August Wilson Biography
Plays Explored African-American Identity, Pursued Writing from a Young Age
August Wilson carved his signature on American theater by capturing the changing texture of black life in America his ten plays, each covering a different decade of the twentieth century. About his achievement, he remarked in American Theatre: "From the beginning, I decided not to write about historical events or the pathologies of the black community. The details of our struggle to survive and prosper, in what has been a difficult and sometimes bitter relationship with a system of laws and practices that deny us access to the tools necessary for productive and industrious life, are available to any serious student of history or sociology. Instead, I wanted to present the unique particulars of black American culture as the transformation of impulse and sensibility into codes of conduct and response, into cultural rituals that defined and celebrated ourselves as men and women of high purpose." He did. And the skill with which he did won him two Pulitzer Prizes, a Tony Award, and seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, in addition to twenty-three honorary degrees.
When Wilson began writing his plays, he had little experience with theater, having only seen two plays, and no formal training. Unencumbered by theatrical history, Wilson created his own rules for his plays. Wilson had no particular method of writing his plays, but admitted to relying on what he called the "4 B's": the Blues; fellow playwright, Amiri Baraka; author, Jorge Luis Borges, and painter, Romare Bearden, to tell what he needs to tell. Regarding Bearden, Wilson claimed, "When I saw his work, it was the first time that I had seen black life presented in all its richness, and I said, 'I want to do that—I want my plays to be the equal of his canvases.'" His ingenuity has forever changed American theater.
Plays Explored African-American Identity
Called "one of the most important voices in the American theater today" in the 1980s by Mervyn Rothstein in the New York Times, August Wilson's legacy will be as a giant of American theater. As James Earl Jones wrote in Time, Wilson "didn't just write a great play, he has written volumes of good, better and best plays." He wrote a string of acclaimed plays since his Ma Rainey's Black Bottom first excited the theater world in 1984. His authentic sounding characters have brought a new understanding of the black experience to audiences in a series of plays, each one addressing people of color in each decade of the twentieth century. Although Wilson's "decade" plays were not written in chronological order, the consistent, and key, theme in Wilson's dramas is the sense of disconnection suffered by blacks uprooted from their original homeland. He told the Chicago Tribune that "by not developing their own tradition, a more African response to the world, [African Americans] lost their sense of identity." Wilson devoted himself to helping black people know their roots in order to help them understand themselves, and his plays demonstrate the black struggle to gain this understanding—or escape from it. Charles Whittaker, a critic for Ebony in 2001 wrote, "Each of the eight plays he has produced to date is set in a different decade of the 20th century, a device that has enabled Wilson to explore, often in very subtle ways, the myriad and mutating forms of the legacy of slavery."
Most of the ideas for Wilson's plays came from images, snippets of conversation, or lyrics from blues songs captured by his ever-vigilant writer's eye and ear. Virtually all of his characters end up singing the blues to show their feelings at key moments during his plays. The play Fences evolved from his seeing an image of a man holding a baby, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone from the depiction of a struggling mill hand in a collage by acclaimed black painter Romare Bearden, whom Wilson has cited as a particularly strong influence on his work. The blues always had the greatest influence on Wilson, however. "I have always consciously been chasing the musicians," Wilson told interviewer Sandra G. Shannon in African American Review. "It's like our culture is in the music. And the writers are way behind the musicians I see. So I'm trying to close the gap."
August Wilson grew up as the fourth of six children in a black slum of Pittsburgh, his home a two-room apartment without hot water or a telephone. Relying on welfare checks and wages from house cleaning jobs, his mother, Daisy Wilson, managed to keep her children clothed and fed. August's father, Frederick August Kittel, a baker by trade, was a white German immigrant who never lived with the family and rarely made an appearance at the apartment. August Wilson officially erased his connection to his real father when he adopted his mother's name in the 1970s. David Bedford became Wilson's stepfather when the boy was a teenager, but their relationship was rocky. An exconvict whose race prevented him from earning a football scholarship to college, Bedford would become a source for the play Fences, whose protagonist is a former baseball player blocked from the major leagues by segregation.
Learning to read at the age of four, Wilson consumed books voraciously. At first he read the Nancy Drew mysteries his mother managed to buy for the family, but by age 12 he was a regular at the local library. Despite his interest in the written word, August Wilson was an unexceptional student who developed a reputation for yelling answers out of turn in class. The mostly white parochial high school he attended also gave him a harsh dose of racism. When he turned in a well-written term paper on Napoleon, Wilson was accused of plagiarism by a teacher who would not believe a black child could do that well on his own. Wilson would often find notes on his desk reading "Nigger go home." At home, his family had to endure racial taunts when they moved to the mostly white Hazelwood area of Pittsburgh.
