August Wilson

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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.


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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 Black Horizon Theater, where he worked as a producer and director.

Wilson began writing one-act plays in the early 1970’s, but it was not until 1978 when he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, that he began writing his first full-length play, Jitney (1979), the first entry in his ten-play dramatic cycle about African American life in the twentieth century United States. It was also during this period that Wilson met and married his second wife, Judy Oliver. From his earlier marriage he had a daughter, Sakina.

In 1979, Wilson began submitting plays to the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. When his first four submissions were rejected—the conference rejected Jitney twice—Wilson found himself reassessing his previous efforts and embarking on a new project that would test the true depth of his writing talents. The result, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, was accepted by the O’Neill Conference and given a staged reading in 1982.

It was there that Wilson met the conference’s artistic director, Lloyd Richards. A powerful force within the American theater community, Richards was for many years the dean of the Yale University School of Drama and the director of the school’s acclaimed repertory theater, as well as the first African American ever to direct a play on Broadway....

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Their meeting led to an ongoing collaboration between writer and director that would contribute greatly to Wilson’s subsequent work.

At Richards’s urging, Wilson applied for and received numerous grants and fellowships that allowed him to concentrate his efforts solely on his writing. Wilson’s plays had their original stagings under Richards’s direction at the Yale Repertory Theater before moving on to other regional theaters and to Broadway.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom opened on Broadway in 1984 and received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and Wilson followed it in 1987 with Fences, which received four Tony Awards, the Drama Critics Circle Award, the first American Theater Critics Association New Play Award, and the Pulitzer Prize in drama.

Fences was followed by Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in 1988 and The Piano Lesson in 1990, both of which received the Critics Circle Award. The Piano Lesson also brought Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize. In 1992, Two Trains Running, which received the Critics Circle Award and the American Theater Critics Association New Play Award, opened on Broadway.

In 1997, his early play Jitney was revived at the Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and received enthusiastic reviews. The following year, Wilson received the Edward Albee Last Frontier Playwright Award. He collaborated with Victor Walker and others to form the African Grove Institute at Dartmouth College, where he also taught during the 1998 academic year.

In 1999, Wilson completed King Hedley II, which had its premiere at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre. The play went on to Broadway, where it was about to be closed after twenty-four preview performances and seventy-two regular performances. When it was nominated for a Tony as best play of 2001, however, its run was extended for another ten weeks.

Wilson completed the last play of his ten-cycle, decade-by-decade assessment of African American life in the United States, Radio Golf, within months of his death. It was presented at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in September, 2005. Wilson succumbed to liver cancer on October 2, 2005.


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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 Golf—have also accumulated numerous accolades.

Despite this towering achievement, Wilson’s career was not without controversy. In the late 1990s, Wilson entered into a highly contentious war of words with theater critic and artist Robert Brustein. The increasingly personal attacks culminated in a debate between the two men that was open to the public. Chief among Wilson’s concerns was what he termed the imperialist nature of commercial theater and its absorption and obfuscation of black theater and culture. Wilson’s call for black theater written, performed, and produced by and for African Americans led some to label his stance segregationist. Still, Wilson opened a dialogue on issues such as “colorblind” casting (in which roles written as white characters are played by black actors) and their impact on the development of African-American theater.

Controversy aside, Wilson managed to live what he wrote and write what he lived. He grew up in the Hill district of Pittsburgh, the epicenter of much of his writing. He grew up in a multigenerational environment and educated himself on early-twentieth-century black writers. In a sense, his formative years were shaped by the history he both studied and lived. Wilson came of age during the civil rights movement, and his reflections on these experiences and studies laid the foundation for one of the most notable theatrical epics in the history of theater.


Critical Essays