Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright August Wilson (Frederick August Kittell; born 1945) embarked upon a mission to write a cycle of ten plays addressing central issues that have impacted African Americans in each decade of the 20th century. The first five evolve from the playwright's own commentary upon illconceived, ill-advised, yet sometimes unavoidable choices made by past generations of African Americans and their too frequent negative consequences.
Christened Frederick August Kittell was born in 1945 and later changed his name to August Wilson. He was the namesake of an irresponsible German baker. His father spent little time with his family in their two-room apartment in Pittsburgh's Hill District where Wilson, his mother, and five brothers and sisters survived on public assistance and earnings from her janitorial job. Wilson's move to adopt the maiden name of his African American mother, Daisy Wilson, in the 1970s was not just a means of disavowing his estranged white father. His decision to call himself August Wilson also represented a significant rite of passage marking both his discovery and celebration of ties with Africa. His identification with his mother's roots later became the driving force behind young Wilson's fascination with the language and culture of African Americans.
Against the pleas of his mother, Wilson gave up on formal education in the ninth grade. Memories of former years spent in the Pittsburgh public school system included a devastating accusation by one of his teachers that he was not the original author of a term paper that he had, in fact, written on Napoleon Bonaparte. Offended by the affront to his integrity and bored with the stifling regimentation of Pittsburgh's schools, Wilson turned to the city's tobacco shops, barber shops, and street corners for schooling of a different sort. While mingling among fellow African American residents of the working-class neighborhood where he grew up listening to their uncensored language, Wilson developed an intimate knowledge of their lifestyles. His time spent in this environment would later serve him well in creating credible characters for his cycle of plays depicting the African American experience.
But Pittsburgh's streets and shops did not satisfy Wilson's appetite for knowledge about African Americans. He was drawn to the city's public libraries where he poured over the works of Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and other African American writers. A reader since the age of four, Wilson had no trouble comprehending these works that gave direction to the quest for his own racial consciousness.
From Poet to Playwright
After finally moving out of his mother's house in 1965, Wilson found lodging at a nearby rooming house, took a job as a short-order cook, and tried his hand at verse. Armed with a $20 typewriter he purchased with money from his sister Freda, Wilson tried desperately to become a successful poet and writer. This newfound freedom allowed Wilson to mingle with the Bohemian set. He learned their language and their ideals, emerging as a self-proclaimed Dylan Thomas. During this time he also identified with the cultural nationalists such as Amiri Baraka, (then known as LeRoi Jones), who argued for heightened racial consciousness. His initiation into African American aestheticism culminated in a heightened awareness of the importance of the blues, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and writers of the Harlem Renaissance.
In the late 1960s an interest in Malcolm X led him to a total acknowledgement of African American culture as his own. Renouncing his white father, moving out from his mother's house, and living among day to day reminders of this culture cleared the way for Wilson to find out more about his African American ancestors' trek from the fields of North Carolina to the cramped urban shelters of Pittsburgh. What followed this phase of cultural enlightenment in Wilson's life were organized efforts to raise consciousness among Pittsburgh natives. With such an agenda, Wilson co-founded, with director Rob Penny, Pittsburgh's Black Horizons Theater in 1968.
Although Wilson chose to imitate the style of flamboyant British poet Dylan Thomas during an early stage in his evolution into an artist, he soon realized that his African American heritage, grounded in the blues tradition, was at odds with the alien persona he had chosen to idolize. Serendipity was largely responsible for his discovery of the tremendous role music, in particular the blues, played in his writing. After buying a three-dollar record player that only played 78s, he discovered a record store that proved to be a veritable gold mine of the records that were no longer in circulation. Here he found a copy of Bessie Smith's "Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine" and was so moved by its Iyrics that he played it repeatedly. He later recalled, "I'd never heard of Bessie Smith. I listened to it twenty-two times, and I became aware that this stuff was my own. Patti Page, Frank Sinatra—they weren't me. This was me. The music became the wellspring of my work. I took the stuff and ran with it."
It took numerous rejection slips from magazines and several uninspired poetry readings to finally dissuade the would-be poet and nudge him in the direction of the theater. His conversion from poet to playwright was coerced by a supportive friend, Claude Purdy. In 1977 Wilson's poetry reading in Pittsburgh about a character named Black Bart so impressed Purdy that he encouraged Wilson to turn the material into a play. After much complaining that he could not write a play, Wilson sat down to complete the work in one week (Black Bart and the Sacred Hills ).
