August Wilson

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 122

Discuss the role that irony plays in the plays by August Wilson that you have seen or read.

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Do you consider Wilson an angry playwright or merely a realistic one?

Discuss the roles of women in the Wilson plays that you have seen or read.

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Aristotle placed considerable emphasis on the unities of time and place in evaluating drama. Discuss these unities in the Wilson plays with which you are familiar.

What do you consider the three most important social issues in the black communities about which Wilson writes?

Discuss the part that parentage plays in Wilson’s writing.

Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in 1863. According to Wilson, were African Americans really free in the twentieth century United States?

Other Literary Forms

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Although August Wilson was known primarily for his plays, some of his poetry was published in black literary journals, such as Black World, in 1969. He published a teleplay, The Piano Lesson, in 1995, and a nonfiction work, The Ground on Which I Stand, in 2000.

Achievements

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Critics have hailed August Wilson as an authentic voice of African American culture. His plays explore the black experience historically and in the context of deeper metaphysical roots in African culture. Since 1984, his major plays have been successfully produced by regional theaters and on Broadway; in fact, he was the first African American playwright to have had two plays running on Broadway simultaneously.

Wilson received an impressive array of fellowships, awards, and honorary degrees: the Jerome Fellowship in 1980, the Bush Foundation Fellowship in 1982, membership in the New Dramatists starting in 1983, and the Rockefeller Fellowship in 1984. He was also an associate of Playwrights Center, Minneapolis, and received the McKnight Fellowship in 1985, the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1986, six New York Drama Critics Circle Awards from 1985 to 2001, the Whiting Foundation Award in 1986, the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1987 (for Fences) and 1990 (for The Piano Lesson), the Tony Award by the League of New York Theatres and Producers (for Fences), the American Theatre Critics Award in 1986, the Outer Circle Award in 1987, and the Drama Desk Award and John Gassner Award in 1987.

Wilson’s goals were “to concretize the black cultural response to the world, to place that response in loud action, so as to create a dramatic literature as powerful and sustaining as black American music.” While the form of his plays breaks no new ground, the substance and language produce powerful emotional responses. Rooted in the black experience, Wilson’s plays touch universal chords.

Bibliography

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Bigsby, C. W. E. Modern American Drama, 1945-1990. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. The author interviewed Wilson for pertinent biographical data and includes some in-depth analysis of the first four plays.

Birdwell, Christine. “Death as a Fastball on the Outside Corner: Fences’ Troy Maxson and the American Dream.” Aethlon 8 (1990). Information and critical discussion.

Bogumil, Mary L. Understanding August Wilson. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999. Bogumil provides readers with a comprehensive view of the thematic structure of Wilson’s plays, the placement of his plays within the context of American drama, and the distinctively African American experiences and traditions that Wilson dramatizes.

Brustein, Robert. Reimagining American Theatre. New York: Hill and Wang, 1991. Brustein, critic and former artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre before Lloyd Richards, is one of the few negative voices criticizing Wilson’s drama. He finds particular fault with the mechanisms and symbols of The Piano Lesson and hopes that Wilson will work to develop the poetic rather than historical aspects of his talent.

Elkins, Marilyn, ed. August Wilson: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1994. The essays investigate such thematic, artistic, and ideological concerns as Wilson’s use of the South and the black human body as metaphors; his collaboration with Lloyd Richards; the influences of the blues and other writers on his work; his creative method; and his treatment of African American family life.

Herrington, Joan. I Ain’t Sorry for Nothin’ I Done: August Wilson’s Process of Playwriting. New York: Limelight Editions, 1998. Herrington traces the roots of Wilson’s drama to visual artists such as Romare Bearden and to the jazz musicians who inspire and energize him as a dramatist. She goes on to analyze his process of playwriting—how he brings his experiences and his ideas to stage life—by comparing successive drafts of his first three major plays.

Hill, Holly. “Black Theatre into the Mainstream.” In Contemporary American Theatre, edited by Bruce King. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Hill’s analysis of the plays sets them in the context of their period.

Nadel, Alan. May All Your Fences Have Gates. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994. Nadel deals individually with five major plays and also addresses issues crucial to Wilson’s canon: the role of history, the relationship of African ritual to African American drama, gender relations in the African American community, music and cultural identity, the influence of Romare Beardern’s collages, and the politics of drama.

Pereira, Kim. August Wilson and the African-American Odyssey. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Rocha, Mark William. “August Wilson and the Four B’s: Influences.” In August Wilson: A Casebook, edited by Marilyn Elkins. New York: Garland, 1994.

Shannon, Sandra G. “Annotated Bibliography of Works by and About August Wilson.” In May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson, edited by Alan Nadel. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994.

Shannon, Sandra G. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1995.

Theater 9 (Summer/Fall, 1988). This special issue includes the script of The Piano Lesson with an earlier version of the ending, production photographs, and two informative essays. The articles “Wrestling Against History” and “The Songs of a Marked Man” explore Wilson’s themes, especially the importance of myths and superstitions.

Wolfe, Peter. August Wilson. London: Macmillan, 1999. A comprehensive analysis of Wilson’s theater. Wolfe sees the dramatist as exploding stereotypes of the ghetto poor, through his juxtapositions of the ordinary and the African American surreal, which evoke anger, affection, and sometimes hope.

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