August Wilson Wilson, August - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

August Wilson 1945–2005

American playwright.

The following entry provides an overview of Wilson's career through 1997.

Wilson emerged in the 1980s as a significant voice in American theater. His dramas, for which he has variously received such coveted prizes as the Tony Award, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize, are part of a planned play-cycle devoted to the story of black American experience in the twentieth century. "I'm taking each decade and looking at one of the most important questions that blacks confronted in that decade and writing a play about it," Wilson explains. "Put them all together and you have a history." The leisurely pace and familial settings of Wilson's dramas have evoked comparisons to Eugene O'Neill's works. Praised for their vivid characterizations, Wilson's plays often center upon conflicts between blacks who embrace their African past and those who deny it. His rich yet somber explorations of black history prompted Samuel G. Freedman to describe Wilson as "one part Dylan Thomas and one part Malcolm X, a lyric poet fired in the kiln of black nationalism."

Biographical Information

Wilson grew up in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania ghetto called the Hill. He gained an early pride in his heritage through his mother, who worked as a janitor to support her six children. Frustrated by the rampant racism he experienced in several schools, Wilson dropped out in the ninth grade, thereafter deriving his education from his neighborhood experiences and the local library. In a collection of books marked "Negro," he discovered works of the Harlem Renaissance and other African-American writers. After reading works by such authors as Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Arna Bontemps, Wilson realized that blacks could be successful in artistic endeavors without compromising their traditions. In his early writings, Wilson was so heavily influenced by other styles that it was difficult for him to find his own. In 1968, inspired by the civil rights movement, Wilson co-founded Black Horizon on the Hill, a community theater aimed at raising black consciousness in the area. The playhouse became the forum for his first dramas, in which Wilson purposely avoided the study of other artists in order to develop his own voice. Wilson's first professional breakthrough occurred in 1978 when he was invited to write plays for a black theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. In this new milieu, removed from his native Pittsburgh, Wilson began to recognize poetic qualities in the language of his hometown. While his first two dramas garnered little notice, his third, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984), was accepted by the National Playwrights Conference in 1982, where it drew the attention of Lloyd Richards, the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater. Upon reading the script, Richards recalls, "I recognized it as a new voice. A very important one. It brought back my youth. My neighborhood. Experiences I had." He directed Ma Rainey at the Yale Theater and later took the play to Broadway. Since then, with Richards in the role of mentor and director (with the exception of Seven Guitars (1995) with which Richards was unable to be involved due to illness), all of Wilson's plays have had their first staged readings at the Playwrights Conference followed by runs at the Yale Repertory Theater and regional theaters before opening on Broadway.

Major Works

Set in the 1920s, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is an exploration of the effects of racism. It is based on an imaginary episode in the life of legendary black singer Gertrude (Ma) Rainey, regarded by some artists as the mother of the blues. The action takes place in a recording studio and focuses mainly on four musicians who are waiting for Ma's arrival. As the details of the musicians' lives unfold, the audience becomes aware of the racism that these successful black performers have had to face throughout their careers. The attitudes of the group's white manager and the owner of the studio reveal continuing exploitation of Ma and her band. The play climaxes when one of the musicians, Levee, vents his frustrations on the others. In his next play, Fences (1985), Wilson again examines the destructive and far-reaching consequences of racial injustice. Set in the late 1950s, on the eve of the civil rights movement, Fences revolves around Troy Maxson, an outstanding high school athlete who was ignored by major league baseball because of his color. Struggling through middle age as a garbage man, Troy's bitterness results in family conflicts. His son, who also aspires to an athletic career, must battle his father's fear and envy of him, and Troy's wife is humiliated by his adultery. Joe Turner's Come and Gone, (1986) debuted while Fences was still running on Broadway. Joe Turner, which is regarded as more mystical than Wilson's other works, centers upon the struggles of migrants in the post-Civil War North. The play takes place in 1911 in the Pittsburgh boardinghouse owned by Seth and Bertha Holly. Following seven years of illegal bondage, Herald Loomis, a black freedman, travels to Pennsylvania in search of the wife who fled north during his enslavement. The critical issue of white oppression is symbolized in Herald's haunted memories of Joe Turner, the infamous Southern bounty hunter who captured him. His sojourn ends at the Holly boardinghouse, where the black residents are also searching for some kind of connection and wholeness in their lives. Partially assimilated to white America, they nevertheless embrace the African traditions of their past. At the play's end, the boarders sing and dance a juba, an African celebration of the spirit. Their shared joy represents an achievement of unity, having come to terms with the trauma of slavery and the harsh reality of white persecution. The Piano Lesson (1987), which examines the confrontation of black heritage with the possibilities of the future, won the Pulitzer Prize before appearing on Broadway. A piano serves as a major element in this play, which is set in 1936 in Doaker Charles's Pittsburgh home. Decades earlier, the white master of the Charles family traded Doaker's father and grandmother for the piano, and the grief-stricken grandfather carved African totems of his wife and son in the piano's legs. Later, Doaker's older brother was killed in a successful conspiracy to steal the piano, which now sits in Doaker's living room untouched and revered. Conflict arises when Boy Willie, the son of the man who stole the piano, wants to sell it to purchase the land on which his ancestors were slaves. Two Trains Running (1990) opened on Broadway in 1992; this play is set in a run-down diner on a single day in 1969 and concerns the reactions of the diner's regular patrons to the imminent sale of the diner as well as the burial preparations occurring across the street at a funeral parlor. Seven Guitars, which is set during the 1940s, debuted in 1995 and relates the tragic undoing of blues guitarist Floyd Barton. At the opening of the play, Floyd's friends have gathered to mourn his untimely death. The action flashes back to Floyd's last week of life, revealing that Floyd recently recorded his first hit record and has another opportunity to make a recording if he can travel to a studio in Chicago. Floyd tries to acquire the money for his trip to Chicago and also seeks to reconcile with his former girlfriend, Vera.

