Basic Facts about August Wilson
By Hinda Barlaz, Coordinator Academic Learning Services, Adelphi University
Personal Information: Born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945 in Pittsburgh, PA; son of Frederick August Kittel (a baker) and Daisy Wilson (a cleaning woman); stepfather, David Bedford.
August Wilson has created an impressionistic account of the African-American experience throughout the 20th century, with each of his plays set in a different decade.
The Pittsburgh Cycle:
- 1900s – Gem of the Ocean (2003)
- 1910s – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984)
- 1920s – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982) – set in Chicago
- 1930s – The Piano Lesson (1986) – Pulitzer Prize
- 1940s – Seven Guitars (1995)
- 1950s – Fences (1985) – Pulitzer Prize
- 1960s – Two Trains Running (1990)
- 1970s – Jitney (1979)
- 1980s – King Hedley II (2001)
- 1990s – Radio Golf (2005)
[Notes appear below—with hyperlinks and annotations]:
- Jitney (produced in Pittsburgh at the Allegheny Repertory Theatre, 1982, revised in Chicago at the Goodman Theatre, June 1999) [1970s]
- Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (produced in New Haven at the Yale Repertory Theatre, 1984; produced on Broadway, October, 1984) [1920s]
- Fences (produced at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1985; produced on Broadway, March, 1987) [1950s]
- Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (produced at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1986; produced on Broadway, March, 1988) [teens]
- The Piano Lesson (produced in New Haven at the Yale Repertory Theatre, 1987; produced on Broadway, 1990) [1930s]
- Two Trains Running (produced at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1990) [1960s]
- Seven Guitars (produced in Chicago at Goodman Theatre, 1995) 1940s]
- King Hedley II (produced in Pittsburgh at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, December 1999) [1980s]
- Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Award for best play, New York Drama Critics Circle, and Antoinette Perry (“Tony”) Award nomination, League of New York Theatres and Producers, both 1985, and Whiting Writers’ Award from the Whiting Foundation, 1986
- 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
- Joe Turner’s Come and Gone: New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play award, and Antoinette Perry Award nomination for best play, both 1988
- The Piano Lesson: Drama Desk Outstanding New Play Award, New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play Award, Antoinette Perry Award for Best Play, American Theatre Critics Outstanding Play Award, and Pulitzer Prize for drama, all 1990
- Two Trains Running: Antoinette Perry Award nomination for best play, and American Theatre Critics’ Association Award, both 1992
- Seven Guitars: New York Drama Critics Circle Award, 1996
August Wilson spent his childhood in poverty in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he lived with his parents and five siblings. Though he grew up in a poor family, Wilson felt that his parents withheld knowledge of even greater hardships they had endured. “My generation of blacks knew very little about the past of our parents,” he told the New York Times in 1984. “They shielded us from the indignities they suffered.” Wilson’s goal is to illuminate that shadowy past with a series of plays, each set in a different decade, that focus on black issues.
Wilson has noted that his real education began when he was sixteen years old. Disgusted by the racist treatment he endured in the various schools he had attended until that time, he dropped out and began educating himself in the local library. Working at menial jobs, he also pursued a literary career and successfully submitted poems to black publications at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1968 he became active in the theater by founding–despite lacking prior experience– Black Horizons on the Hill, a theater company in Pittsburgh. Recalling his early theater involvement, Wilson described himself to the New York Times as “a cultural nationalist . . . trying to raise consciousness through theater.”
According to several observers, however, Wilson found his artistic voice–and began to appreciate the black voices of Pittsburgh–after he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1978. In St. Paul Wilson wrote his first play, Jitney, a realistic drama set in a Pittsburgh taxi station. Jitney, noted for the fidelity with which it portrayed black urban speech and life, had a successful engagement at a small theater in Pittsburgh. Wilson followed Jitney with another play, Fullerton Street, but this work failed to strengthen his reputation.
Wilson then resumed work on an earlier unfinished project, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a play about a black blues singer’s exploitation of her fellow musicians. This work, whose title role is named after an actual blues singer from the 1920s, is set in a recording studio in 1927. In the studio, temperamental Ma Rainey verbally abuses the other musicians and presents herself–without justification–as an important musical figure. But much of the play is also set in a rehearsal room, where Ma Rainey’s musicians discuss their abusive employer and the hardships of life in racist America.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom earned Wilson a trip to the O’Neill Theatre Center’s National Playwrights Conference. There Wilson’s play impressed director Lloyd Richards from the Yale Repertory Theatre. Richards worked with Wilson to refine the play, and when it was presented at Yale in 1984. Wilson enjoyed further success with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom after the play came to Broadway later in 1984.
Wilson’s subsequent plays include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences, which is about a former athlete who forbids his son to accept an athletic scholarship, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which concerns an ex-convict’s efforts to find his wife. Like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, these plays underwent extensive rewriting. Guiding Wilson in this process was Lloyd Richards, dean of Yale’s drama school and director of the school’s productions of Wilson’s plays. “August is a wonderful poet,” Richards told the New York Times in 1986. “A wonderful poet turning into a playwright.” Richards added that his work with Wilson involved “clarifying” each work’s main theme and “arranging the material in a dynamic way.”
In 1990 Wilson claimed his second Pulitzer Prize, this time for The Piano Lesson. Set during the Great Depression of the 1930s, this drama pits brother against sister in a contest to decide the future of a treasured heirloom–a piano, carved with African-style portraits by their grandfather, an enslaved plantation carpenter. The brother wants to sell it to buy land, while the sister adamantly insists that the instrument carries too much family history to part with. Acclaim for the play was widespread, although some commentators were put off by the supernatural elements that came to play in the climax of this otherwise realistic piece. Wilson later adapted The Piano Lesson for a Hallmark Hall of Fame television production. It was judged a success by John J. O’Connor, who wrote in the New York Times: “If anything, The Piano Lesson is even more effective in this shortened version.”
Two Trains Running continued Wilson’s projected ten-play cycle about black American history. The play, which came to Broadway in 1992, is set in a run-down diner on the verge of being sold. Reactions by the diner’s regular patrons to the pending sale make up the body of the drama.
Two Trains Running was followed in 1995 by Seven Guitars. Set in the 1940s, it recounts the tragic story of blues guitarist Floyd Barton, whose funeral opens the play. Action then flashes back to recreate the events of Floyd’s last week of life. Seven Guitars was the first major production of a Wilson play without the direction of Richards, who was forced to abandon the project due to illness.
Discussing Wilson’s body of work, Lawrence Bommer stated in the Chicago Tribune, “August Wilson has created the most complete cultural chronicle since Balzac wrote his vast `Human Comedy,’ an artistic whole that has grown even greater than its prize-winning parts.” As for the playwright, he has repeatedly stressed that his first objective is simply getting his work produced. “All I want is for the most people to get to see this play,” he told the New York Times while discussing Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Wilson added, however, that he was not opposed to having his works performed on Broadway. He told the New York Times that Broadway “still has the connotation of Mecca” and asked, “Who doesn’t want to go to Mecca?”