Pursued Writing from a Young Age
At age 15, sick of the racism that surrounded him, Wilson dropped out of school and began to educate himself, beginning in the "Negro" section of the public library. Reading works by Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, and other black writers, Wilson was caught up in the power of words. His fascination with language made him an avid listener, and he soaked up the conversations he overheard in coffee shops and on street corners, using the tidbits of conversations to construct stories in his head.
By his late teens, Wilson had dedicated himself to the task of becoming a writer. His mother wanted him to become a lawyer, but when her son continued to work at odd jobs, she got fed up with what she considered his lack of direction and kicked him out of the house. He enlisted in the U.S. Army, but somehow got himself discharged a year later. At age 20 he moved into a boarding house and began writing lines of poetry on paper bags while sitting in a local restaurant, gathering inspiration from tales swapped by elderly men at a nearby cigar store.
The symbolic starting point of Wilson's serious writing career came in 1965 when he bought a used typewriter, paying for it with 20 dollars that his sister gave him for writing her a rush term paper on Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. Wilson immersed himself in the works of Dylan Thomas and John Berryman. He also loved Amiri Baraka's poems and plays because of their lively rhythms and street-smart language. Although some of Wilson's poems were published in some small magazines over the next few years, he failed to achieve recognition as a poet.
In the late 1960s, Wilson discovered the writings of Malcolm X and, according to Chip Brown in Esquire, took up the banner of cultural nationalism. "Cultural nationalism meant black people working toward self-definition, self-determination," Wilson told Brown. "It meant that we had a culture that was valid and that we weren't willing to trade it to participate in the American Dream." In 1969 Wilson and Rob Penny, a playwright and teacher, founded the black activist theater company Black Horizons on the Hill, which focused on politicizing the community and raising black consciousness. Black Horizons gave Wilson the chance to present his own early plays, mostly in public schools and community centers. Wilson never fully embraced the religion of Black Nationalism, however, which contributed to the failure of his first marriage to Brenda Burton, a member of the Muslim Nation of Islam.
Found His Voice in His First Play
To find the voice that would make him famous as a playwright, Wilson needed to gain distance from his roots. This opportunity came in 1978 when he visited his friend Claude Purdy in St. Paul, Minnesota, and decided to stay there. Purdy urged Wilson to write a play and Wilson felt more ready than ever before. "Having moved from Pittsburgh to St. Paul, I felt I could hear voices for the first time accurately," he told the New York Times. In ten days of writing while sitting in a fish-and-chips restaurant, Wilson finished a draft of Jitney, a play set in a gypsy-cab station. He submitted the play to the Minneapolis Playwrights Center and won a $200-a-month fellowship.
Jitney and Wilson's next work, Fullerton Street, were produced at the Allegheny Repertory Theater in Pittsburgh. Jitney earned Wilson acceptance at the 1982 National Playwrights Conference, where he honed his rewriting skills. Now convinced that he was going somewhere, he quit his job writing scripts for the Science Museum of Minnesota so he could have more time to compose his own works. Financial support was provided primarily by his second wife, Judy Oliver, who was a social worker.
Wilson's breakthrough came with the combination of a good play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and a supportive director, Lloyd Richards, artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater. The play came to Richards's attention at the National Playwrights Conference in 1983. "The talent was unmistakable," Richards told Brown. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom began a long collaboration between the seasoned director and the novice playwright: Richards has gone on to direct all of Wilson's plays. He has also served as spokesperson and promoter for the publicity-shy Wilson, and as the father he never had. Wilson explained their relationship to Shannon: "Another way I look at it, since I love boxing, is that I am the boxer and he is the trainer. He's my trainer—'My boy August will get them.'"
Found Fame with "Ma Rainey"
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom tapped the playwright's interest in the blues and its importance in American black history. He told Newsday in 1987, "I see the blues as a book of literature and it influences everything I do…. Blacks' cultural response to the world is contained in blues." His interest in blues singer Gertrude "Ma" Rainey went back to 1965, when he heard a recording by Bessie Smith, who had taken lessons from Rainey. Set in 1927, the play deals with how black singers were exploited by whites who took in the lion's share of profits generated by these entertainers. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom opened on Broadway at the Cort Theatre in 1984 and was a popular and critical success, running for 275 performances. In his review, Frank Rich of the New York Times called it "a searing inside account of what white racism does to its victims." Critics offered high praise of Wilson's true-to-life dialogue, although some complained that the play was too talky.
Wilson's next play, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, is about a freed black man who comes north to search for his wife, who disappeared during his enslavement. It focuses on the theme of African Americans moving from the agricultural South to a new set of hardships in the industrial cities of the North in the early twentieth century. Joe Turner expresses Wilson's belief that blacks would have been stronger if they had not migrated from country to city, since they came from agrarian roots in Africa. Although the play failed at the box office, many critics loved it. Rich's review in the New York Times in 1986 said that it was "as rich in religious feeling as in historical detail."