Critical Reception

The numerous awards and accolades Wilson has received reflect the widespread critical appreciation of his mastery of poetic language, humor, and tragic realism in his dramatic works. Wilson's treatment of his subject matter—a first-hand history of black people in twentieth-century America—has also been highly praised by critics, who assert the various ways in which Wilson's brilliance as a playwright illuminates the complex nuances and themes encompassed by his characters' experiences. In an interview, Wilson's long-time friend Nick Flournoy summed up the playwright's career: "August Wilson is on a trek. He's saying who you are and what you are are all right. It's all right to be an angry nigger. It's all right to be whatever you are. It's what the great Irish writers did. They took that narrow world and they said, 'Here it is.' Here it is and its meaning is universal."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Homecoming (drama) 1976
The Coldest Day of the Year (drama) 1979
Fullerton Street (drama) 1980
Black Bart and the Sacred Hills (drama) 1981
Jitney (drama) 1982
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (drama) 1984
Fences (drama) 1985
Joe Turner's Come and Gone (drama) 1986
The Piano Lesson (drama) 1987
Two Trains Running (drama) 1990
Seven Guitars (drama) 1995

The Piano Lesson was adapted for television and broadcast as part of the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" series on CBS in 1995.

August Wilson with Kim Powers (interview date Fall/Winter 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Interview with August Wilson," in Theater, Vol. 16, No. 1, Fall/Winter, 1984, pp. 50-5.

[In the following interview, Wilson discusses various aspects of his works, including themes, symbols, and characters.]

August Wilson's play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom garnered rave reviews at the Yale Rep last Spring. It met with even greater success this Fall in New York, where the play opened at the Cort Theatre on October 11, with the same production staff, including director Lloyd Richards, and a majority of the original Rep cast. Wilson leapt from virtual obscurity as a playwright to the leading ranks with only this one play. Ma Rainey, originally...

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Hilary DeVries (essay date January 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Song in Search of Itself," American Theatre, Vol. 3, No. 10, January, 1987, pp. 22-5.

[In the following essay, DeVries examines the recurring themes in Wilson's cycle of plays regarding the black experience. She identifies the most pervasive theme as "the need for black Americans to forge anew their identity, an identity that is at once African and American."]

In August Wilson's most recent play, The Piano Lesson, the young protagonist Boy Willie declares: "That's all I wanted. To sit down and be at ease with everything. But I wasn't born to that. When I go by on the road and something ain't right, then I got to try and fix it." The speaker is the son...

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Margaret E. Glover (essay date Summer-Fall 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Two Notes on August Wilson: The Songs of A Marked Man," in Theatre, Vol. 19, No. 3, Summer-Fall, 1988, pp. 69-70.

[In the essay below, Glover examines the role of blues music in Wilson's plays.]

A black man walks into a bar. The words "for whites only" do not hang over the neon sign in the window, but as he enters he senses that the bartender and his patrons wish he were not there. He is thirsty and does not know the city well enough to look for another bar where he would be welcome. He takes a seat at the bar and orders a drink. The bartender serves him; the next song begins to play on the juke box. He recognizes the music as the same music he would hear...

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Sandra G. Shannon (essay date Fall 1989–1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Good Christian's Come and Gone: The Shifting Role of Christianity in August Wilson Plays," in MELUS, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall, 1989–1990, pp. 127-42.

[In the following essay, Shannon examines Wilson's treatment of Christianity in his plays.]

The center of African American playwright August Wilson's growing theatrical universe is conspicuously occupied by African American men. They are the thinkers, the doers, the dreamers. Revolving around them in seemingly expendable supporting roles are wives, mistresses, sisters, children and other relatives. As characters such as Levee (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom), Troy Maxson (Fences), Herald Loomis (Joe...

