Critical Context (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)
August Wilson exploded onto the contemporary theater scene in 1984, when his first major play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, was produced on Broadway; it was a solid, if modest, success, winning a New York Drama Critics Circle Award as Broadway’s best play (in a somewhat lackluster season). With Fences (pr., pb. 1985), Wilson left no doubt that he was to become a major theatrical force. With James Earl Jones taking the starring role on Broadway in 1987, Fences won numerous awards, including a Tony for best play and the Pulitzer Prize in drama. The Piano Lesson, Wilson’s 1987 play (pb. 1990), won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in drama, as well as a New York Drama Critics Award—an award he also earned for Seven Guitars (pr. 1995, pb. 1996). He received Tony Award nominations for Seven Guitars and, in 2001, for King Hedley II (pr. 2001).
The dramatic quality of Wilson’s canon is unmistakable, but his importance in contemporary theater was also established early in his career when he announced that he intended to write a play for every decade of the twentieth century, focusing in each on a critical aspect of the black experience in America. This epic scope has in itself attracted much critical attention. Set in 1911, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is the play for the second decade of the century. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the play for the 1920’s, Fences the play for...
(The entire section is 590 words.)