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August Wilson (April 27, 1945 – October 2, 2005) was an American playwright. His literary legacy is the ten play series, The Pittsburgh Cycle, for which he received two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. Each is set in a different decade, depicting the comic and tragic aspects of the African-American experience in the twentieth century.



Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel, Jr. in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvaniamarker, the fourth of six children to German immigrant baker, Frederick August Kittel, Sr. and Daisy Wilson, an African American cleaning woman, from North Carolinamarker. Earlier, Wilson's maternal grandmother walked from North Carolina to Pennsylvania in search of a better life. His mother raised the children alone by the time he was five in a two-room apartment above a grocery store at 1727 Bedford Avenue. The economically depressed neighborhood in which he was raised was inhabited predominantly by black Americans, and Jewish and Italian immigrants. Wilson's mother was remarried to David Bedford in the 1950s when he was a teen, and the family moved from the Hill to the then predominantly white working class neighborhood, Hazelwoodmarker where they encountered racial hostility; bricks were thrown through a window at their new home. They were soon forced out of their house and on to their next home.


Wilson was the only African-American student at the Central Catholic High Schoolmarker in 1959 where he was soon driven away by threats and abuse. He then attended Connelley Vocational High School, but found the curriculum unchallenging. He dropped out of Gladstone High School in the 9th grade in 1960 after his teacher accused him of plagiarizing a 20-page paper he wrote on Napoleon I of France. He waited for his teacher and the principal of the school to apologize, but they never did. Wilson hid his decision from his mother because he did not want to disappoint her. At the age of 16, he began working menial jobs and that allowed him to meet a wide variety of people, some of whom he later based his characters on, such as Sam in The Janitor (1985).

Wilson made such extensive use of the Carnegie Librarymarker to educate himself that they later awarded him a degree, the only such one they have bestowed. Wilson, who had learned to read at age four, began reading black writers there at age 12 and spent the remainder of his teen years educating himself by reading Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, and others.


By this time, Wilson knew that he wanted to be a writer, but this created tension with his mother, who wanted him to become a lawyer. She forced him to leave the family home and he enlisted in the United States Army for a three-year stint in 1962, but left after one year and went back to working various odd jobs as a porter, short-order cook, gardener, and dishwasher.

August Kittel changed his name to August Wilson to honor his mother after his father's death in 1965. That same year he discovered the blues as sung by Bessie Smith and bought a typewriter for $10.

In 1968, Wilson co-founded the Black Horizon Theater in the Hill District of Pittsburgh along with his friend Rob Penny. His first play, Recycling, was performed for audiences in small theaters and public housing community centers. Among these early efforts was Jitney which he revised more than two decades later as part of his 10-play cycle on 20th century Pittsburgh.

In 1976 Vernell Lillie, founder of the Kuntu Repertory Theatre at the University of Pittsburghmarker two years earlier, directed Wilson's The Homecoming. That same year Wilson saw Sizwe Banzi is Dead at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, his first professional play. Wilson, Penny, and poet Maisha Baton also started the Kuntu Writers Workshop to bring African-American writers together and to assist them in publication and production. Both organizations are still active.

In 1978 Wilson moved to Saint Paul, Minnesotamarker at the suggestion of his friend director Claude Purdy, who helped him secure a job writing educational scripts for the Science Museum of Minnesotamarker. In 1980 he received a fellowship for The Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis. Wilson had a long association with the Penumbra Theatre Company of St Paul, which gave the premieres of some Wilson plays.

Wilson received many honorary degrees, including an honorary Doctor of Humanities from the University of Pittsburghmarker, where he served as a member of the University's Board of Trustees from 1992 until 1995.

Wilson's best known plays are Fences (1985) (which won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award), The Piano Lesson (1990) (a Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award), Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone.

In 1994 Wilson left St Paul for Seattlemarker, where he would develop a relationship with Seattle Repertory Theatremarker. Seattle Rep would ultimately be the only theater in the country to produce all of the works in his ten-play cycle and his one-man show How I Learned What I Learned.