Wilson struck gold with Fences, which hit Broadway while Joe Turner was still playing there. Set in the 1950s, its subject is Troy Maxson, a trash collector whose dreams of playing professional baseball were thwarted by white racism. Maxson's bitterness leads him to deny his son the athletic success that was not possible for blacks in the past. The title demonstrates Wilson's concern with choices and responsibility, since fences can keep people in as well as out. Like all of Wilson's characters, Maxson is a complex man who, while having moral lapses, also worked hard to provide for his family. The play, which won the Pulitzer Prize and other awards, opened on Broadway in 1987 with James Earl Jones in the starring role.
When Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for The Piano Lesson in 1990, he became the seventh playwright to win at least twice. A largely realistic play, The Piano Lesson focuses on a family conflict over an heirloom piano. Berniece Charles's slave ancestors were traded for the piano, and another family member carved African-style portraits of them on it. Later Berniece's father died reclaiming it. Now Berniece's brother Boy Willie wants to sell it to buy farmland, and the issue threatens to tear the family apart. A Time critic hailed it as Wilson's "richest" play yet.
In Two Trains Running, which opened in New York City in 1992, Wilson probed the turbulent era of the late 1960s, when racial strife and the Vietnam War convulsed the nation. While many critics considered the play overly metaphorical and lacking in a strong female character, Rich called it Wilson's "most adventurous and honest attempt to reveal the intimate heart of history" and "a penetrating revelation of a world hidden from view to those outside it." William A. Henry III added in Time magazine that it was "Wilson's most delicate and mature work."
Dignified Characters Developed Complex
Wilson's plays clearly demonstrate the tensions between blacks who want to hold onto their African heritage and those who want to break away from it. As a result of being pulled in different directions, violence often breaks out among blacks in Wilson's plays, yet that violence is often misdirected. Wilson dramatized this dilemma in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, when the character Levee stabs a fellow musician who unintentionally stepped on his shoe, instead of attacking the white man who had stolen his music. When Cory Maxson threatens to assail his father with a baseball bat in Fences, he mocks his father's manhood and shows the futility of his past as a Negro baseball player. Wilson devoted his career to dramatizing these tensions within the black community while at the same time upholding the dignity of the individuals as they struggled with their past.
During the early 1990s, Wilson wrote Seven Guitars, a play that takes place during the post-World War II years. Seven Guitars features the story of a blues guitarist, who is murdered, and his circle of friends. The friends gather at the wake, and their stories are told in flashback form. Interestingly, Wilson often introduces characters in his plays that become the main characters in subsequent plays. In Seven Guitars King Hedley was "a cracked old man who sees ghosts" and becomes obsessed with fathering a child, a "new Messiah." Wilson's next play, King Hedley II, takes place in the 1980s. The character King Hedley II is an ex-con who returns home and must deal with his past as well as figure out how to go "ligit." King Hedley II was first seen in the fall of 1999 at the Pittsburgh Public Theater and made it to Broadway in the summer of 2001, playing for twelve weeks. By that time Wilson had already constructed the framework for his next play whose main character, who was alluded to in King Hedley II, is a 366-year-old mystical woman, Aunt Esther.
Aunt Esther presides over Gem of the Ocean, a story about the still oppressive life for former slaves post-Civil War Pittsburgh. Set in the first decade of the twentieth century, it is the predecessor of his other plays. The story weaves an elaborate tale of the ancient Aunt Esther taking Citizen Barlow, who is desperately trying to claim the freedom afforded him by Abraham Lincoln in 1865, on a magical trip in a boat made out of her bill of sale from slavery. It premiered in Chicago in 2003 and made it to Broadway in the winter of 2004, his eighth play to land on the famed avenue in twenty years. Ben Brantley of the New York Times called Gem "a touchstone for everything else he has written."
The last of his 100-year project, Radio Golf, premiered at the Yale Repertory Theater in 2005. Set in the 1990s, Radio Golf concluded his saga with a calling to black Americans to concern themselves with their community. The story involves the efforts two black businessmen as they struggle to navigate the political and economic challenges for the construction of a new commercial development. Wilson discussed his motivation for writing Radio Golf with Suzan-Lori Parks in American Theatre, saying "One of the things with Radio Golf is that I realized I had to in some way deal with the black middle class, which for the most part is not in the other nine plays. My idea was that the black middle class seems to be divorcing themselves from that community, making their fortune on their own without recognizing or acknowledging their connection to the larger community." Critics praised the play as a triumph; artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre David Esbjornson told Variety: "I think it's one of his best pieces." But discussion of the play was overshadowed in the press by public concern for the playwright's health, which had begun to decline during preparations for the play's premiere.
