August Wilson Additional Biography


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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(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’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.


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."...

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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...

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August Wilson Published by Gale Cengage

Born in 1945 to a white father, Frederick August Kittle, and a black mother, Daisy Wilson August Wilson...

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Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel in 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He grew up in a racially diverse working class neighborhood, the...

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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.)