August Wilson is among the most critically celebrated contemporary American playwrights. In his plays, Wilson focuses on the experiences of African Americans and the issues they confronted during each decade of the twentieth-century. For example, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is set in the 1920s, Fences in the 1950s, and The Piano Lesson in the 1930s. While noted for their examination of discrimination and injustices perpetrated against African Americans, Wilson's plays are also admired for his employment of didactic restraint. Rather than endlessly ruminate on his characters as two-dimensional victims of white America, Wilson constructs socially realistic dramas that have been compared to similarly themed works by Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller, and Amiri Baraka. In these works, Wilson examines the long-term effects of discrimination and racial bigotry on individual characters rather than on the African-American race as a whole; and asserts that remembering such injustices while mediating those painful memories with the more redemptive elements of the African-American cultural and spiritual heritage can enrich and empower black individuals. One element of this heritage that Wilson employs repeatedly in his dramas is music, either blues or jazz--both genres stemming from African musical, religious, and storytelling traditions.
Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel, in 1945, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father, a white German baker also named Frederick August Kittel, left Wilson's mother shortly after Wilson's birth. His mother, Daisy Wilson Kittel, was an African-American cleaning woman who raised her son with her five other children in a two-room apartment located above a grocery store. When she died in 1983, Wilson changed his name to his mother's maiden name. In the late 1950s, Wilson's mother married her second husband, an African American named David Bedford, who moved the family from the impoverished Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh to the mostly white suburb of Hazelwood. Wilson dropped out of high school when he was 15 years old because of the racial epithets white students and faculty used against him. He cites an unsubstantiated charge of plagiarism and his refusal to defend himself as another reason for leaving school. Because he did not tell his family that he had quit school, Wilson spent his days in a library where he educated himself in African-American history, sociology, and literature.
In 1965, Wilson moved into a rooming house and purchased a typewriter, Victrola record player, and a collection of 78 rpm blues and jazz vinyl recordings. Endeavoring to establish himself as a poet, he began publishing in several small journals, and aligned himself with the Black Power and Nation of Islam movements associated with Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. In 1968, he and writer/educator Rob Penny established the Hill Theater in Pittsburgh. He converted to Islam temporarily after marrying Brenda Burton in 1969, fathered a daughter, and divorced in 1972. In 1978, he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he wrote short plays to accompany the exhibits in the Science Museum of Minnesota. Along with charitable work as a cook for the Little Brothers of the Poor, Wilson also associated himself with the Playwrights' Center in nearby Minneapolis.
In 1982, Wilson married social worker Judy Oliver. During this period, he began submitting plays to the National Playwrights Conference of the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Connecticut. His fourth play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, was eventually accepted, and was performed by the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1984. For this and his subsequent plays, Wilson credits Lloyd Richards, Eugene O'Neill Center director and dean of the Yale School of Drama, as an instrumental collaborator who assisted on the dramatic structures and plot developments of Wilson's plays as they were prepared for their Broadway debuts.
The success of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which included winning the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and receiving an Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award nomination, was followed by the Pulitzer Prize, New York Drama Circle Critics, and Tony Award-winning drama Fences. The play also earned Wilson some notoriety when he famously rejected white film director Barry Levinson as Paramount Studios' choice to direct a film version of the play. As a result, the film was never made. Fences ran concurrently on Broadway with Wilson's next play, 1988's Joe Turner's Come and Gone. In 1990, he debuted The Piano Lesson, which won him his second Pulitzer Prize. He later adapted the play for a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" television production. He relocated to Seattle, Washington, in 1990, after his second divorce. In 1991, Wilson won a sixth New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Two Trains Running. While working on the play, he met his third wife, Constanza Romero, who was a costume designer on the production. In 1996, Wilson's Seven Guitars opened on Broadway, and King Headley II debuted in Seattle in March of 2000.
