Many playwrights have attempted to capture different aspects of the African American experience at various times in the 20th century. August Wilson managed to capture the whole century, decade by decade, and his stories only had to venture outside of Pittsburgh once.
Born Frank August Kittel, Jr. on April 27, 1945 in Pittsburgh, August Wilson is most famous for a series of ten plays widely known as The Pittsburgh Cycle. Each one of the plays in the cycle represents a different decade of the 20th century. Though all are set in Pittsburgh with the exception of one (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, set in Chicago), they convey a universally recognizable African American experience. Wilson was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, a Tony Award and many other accolades for his groundbreaking work.
Wilson was the son of a German immigrant pastry cook and an African American cleaning woman. He was the fourth of six children, raised mostly by his mother in his early childhood; his father was largely absent. His mother would later divorce and remarry in the 1950s, and Wilson’s circumstances would change for the better – or so one would think. The family moved to a predominantly white working-class neighborhood, where they experienced such hostility that they were forced to move again.
After changing high schools multiple times and being driven away by either racially charged threats or boredom each time, Wilson dropped out altogether in the 10th grade after he was accused of plagiarism of a paper on Napoleon I of France. Out of school and forced by his circumstances to work menial jobs, Wilson began educating himself at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. He used the library so extensively that it would later award him a degree, which it had never done before nor has it ever done since.
After his father’s death in 1965, Wilson changed his name to honor his mother. He bought a stolen typewriter for $10 and began to write. He began by writing poetry but soon made the leap to plays. Wilson was greatly influenced by Malcolm X and the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, as well as Black Nationalist leaders such as Marcus Garvey who advocated Blacks separating and forming their own independent nation. in 1969, Wilson married Brenda Burton, a Muslim, and converted to Islam himself. The couple had one child together, Sakina Ansari-Wilson. They divorced in 1972.
Wilson and a friend, Rob Penny, co-founded Black Horizon Theater in 1968, in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where Wilson spent much of his earlier years growing up. Black Horizon Theater was a community based Black Nationalist theater company that performed in small theaters, schools and community centers of public housing projects. Wilson’s first play, Recycling, ran at these varying locations for 50 cents a ticket.
In 1976, however, things started to change. Vernell Lillie, founder of the Kuntu Repertory Theatre at the University of Pittsburgh, directed The Homecoming, written by Wilson. Although he was already writing plays himself, August Wilson had never seen a professional play. This would change too. Wilson saw South African playwright Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi is Dead at the Pittsburgh Public Theater that year. He was also part of a group that spearheaded the Kuntu Writers Workshop, an entity designed to assist African American writers in publishing and producing their work and to facilitate networking with one another. Both the Kuntu Repertory Theatre and the Kuntu Writers Workshop are still in existence and functioning today.
After moving to Minnesota and spending more than a decade writing there, Wilson, divorced again, moved to Seattle. He connected with the Seattle Repertory Theatre, which would go on to produce all ten plays in The Pittsburgh Cycle. The theatre also produced his one-man show, How I Learned What I Learned.
The Pittsburgh Cycle consists of the following works:
- 1900s – Gem of the Ocean (2003)
- 1910s – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1988)
- 1920s – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984) – set in Chicago
- 1930s – The Piano Lesson (1990)
- 1940s – Seven Guitars (1995)
- 1950s – Fences (1987)
- 1960s – Two Trains Running (1991)
- 1970s – Jitney (1982)
- 1980s – King Hedley II (1999)
- 1990s – Radio Golf (2005)
Wilson was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2005. He died in Seattle on October 2, 2005. At the time of his death, he was married to his third wife, Costanza Romero. They had one daughter together. He is buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Pittsburgh.
Brian C. Scott