilson’s plays portray the African-American experience as the intersection of history, poetry, and everyday life.

Essential Facts

  1. Despite spanning every decade of the twentieth century, “The Pittsburgh Cycle” plays were not written in chronological order.
  2. “Wilson” was actually the last name of August’s mother. He adopted it as his last name after the death of his father.
  3. Wilson maintained a close relationship with Seattle Repertory Theatre, which produced all ten plays of “The Pittsburgh Cycle.”
  4. The August Wilson Theatre in New York City, rechristened with his name just days after his death in 2005, is the first to bear the name of an African American.
  5. Wilson stirred controversy with what some felt were segregationist views about an African-American theater developed separately from white theater.