Wilson stated that he intended to write a play about each decade of the twentieth-century, and that each play would convey issues prevalent to African-American individuals during that time period. Furthermore, the majority of the works in his ten-play dramatic cycle are set in Pittsburgh. For each of his plays, Wilson has been critically commended for capturing the rhythms and cadences of African-American vernacular. The first play in the cycle, Jitney, is set in the Pittsburgh of the 1970s. His second play, Fullerton Street, remains unpublished, but is set in the 1940s. He attempted a musical satire, Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, but it also languished unpublished.
Wilson's next play, however, was Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which launched his career as one of America's most esteemed dramatists and marks the second installment, after Jitney, of his projected ten-part dramatic installment. Set in a Chicago recording studio in 1927, the play revolves around the band that lends musical support to Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, who was, in reality, among the first stars of African-American blues music. Throughout the play, the musicians discuss their mistreatment at the hands of white racists before succumbing to the frustration that leads to violence among the band members. Fences, set in Pittsburgh during the 1950s, depicts the bitterness of a middle-aged black man, Troy Maxson, who never realized his true athletic potential because of the limited opportunities available to persons of color. Unable to find a suitable outlet for his talents, Maxson resorts to robbery and assault, and subsequently spends 15 years in prison. A former player for the American Negro Baseball League, Maxson is jealous of the success of players such as Jackie Robinson who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier. His bitterness extends to his son, whom he encourages to turn down a university athletic scholarship in order to shield him from racism.
Set in 1911, Wilson's next play, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, is the dramatist's admitted favorite of all his works. In the play, black roomers at a Pittsburgh boarding house struggle to define their respective identities after leaving behind their previous lives in the Reconstruction South. Taking its title from a song by W. C. Handy, and considered one of the earliest recorded blues songs, the play and song focus on the victims of the real-life Joe Turner, the brother of Tennessee's governor at the turn of the twentieth-century. Turner allegedly used his political connections to arrest black men and force them to perform hard labor on his plantation. The play's protagonist, Loomis, lost contact with his wife and daughter while he was indentured by Turner for seven years. He eventually finds redemption when Bynum Walker, an African spiritual leader, assigns him a song, displaying Wilson's belief that knowledge and understanding of black history and customs can help create a viable and nurturing alternative to African-American despair. The Piano Lesson, set in the 1930s, deals with a brother and sister who argue over the family heirloom: a piano that features carvings by the siblings's enslaved great-grandfather to commemorate the loss of his wife and son, whom the slaveowner had traded in exchange for the piano.
Two Trains Running takes place in Pittsburgh in 1969, and details the failings of the 1960s Great Society programs to assist the African-American community. While the youth alternately embrace gambling and the teachings of Malcolm X to better their economic standing, the older men resign themselves to hard work for very little monetary compensation. Seven Guitars, set in Pittsburgh in 1948, also addresses the economic disparity suffered by black families who have relocated north hoping for employment equality. Considered the most pessimistic of Wilson's plays, Seven Guitars focuses on the exploitation of black musicians by a greedy, white-person controlled recording industry. Set in the 1990s, King Hedley II confronts the effects of urban violence on inner-city African-American families.
Wilson's dramatic body of work has inspired a wealth of critical commentary. His mainstream theatrical success is often attributed to the fact that each of his characters is a fully realized individual, rather than a caricature meant to symbolize all African Americans and their experiences. Wilson also celebrates African-American culture as a tonic for the social injustices endured by black men and women, and seldom surrenders to either rage or despair in his depictions of the negative effects of discriminatory treatment. Thematically, however, Wilson's plays retain a degree of ambiguity, which allows critics to speculate on what precisely he is trying to say about the African-American experience in contemporary America. Most critics agree, however, that Wilson excels at creating believable characters that succeed on a universal level while remaining African Americans who must contend with the legacies of black migration, culture, and spirituality. At the same time, Wilson's plays depict his belief that theater can promote social and economic change for African Americans. By the end of the 20th Century, Wilson was perceived by critics and theatergoers as one of the preeminent playwrights of contemporary American theater.
