August Wilson Biography

August Wilson Biography

August Wilson is perhaps the most famous representative of 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.

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.
  • Wilson stirred controversy with what some felt were segregationist views about an African American theater developed separately from white theater.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)
ph_0111226319-Wilson_A.jpg August 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...

(The entire section is 939 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 458 words.)

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.


(The entire section is 518 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 942 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 335 words.)

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."...

(The entire section is 376 words.)

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 entire section is 410 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 370 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 504 words.)

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.)