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Lisa Wilde (essay date Winter 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Reclaiming the Past: Narrative and Memory in August Wilson's Two Trains Running," in Theater, Vol. 22, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 73-4.

[In the following essay, Wilde studies how Wilson gives expression to the memories of African Americans in Two Trains Running.]

"All I do is try to live in the world but the world done gone crazy. I'm sorry I was ever born into it"—Sterling

May, 1969. The corner of Fullerton and Wylie Street in Pittsburgh. A small restaurant, long forgotten by the general crowds and now being readied for demolition. Outside, the world moved convulsively towards the future. But within the walls of the restaurant,...

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Frank Rich (review date 14 April 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "August Wilson Reaches the '60s With Witnesses from a Distance." in The New York Times, April 14. 1992, pp. 139-40.

[In the following review, Rich offers a largely favorable assessment of Two Trains Running.]

In Two Trains Running, the latest chapter in his decade-by-decade chronicle of black American life in this century, August Wilson arrives at a destination that burns almost too brightly in memory to pass for history. Two Trains Running is Mr. Wilson's account of the 1960's, unfurling at that moment when racial conflict and the Vietnam War were bringing the nation to the brink of self-immolation.

Yet Mr. Wilson's play, which...

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Mary L. Bogumil (essay date December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Tomorrow Never Comes': Songs of Cultural Identity in August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone," in Theatre Journal, Vol. 46, No. 4, December, 1994, pp. 463-76.

[In the following essay, Bogumil explores Wilson's handling of his characters experiences with identity, culture, ethnicity, and displacement in Joe Turner's Come and Gone.]

The subject of displacement in all its psychological vicissitudes is dramatized in August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone, a play in which the African American residents of a boarding house in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania in 1911 attempt to rediscover, repossess, and redefine themselves historically and socially as...

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James Robert Saunders (essay date December 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Essential Ambiguities in the Plays of August Wilson," in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XXXII, No. 5, December, 1995, pp. 1-12.

[In the following essay, Saunders overviews Wilson's life and career in order to illuminate the playwright's use of ambiguȯus and often paradoxical characters, details, and themes in his works.]

In a 1984 interview, August Wilson intimated that the "importance of history … is simply to find out who you are and where you've been," a task made all the more difficult for African Americans because of our history of enslavement and subsequent years of slow economic advancement. Even as we struggle to find our place in the mainstream culture,...

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Yvonne Shafer (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Breaking Barriers: August Wilson," in Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama, edited by Marc Maufort, Peter Lang, 1995, pp. 267-85.

[In the following essay, Shafer analyzes Wilson's life and his techniques as a playwright, and chronicles the stage productions of his plays.]

August Wilson is one of only seven American playwrights to win two Pulitzer Prizes, and one of only three black playwrights to receive the prize. Unlike many black playwrights he has written plays which appeal to both black and white audiences. When Ma Rainey's Black Bottom opened in 1984, Wilson was completely unknown in the theatre. In the following...

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Regina Taylor (essay date April 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "That's Why They Call It the Blues," American Theatre, Vol. 13, No. 4, April, 1996, pp. 18-23.

[In the following essay, Taylor illustrates how Wilson uses blues music and blues artists to enhance his depictions of the African American experience in his works.]

Seven Guitars begins with a blues refrain: "Does anybody here want to try my cabbage …?" The lyrics could have dropped out of the insinuating mouth of Bessie Smith herself. "All the attitudes of my characters come straight out of the blues," says August Wilson, without equivocation. "'The blues' is the bedrock."

It was when Wilson was 20 years old and living in a boarding...

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Douglas Anderson (essay date June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Saying Goodbye to the Past: Self-Empowerment and History in Joe Turner's Come and Gone," in CLA Journal, Vol. XL, No. 4, June, 1997, pp. 432-57.

[In (he following essay, Anderson explores how Joe Turner's Come and Gone is a play which illustrates that "in reclaiming the self by recovering the past, the individual becomes capable of constructing a future."]

A character in August Wilson's play Joe Turner's Come and Gone tells a story about how he was "cure[d]" of playing in guitar contests. Called out to play his guitar for an unspecified prize offered by a white man, Wilson's character does his best to demonstrate his skill against his two...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Barnes, Clive. "'Trains' Doesn't Run." New York Post (14 April 1992): 138.

Mixed assessment of Two Trains Running.

Bergesen, Eric, and William W. Demastes. "The Limits of African-American Political Realism: Baraka's Dutchman and Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." In Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition, edited by William W. Demastes, pp. 218-34. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.

Contrasts Amiri Baraka's Dutchman and Wilson's Ma Rainey as examples of two divergent styles of approaching African-American...

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