The Pittsburgh Cycle

Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle," also often referred to as his "Century Cycle," consists of ten plays—nine of which are set in Pittsburgh's Hill District, an African-American neighborhood that takes on a mythic literary significance like Thomas Hardy's Wessex, William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, or Irish playwright Brian Friel's Ballybeg. The plays are each set in a different decade and aim to sketch the Black experience in the 20th century.

Although the plays of the cycle are not strictly connected to the degree of a serial story, some characters appear (at various ages) in more than one of the cycle's plays. Children of characters in earlier plays may appear in later plays. The character most frequently mentioned in the cycle is Aunt Ester, a "washer of souls". She is reported to be 285 years old in Gem of the Ocean, which takes place in her home at 1839 Wylie Avenue, and 322 in Two Trains Running. She dies in 1985, during the events of King Hedley II. Much of the action of Radio Golf revolves around the plan to demolish and redevelop that house, some years after her death. The plays often include an apparently mentally-impaired oracular character (different in each play)—for example, Hedley [Sr.] in Seven Guitars, Gabriel in Fences or Hambone in Two Trains Running.

Personal life

Wilson was married three times. His first marriage was to Brenda Burton from 1969 to 1972. They had one daughter, Sakina Ansari, born 1970. In 1981 he was married to Judy Oliver, a social worker, and divorced in 1990. Wilson's third marriage was in 1994 to costume designer, Constanza Romero, with whom he had his second daughter, Azula Carmen.

Wilson reported that he had been diagnosed with liver cancer in June 2005 and been given three to five months to live. He died on October 2, 2005 at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, and was interred at Greenwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh on October 8, 2005.


Wilson's childhood home at 1727 Bedford Avenue in Pittsburgh

The childhood home of Wilson and his five siblings, at 1727 Bedford Avenue in Pittsburgh was declared a historic landmark by the State of Pennyslvania on May 30, 2007.

In Pittsburghmarker, there is an August Wilson Center for African American Culturemarker.

On October 16, 2005, fourteen days after Wilson's death, the Virginia Theatremarker in New York City's Broadway theatremarker district was renamed the August Wilson Theatremarker. It is the first Broadway theatre to bear the name of an African-American.

The vacated Republican Street between Warren Avenue N. and 2nd Avenue N. on the Seattle Centermarker grounds has been renamed August Wilson Way.

Plays:Ten-play cycle chronicling the African-American experience in the 20th century:Gem of the Ocean,Joe Turner's Come and Gone,Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,The Piano Lesson,Seven Guitars,Fences,Two Trains Running,Jitney,King Hedley II,Radio Golf

Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, 1977 (produced St. Paul, 1981)How I Learned What I Learned (2002-03, Seattle)

Honors and awards

  • 1985: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play – Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
  • 1987: Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play – Fences
  • 1987: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play – Fences
  • 1987: Pulitzer Prize for Drama – Fences
  • 1987: Tony Award for Best Play – Fences
  • 1988: Literary Lion Award from the New York Public Library
  • 1988: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play – Joe Turner's Come and Gone
  • 1990: Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play – The Piano Lesson
  • 1990: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play – The Piano Lesson
  • 1990: Pulitzer Prize for Drama – The Piano Lesson
  • 1992: American Theatre Critics' Association Award – Two Trains Running
  • 1992: New York Drama Critics Circle Citation for Best American Play – Two Trains Running
  • 1996: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play – Seven Guitars
  • 1999: National Humanities Medal
  • 2000: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play – Jitney
  • 2000: Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play – Jitney
  • 2002: Olivier Award for Best new Play – Jitney
  • 2004: The 10th Annual Heinz Award in Arts and Humanities
  • 2004: The U.S. Comedy Arts Festival Freedom of Speech Award
  • 2005: Make Shift Award at the U.S. Confederation of Play Writers


Further reading

External links

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