August Wilson 1945–2005
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."
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.
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.
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."