August Wilson Biography
August Wilson is perhaps the most famous representative of African American theater. His plays are 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.
Facts and Trivia
- Despite spanning every decade of the twentieth century, “The Pittsburgh Cycle” plays were not written in chronological order.
- “Wilson” was actually the last name of August’s mother. He adopted it as his last name after the death of his father.
- Wilson maintained a close relationship with Seattle Repertory Theatre, which produced all ten plays of “The Pittsburgh Cycle.”
- 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 individual.
- Wilson stirred controversy with what some felt were segregationist views about an African American theater developed separately from white theater.
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 Pittsburgh. In 1968, he and playwright Rob Penny founded the...
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