Biography of August Wilson (1945-2005)
August Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945, in Pittsburgh, PA. His white father was not present in his childhood, and Wilson adopted his strong-willed mother's surname when he began to write. When his mother re-married, Wilson moved to a mostly white suburb, and experienced the extent of racism in the school system. After two more schools, he dropped out, and began to self-educate himself at the library.
In his twenties, Wilson decided he would be a poet, and had a few poems published in magazines. He also became familiar with and was influenced by the Black Power movement, and with some other poets he founded a theater company that served the Hill District of Pittsburgh. Still focusing primarily on his poetry, Wilson did not begin writing plays seriously until 1978, when he got a job adapting Native American folk tales into children's plays for a museum in St. Paul. Homesick for Pittsburgh, he began to write Jitney, which was first produced in 1982. It was quickly followed by Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and the rest of Wilson's prolific output followed from there.
The next two decades were devoted to Wilson's major theatrical cycle, consisting of ten plays that chronicle the African American experience in America. Each play focuses on a different decade of the twentieth century, and all but Ma Rainey take place in Wilson's beloved Hill District of Pittsburgh.
Wilson's plays were quickly embraced by the theatrical mainstream - particularly the white mainstream, which caused Wilson no little distress and initiated a series of conflicts in which he insisted on the support and development of a black theater. But nearly all of his major plays were produced on Broadway (all except Jitney), and he received a Tony award for Fences, two Pulitzers for Fences and The Piano Lesson, and seven New York Drama Critics' Circle awards. His plays ran for nearly 1,800 performances on Broadway altogether, and some - particularly Fences - were very financially successful.
In his work, Wilson concentrated on the daily lives of average African Americans, but gave particularly poetic, lyrical voices to the lower class service workers who dominate the Hill District. His works are unique for consistently bringing out the angry, bitter stories of the poor and marginalized in a fashion that was accepted by the mainstream, while remaining politically and socially honest.
In 2005, Wilson died of liver cancer at the age of 60. The last play of his cycle, Radio Golf, opened at Yale Rep just months before he died, and moved to Broadway in 2007. In his honor, Broadway's Virginia Theater has been renamed the August Wilson Theater.