Wilson died on October 2, 2005, at a hospital in Seattle, Washington, of liver cancer. He was 60. In his honor, the Virginia Theater at 245 West 52nd St. in New York was renamed the August Wilson Theater on October 17, 2005. Of his contribution to literature, actress Whoopi Goldberg told a reporter in People, "Folks say that he wrote of the black experience. He didn't. He wrote of the human condition."
Born Frederick August Kittel, April 27, 1945, in Pittsburgh, PA; died October 2, 2005, in Seattle, Washington; son of Frederick August (a baker) and Daisy (a cleaning woman; maiden name, Wilson) Kittel; stepson of David Bedford; married Brenda Burton, 1969 (divorced, 1972); married Judy Oliver (a social worker), 1982 (divorced, 1990); married Constanza Romero (a costume designer); children: (from first marriage) daughter Sakina Ansar, (from third marriage) daughter Azula Carmen.
Co-founded (with Rob Penny) Black Horizons on the Hill, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, theater company, 1968; scriptwriter for Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota; wrote first play, Jitney, 1978; presented revised version of play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, 1984; wrote Pulitzer-Prize winning play, Fences, 1985; wrote Joe Turner's Come and Gone, 1988; wrote The Piano Lesson, 1987; wrote Two Trains Running, 1990; wrote Seven Guitars, 1996; wrote King Hedley II, 1999; wrote Radio Golf.
New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, 1985; Whiting Writers' Award from the Whiting Foundation for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, 1986; Outstanding Play Award, American Theatre Critics, Drama Desk Outstanding New Play Award, and New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play Award, all 1986, and Pulitzer Prize for drama, Antoinette Perry Award for best play, and award for best Broadway play, Outer Critics Circle, all 1987, all for Fences; New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play for Joe Turner's Come and Gone, 1988; Drama Desk Outstanding New Play Award, New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play Award, American Theatre Critics Outstanding Play Award, and Pulitzer Prize for drama, for The Piano Lesson, 1990; Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Award, 1991; American Theatre Critics' Association Award for Two Trains Running, 1992; Clarence Muse Award, 1992; New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play for Seven Guitars, 1996; recipient of Bush and Guggenheim Foundation fellowships; received Freedom of Speech Award at the 10th Annual U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, 2004; Virginia Theatre in New York City was renamed the August Wilson Theatre in his honor, 2005.
- Jitney, 1982.
- Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, New American Library, 1985.
- Fences, New American Library, 1986.
- Joe Turner's Come and Gone, New American Library, 1988.
- The Piano Lesson, New American Library, 1990.
- August Wilson: Three Plays (contains Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone),University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991.
- Two Trains Running, New American Library/Dutton, 1993.
- Seven Guitars, Dutton, 1996.
- King Hedley II, produced on Broadway at the Virginia Theater, 2001.
- Radio Golf, 2005.
Bogumil, Mary L., Understanding August Wilson, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 228: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists Second Series, Gale Group, 2000.
Nadel, Alan, ed., May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994.
Pereira, Kim, August Wilson and the African-American Odyssey, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Shannon, Sandra G., The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, Washington D.C: Howard University Press, 1995.
Wolfe, Peter, August Wilson, New York: Twayne, 1999.
African American Review, Winter 1993, p. 61; Winter 1997, p. 579 and p. 659; Summer 1997, p. 343; Summer 1998, p. 263; Fall 2000, p. 271; Spring 2001, p. 263.
American Theatre, October 1996, p. 100.
Back Stage, August 18-24, 2000, p. 32.
Black Scholar, Spring 1995, p. 30.
Christian Science Monitor, October 16, 1984, p. 29; March 27, 1987, p. 1.
Esquire, April 1989, p. 116.
Hypatia, Winter 2001, p. 64.
New Republic, May 21, 1990, p. 28.
People, October 17, 2005, p. 114.
Research in African Literatures, Winter 1999, p. 92.
Variety, October 10, 2005, p. 93; October 24, 2005, p. 38.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale Group, 2001.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale Group, 2001.