Led Motivated Life
August Wilson had refused to give in to the temptations of Hollywood. He moved to Seattle in 1994, where he focused intently on his play writing. Wilson remarked that he rarely watched television, went to the movies, or even attended plays. His daily routine consisted of writing longhand while sitting in restaurants starting around noon, then typing up his work at night, often until 4:00 a.m. Wilson never let his success alter his work. He told the New York Times: "I always tell people I'm a struggling playwright. I'm struggling to get the next play down on paper." This focus enabled him to be one of the most prolific writers for the American theater.
Diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer in 2005, Wilson died in Seattle on October 2, 2005. The American theater community publicly mourned his passing. "He was a giant figure in American theater," the playwright Tony Kushner said, according to the New York Times. "Heroic is not a word one uses often without embarrassment to describe a writer or playwright, but the diligence and ferocity of effort behind the creation of his body of work is really an epic story." "The death of August Wilson does not simply leave a hole in the American theater," Peter Marks wrote in the Washington Post, "but a huge yawning wound, one that will have to wait to be stitched closed by some expansive, poetic dramatist yet to emerge." In honor of Wilson's achievements, the Virginia Theater on Broadway was renamed the August Wilson Theater on October 17, 2005.
Jitney, first produced at Allegheny Repertory Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA, 1982.
Fullerton Street, produced at Allegheny Repertory Theater.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, first produced at Yale Repertory Theater, New Haven, CT, 1984; produced on Broadway at Cort Theatre, October, 1984.
Fences, first produced at Yale Repertory Theater, 1985; produced on Broadway at 46th Street Theatre, March, 1987.
Joe Turner's Come and Gone, first produced at Yale Repertory Theater, 1986; produced on Broadway at Barrymore Theatre, March, 1988.
The Piano Lesson, first produced at Yale Repertory Theater, 1987; produced on Broadway at Walter Kerr Theatre, 1990.
Two Trains Running, first produced at Yale Repertory Theater, 1991; produced on Broadway at Walter Kerr Theatre, 1992.
Seven Guitars, first produced in 1996.
King Hedley II, first produced at Pittsburgh Public Theater, 1999.
Gem of the Ocean, first produced in Chicago, 2003; produced on Broadway at Walter Kerr Theatre, 2004.
Radio Golf, premiered at the Yale Repertory Theater, 2005.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, New American Library, 1985.
Fences, New American Library, 1986.
Joe Turner's Come and Gone, New American Library, 1988.
The Piano Lesson, Dutton, 1990.
Three Plays (contains Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991.
Two Trains Running, Dutton, 1992.
Seven Guitars, Dutton, 1996.
The Ground on which I Stand, New York Theatre Communications Group, 2001.
Jitney, Overlook Press, 2001.
King Hedley II, Theatre Communications Group, 2005.
Bloom, Harold, ed. August Wilson, Chelsea House, 2002.
Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992.
Contemporary Dramatists, 6th ed. St. James Press, 1999.
Shannon, Sandra G., The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, Howard University Press, 1994.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen, August Wilson: A Literary Companion, McFarland, 2004.
Wolfe, Peter, August Wilson, Twayne, 1999.
African American Review, Vol. 27, No. 4, 1994, pp. 539-59; Spring 2001, p. 93.
American Theatre, September, 1996, p. 14; May-June 2003, p. 20; November 2005, p. 26.
American Visions, August 2000, p. 14.
Chicago Tribune, September 16, 1984, p. 13.
Commonweal, July 13, 1990, p. 422.
Contemporary Literature, Spring 1999, p. 1.
Ebony, September 2001, p. 80.
Esquire, April 1989, pp. 116-27.
Essence, August 2001, p. 58.
Nation, June 11, 1990, p. 832; June 8, 1992, p. 799.
New Leader, June 3, 1996, p. 23; July, 2001, p. 45.
New Republic, May 21, 1990, pp. 28-30.
New Yorker, April 30, 1990, pp. 82-83.
New York Newsday, March 27, 1987, sec. 2, p. 11; April 20, 1987, p. 47.
New York Times, October 22, 1984, p. C12; April 15, 1990, pp. B1, B8; April 14, 1992, pp. C13, C17; June 3, 1992, pp. C1, C8; December 7, 2004, p. E1; October 3, 2005, p. A1; October 4, 2005, p. E4.
New York Times Magazine, March 15, 1987, pp. 36-40, 49, 70; September 10, 1989, pp. 18-19, 58-60.
People Weekly, May 13, 1996, p. 63.
St. Louis Dispatch, January 6, 2002, pp. G1, D4.
Tennessee Tribune, September 22, 2005, p. C10.
Theater, Fall-Winter 1984, pp. 50-55.
Time, April 23, 1990, p. 99; April 27, 1992, pp. 65-66; July 9, 2001, p. 84; May 2, 2005, p. 66.
Variety, October 10-16, 2005, p. 89.
Washington Post, December 19, 2004, p. N1; October 4, 2005, p. C1.
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