August Wilson



  • (Frederick August Kittel Jr; 1945 - 2005) US playwright, whose monumental Pittsburgh Cycle chronicles the experience of African-Americans over the course of the 20th century. Wilson was born in Pittsburgh, the son of a Black American cleaning woman and a German immigrant baker, of whom he saw little. Although a compulsive reader and autodidact, Wilson was forced out of one school by racial threats and dropped out of another when falsely accused of plagiarism. For the next decade he worked in a series of menial jobs while attempting to make a name as a poet. In 1968 he co-founded the Black Horizon Theatre in Pittsburgh, a community-based theater inspired by the ideas of Malcolm X and the Black Muslims. Having learned the basics of stagecraft from a library book, Wilson directed several plays for the theater and wrote the one-act Recycle, which was produced there in 1973.

    Nevertheless, Wilson's career as a playwright did not begin in earnest until the late 1970s, when he moved to Minnesota and in an apparent fit of homesickness began to write Jitney, a play set in a run-down cab station in Pittsburgh. The play was staged in his native city in 1982 and provided the starting point for his Pittsburgh Cycle - a series of ten plays, each setin a different decade of the 20th century and all but one in the Hill, the multiracial district in which he grew up. The plays do not tell a continuous story but there are recurring characters - most notably Aunt Ester Tyler,a folk priestess who claims to be over 200 years old. The dominant mode is social realism, but there is a strong vein of symbolism and touches of the apparently supernatural.

    Wilson found a wide audience with the second play in the cycle, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1982), which deals with the exploitation of Black musicians by the recording industry in the 1920s. The play transferred to Broadway, as did all its successors, and earned the New York Drama critics' circle Award - the first of seven for the series as a whole. Fences (1983), a play about the troubled family life of a former baseball player, notched up 525 performances on Broadway and earned Wilson the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for drama. The series then continued with Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1984), The Piano Lesson (1987), a Depression-era story that brought Wilson a second Pulitzer, Two Trains Running (1990), set against the background of the 1960s Civil rights movement, Seven Guitars (1994), and King Hedley II (1999); finally, Wilson bookended the series with Gem of the Ocean (2002), set at the start of the 20th century, and Radio Golf (2005), which deals with attempts to buy up and regenerate the area in the 1990s.

    The cycle as a whole was instantly recognized as an epic achievement to rank with the work of O'Neill, Williams, and Arthur Miller. However, the finalplay had barely been produced when Wilson announced that he had months to live.An immediate decision was made to rename Broadway's Virginia the August Wilson Theatre in his honour.