Last reviewed: June 2017
April 27, 1945
October 2, 2005
August Wilson’s long-range project—a cycle of ten plays about the African American experience, one taking place in each decade of the twentieth century—chronicles the struggle of the black family to reconcile the pressures to integrate into white society with the desire (and, Wilson would say, need) to retain their heritage. Himself a child of mixed parentage, he was born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945, in Pittsburgh’s Hill District to a German baker and Daisy Wilson, a black woman originally from North Carolina. Reared by his mother and his black stepfather, David Bedford, Wilson dropped out of high school at the age of fifteen, preferring to educate himself in the public library, where he read all the works he found on a shelf marked “Negro,” including novels and essays by Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and others, as well as the work of such poets as Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and Amiri Baraka.
Wilson’s sensitivity to the problems facing black Americans shows the influence of the black power movement of the late 1960s, and he referred to himself as a black nationalist. With his longtime friend Rob Penny, Wilson cofounded the company Black Horizon on the Hill Theatre. Wilson was, however, a poet first, and he began publishing in black literary journals as early as 1971. His connection with Penumbra, a black theater in St. Paul, brought Wilson to Minnesota in 1978, where he lived until moving to Seattle in 1990. Wilson lived in Seattle until his death from liver cancer in 2005. August Wilson
Wilson wrote Jitney, a play set in the 1970s about the drivers of an unlicensed taxi service, in 1979. It premiered in 1982 at the Allegheny Repertory Theatre in Pittsburgh. Perhaps the most influential person in Wilson’s playwriting life was Lloyd Richards, who, as director of the National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Center in Waterford, Connecticut, first encouraged Wilson to pursue a life of writing for the stage and staged his plays throughout the 1990s. After working on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in the staged reading process at the conference in 1982, Richards brought the play to Yale Repertory Theater for a 1984 production that subsequently appeared on Broadway. This collaboration was followed by work at the conference on Fences, which later opened at Yale and followed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to Broadway. There Fences was, in 1987, awarded the Pulitzer Prize, which was later also awarded to The Piano Lesson.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, representing the decade of the 1920s, is the story of a piquant jazz singer and her fellow musicians caught in a compromise between financial survival and purity of art. Like all Wilson’s plays, it dramatizes the conflict of all black Americans to retain their identity against the forces of assimilation. Fences, which takes place in the 1950s, treats its protagonist, Troy Maxson, as an archetypal breadwinner in the black family, imperfect and human, fighting his son’s attempts to gain freedom from the cycle of hopelessness in which Troy himself is trapped. Brent Staples, a black writer, once remarked about Maxson’s generation, “Our fathers had by circumstances become nearly impossible to love.” The Maxson role, which has been compared in thematic power to that of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (pr., pb. 1949), was played by James Earl Jones in Richards’s production. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone dramatizes the transition of a freed slave from his “ownership” by Joe Turner to his struggles to find his wife in a Pittsburgh slum community; the action of the play takes place in 1911. The Piano Lesson also takes place in Pittsburgh, this time in 1936, and concerns two family members arguing about selling the family heirloom, a bloodstained piano that represents their cultural past. The piano represents past sufferings but also opportunity for the present members of the family, who must decide whether to sell their past for a brighter future. Like all the plays in this series, it received its development at the National Playwrights Conference and its premiere performance at the Yale Repertory Theater.
Two Trains Running, set in 1969, centers on a restaurant. The owner, Memphis, insists that he receive the full price for his restaurant and worries that the city will claim the building through eminent domain. The characters refuse to be manipulated by the white-dominated culture. Seven Guitars is set in 1948 and follows blues singer Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton after he records a song that becomes an unexpected hit. Some characters featured in Seven Guitars reappear in King Hedley II, which is set in 1985 and concerns an ex-convict who is trying to financially support his family. Wilson's final play, Radio Golf, is set in 1990 and concerns the planned demolition of the late Aunt Ester's home.
The value of Wilson’s contribution to the stage lies in his clear vision of the importance of retaining the distinct black heritage that gives life and dignity to the individual, rather than subsuming that “blackness” in attempts to integrate or assimilate the individual into a dominant white culture. His work is far from mere agitprop or political pamphleteering. The broad appeal of his work, which earned for him a wide audience and every important literary award (including Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships to continue his work), lies in his humanity, in the grace of his characterization, and in his uncanny ability to find the cadences of black speech, rendering into poetry what was long dismissed at substandard English. The structure of his plays drives the plots and character development forward with great force, drawing the audience into the world of the play with seamless craftsmanship.
The accuracy of his vision is attributable only to his talent and his sensitivity to the suffering of the people around whom he grew up. Critics have treated Wilson’s body of work with considerable respect and seriousness, comparing him favorably to Alex Haley as a chronicler of the black experience and citing his early successes as indicative of a long and fruitful career. Observers of regional theaters have noted the process by which Wilson’s texts are refined in not-for-profit theater productions before venturing onto the Broadway stage, a process that may well serve as a model for other promising playwrights.