August Wilson was an award- winning American playwright who chronicled the African-American experience through a series of ten plays. He was born Frederick August Kittel, Jr. on April 27, 1945 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, PA. His father was a German immigrant named Frederick August Kittel and his mother was an African- American woman named Daisy Wilson.
From a young age, Wilson began to read such writers as WEB DuBois, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright, which influenced his own writing. Mainly self-educated, and after holding various jobs, Mr. Wilson became involved with Rob Penny in Black Horizons on the Hill, a Pittsburgh theater company, in the late 1960s.
Mr. Wilson is best known for 10 plays. Known as The Pittsburgh Cycle, each play is set in a different decade of the 20th Century, chronicling the AfricanAmerican experience. Nine of the ten plays are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, near Wilson’s childhood home. The only exception is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which is located in Chicago.
A List of Mr. Wilson’s Plays (in historical order):
- 1904 – Gem of the Ocean
- 1911 – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
- 1927 – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
- 1936 – The Piano Lesson
- 1948 – Seven Guitars
- 1957 – Fences
- 1969 – Two Trains Running
- 1977 – Jitney
- 1985 – King Hedley II
- 1997 – Radio Golf
A List of Mr. Wilson’s Plays (in written order):
- 1979 – Jitney
- 1982 – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
- 1983 – Fences
- 1984 – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
- 1986 – The Piano Lesson
- 1990 – Two Trains Running
- 1995 – Seven Guitars
- 2001 – King Hedley II
- 2003 – Gem of the Ocean
- 2005 – Radio Golf
Here is the entire rubric. The dates signify the decade in which the
play occurs, followed by the title. The parentheses indicate the year
the play was actually written, and the number in brackets indicates the
numerical order in which the plays were written.
- 1904 – Gem of the Ocean (2003) 
- 1911 – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984) 
- 1927 – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982) 
- 1936 – The Piano Lesson (1986) 
- 1948 – Seven Guitars (1995) 
- 1957 – Fences (1983) 
- 1969 – Two Trains Running (1990) 
- 1977 – Jitney (1979) 
- 1985 – King Hedley II (2001) 
- 1997 – Radio Golf (2005) 
Awards and Nominations:
1985: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
1985:Tony Award nomination 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
1988: Tony Award nomination 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:Tony Award nomination 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
1992:Tony Award nomination for Best Play, Two Trains Running
1996: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, Seven Guitars
1996:Tony Award nomination 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
2001: Tony Award nomination for Best Play, King Hedley II
Romare Bearden (September 2, 1911 – March 12, 1988) was
anAfrican-American artist and writer. He worked in several
media including cartoons, oils, and collage.
Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina. His family
moved him to New York City as a toddler, and their
household soon became a meeting place for major figures
of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1929 he graduated from
Peabody High School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He
completed his studies at New York University (NYU),
graduating with a degree in science and education in 1935.
After he started to focus more on his art and less on
athletics, he took courses in art that led to him being a lead
cartoonist and art editor for the Eucleian Society’s (a
secretive student society at NYU) monthly journal, The
The male character at the left
of Bearden’s collage, “Mill
Hand’s Lunch,” inspired the
character of Herald Loomis in
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
Wilson’s play, The Piano Lesson, was directly inspired by Bearden’s collage of the same name.
Wilson and Bearden both included
imagery associated with Blues
music, as well as depictions of
African Americans, in family
situations, doing ordinary things.
The idea to write one play for each decade of the 20th Century occurred to
Wilson after he finished Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
In an interview with Sandra Shannon1
, Wilson said, “Well, actually, I didn’t
start out with a grand idea. I wrote a play called Jitney! set in ’77 and a play
called Fullerton Street that I set in ’41. Then I wrote Ma Rainey’s Black
Bottom, which I set in ’27, and it was after I did that I said, ‘I’ve written
three plays in three different decades, so why don’t I just continue to do
Fullerton Street and Jitney! were both submitted to the Eugene O’Neill
Theater Center’s National Playwright’s Conference. Both were rejected.
“Maybe these plays are not as good as I think they are,” Wilson thought. “I
have to write a better play, but how the hell do you do that?”
Wilson realized that Jitney! (in its original form) “wasn’t big enough,” and
Fullerton Street was, in Wilson’s own words, “epic and too unwieldy.”
So he sat down and wrote Ma Rainey and sent it to the O’Neill Conference.
They accepted it. His career bloomed after that success.
The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson by Sandra Shannon
To date, much of my personal research has involved Wilson’s development
of a new mythology for people of African descent living in America.
My starting point is Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an African American scholar at
Harvard, who writes, “It is the black poet who bridges the gap in
tradition, who modifies tradition when experience demands it, who
translates experience into meaning and meaning into belief.”2
Wilson himself amplifies this notion in an interview with Trudier Harris ,
when he says, “The one thing we did not have as black Americans was a
Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
“August Wilson’s Folk Traditions” by Trudier Harris
Wilson’s emerging mythology re-inscribes the
cultural symbolic landscape, providing a new sign
system where blacks can flourish and grow in
their own way, according to their own values,
their own rhythms, their own beliefs, and their
own language. It’s part music, part history, part
politics, and part fable. It’s a sociology lesson and
a celebration. It’s the creation of cultural myth.
Specifically, I argue that Wilson’s dramatic technique
follows a certain pattern. He consistently takes
pejorative, racist stereotypes and turns them into
holy archetypes—sacred symbols which are
imbued with new meaning and power—and,
most importantly, are direct products of the
African American experience.
For example, The Piano Lesson begins with Boy Willie
and Lymon Jackson driving a truckload of
watermelon from the American south to Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania. Typically, the connection between
American blacks and watermelons has long been
ugly, stereotypical, and racist.
Wilson, however, does not shy away from the subject
matter. The audience learns that the watermelons
are going to serve Boy Willie in an important way:
Once sold, the money from the melons is going to be
combined with money that Boy Willie already has.
Once he sells the family’s heirloom (and titular)
piano, Boy Willie will have enough money to “buy
some land” and have a future.
In this way, the watermelons are rescued by Wilson as they move beyond
the derogatory stereotype that white history has assigned, toward a
more sacred “archetypal” role within Wilson’s mythology. In other words,
the watermelons become essential and holy, rather than representations
of poverty and bigotry.
And instead of attempting to hide or ignore the role of such stereotypes
within the African American experience, Wilson celebrates them and
gives them value as part of the social fabric and history.
- Early in 2005, Mr. Wilson was diagnosed
with liver cancer. He passed away on October
2 of that year. His legacy lives on, however,
through his plays and the lives he touched.
- From AugustWilson.net: “Mournfully, his
bright light shines no more. The man who
made us laugh, made us cry, and gave the
world tremendous insight into the rich world of
African American music, culture, and values
passed away on Sunday, October 2, 2005 at
Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, WA. He
was surrounded by his family at the time of his
passing. Mr. Wilson was 60.”
About the author
My name is Dr. Michael Downing and I’m an English Professor at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania (about an hour north of Philadelphia). I have been studying Mr. Wilson’s life and work since 1992. Back then, I lived and taught in Pittsburgh and attended numerous Wilson plays at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Since then, I have taught, published, and delivered scholarly presentations related to Mr. Wilson and his plays. I also maintain several web presences on Mr. Wilson, which you can find on the following slide.