When August Wilson was 15 years old, he decided to drop out of school. Several stories about why he made this decision are part of his legend. One is that he had written a 20-page paper on Napoleon Bonaparte, and his teacher—not believing that he could compose so well—accused him of plagiarism. Another is that he simply did not find the school—one of several he had attended in his native city of Pittsburgh—very challenging.
August kept up the charade of leaving home every morning, pretending to go off to school. He might well have hit the streets like so many others had done before and since. Instead, he headed to the great Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh where he spent the day reading everything he could get his hands on and educating himself. His decision had an immeasurable effect on 20th century American letters. In later years, the library awarded him an honorary high school diploma for what he had done for himself.
Wilson was born in 1945, the son of a German immigrant and an African-American mother. His birth name was Kittel. His father was soon gone from his life and thus had little bearing on it. His mother’s maiden name was Wilson, and when he was able, he changed his name to Wilson to honor her.
In the early 1960s, he joined the U.S. Army, but he only lasted in that organization for about a year.
Out of the Army, Wilson where he took menial jobs. his urge to write, and particularly his love of poetry, grew into an ambition to be a professional writer.
In 1965, Wilson acquired a typewriter. That purchase put him on the road to being a professional writer. He began submitting poems and short stories to various magazines. He would write in bars, in a local cigar store, and in cafés. He would write in longhand on table napkins, recording what he heard and training his ear to pick up on the vernacular of Black life in America. He listened for stories, for phrases, and for dialogue, and his mental collection of the language grew enormously.
Wilson also discovered music, especially the blues sung by people like Bessie Smith. All of these sounds and experiences melded together, and Wilson began to articulate them in his poetry and stories. In 1968, he teamed up with a friend in Pittsburgh and founded the Black Horizon Theater in the Hill District. His first play, Recycling, was performed before small audiences. At this point, he had never paid much attention to theater and was only beginning to learn how to write plays. He did not attend a professionally produced play until 1976.
But once he had been bitten by the theater bug and acquired the ambition to write plays, he never grew out of it.
In the 1980s, Wilson wrote the majority of the work for which we now remember him, including Jitney in 1982, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 1984, Fences in 1985, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in 1986, and The Piano Lesson in 1987. Fences won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and The Piano Lesson won that same award in 1990.
Those two Pulitzers were only a small number of the many awards and honors that accrued to Wilson in the last two decades of his life. The plays listed above eventually constituted part of what critics now refer to as his Pittsburg Cycle or his Century Cycle. This is a collection of 10 plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, that take a critical, analytical, and often humorous look at Black American life during those 100 years. Reflecting the presence of his mother in his life, each of these plays include strong female characters, as well as many other aspects of the Black experience.
“I think my plays offer (White Americans) a different way to look at Black Americans,” he told The Paris Review.
Wilson died of liver cancer in 2005. He was only 60 years old.
The city of Pittsburgh and the state of Pennsylvania have declared Wilson’s Bedford Avenue boyhood home as a historic landmark. Pittsburgh is also the home for the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture, which houses a permanent exhibition on Wilson’s life in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. In addition, a Broadway theater in New York City, the August Wilson Theater, now bears his name—the first Broadway theater to be named after an African-American.
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