In 1982 Lloyd Richards—artistic director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater in Waterford, Connecticut, dean of Yale's School of Drama, and director of the Yale Repertory Theater—discovered that among the hundreds of scripts sent to him was Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Although Richards admitted that the play had structural problems, he realized that, aside from these weaknesses, it evidenced an incredibly gifted talent. Over the next eight years Wilson and Richards formed a close alliance. Some have described their unique relationship with words like "avuncular," "paternal," or simply "compatible." At any rate, the two men blended their playwriting and directing talents to produce a string of successful plays. Wilson wrote the plays while Richards directed and polished them in workshop environments such as the Yale Repertory Theater and various regional theaters throughout the United States. Beginning with the initial Broadway success of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom in 1984, the two men collaborated successfully on four more of Wilson's plays: Fences, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, and Two Trains Running. During his collaboration with Richards, all of Wilson's works took similar routes, preliminary staging at the O'Neill Theater Center followed by presentations at the Yale Repertory Theater and other resident non-profit theaters and an eventual Broadway production.
Chronicles of African American History
Gaining confidence as a playwright from close associations with important contacts such as directors Purdy and Richards, Wilson committed himself to writing a series of plays addressing central issues that have impacted African Americans in each decade of the 20th century. Although he initially did not set out to write a history of his people, he rather accidentally realized a pattern of sorts developing in his early works; he had written plays that addressed issues peculiar to 1911, 1927, 1941, 1957, and 1971. The idea of writing one play per decade pleased Wilson, for once he discerned a pattern, he then was able to focus his playwriting skills on what he felt were the most important issues confronting African Americans each decade and then committed himself to writing ten plays emphasizing these issues.
Wilson's first Broadway success, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984), was based upon an imagined day in the life of Gertrude Pridgett "Ma" Rainey, often called the "Mother of the Blues." The play focuses upon rampant greed, insensitivity, and racism in the 1920s recording business. The victims of the time period are typified by Ma Rainey and her band of talented yet frustrated musicians. His second play to reach Broadway, Fences (1985), earned him his first Pulitzer Prize. It portrays the frustration of a former African American League baseball player in the industrial North of the 1950s. In Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1986), Wilson concentrated upon the cultural fragmentation as well as the emotional and physical effects of the accompanying displacement of newly freed African Americans following the Civil War.
The Piano Lesson (1987) earned Wilson a second Pulitzer Prize in the spring of 1990. Central to this play's conflict is an old piano, which simultaneously functions as an emblem of both African folk tradition and American capitalism. The pictorial history carved into its surface by the great-grandfather of the currently embattled siblings, Berneice and Boy Willie, appreciates both its monetary and sentimental values. Berneice wants to preserve it as a family heirloom, while Boy Willie wants to sell it to afford a piece of land. Wilson's chronicle of the 1960s, Two Trains Running, debuted at the Yale Repertory Theater in March 1990 and was making its way through various regional theaters on its way to an almost certain Broadway finale. Set in 1968 in a small restaurant in an African American section of Pittsburgh (apparently its Hill District), Wilson's play tells the story of neighbors sorting out problems, complaining about injustices, loving, fighting, and communing.
Wilson's Seven Guitars hit Broadway in 1995, reuniting him with longtime collaborator Richards. The story, set in Pittsburgh in the 1940s, tells the story of Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton, who died before his career as a blues guitarist could take off. The San Diego Sun reviewed the show as containing "rich, casually revealing language." The Broadway version featured Keith David, famous for his role in Jelly's Last Jam.
"All the ideas and attitudes of my characters come straight out of the blues," Wilson said, during an interview with People magazine. "I look behind the lyrics." Seven Guitars is no exception.
Along with his two Pulitzers, Wilson received the Black Filmakers Hall of Fame Award in 1991. In 1992 he earned the Antoinette Perry Award nomination for best play, as well as the American Theatre Critics' Association Award, for Two Trains Running. He also received the Clarence Muse Award in 1992.
Wilson moved to Seattle in 1990 with his third wife, Constanza Romero, a costume designer who worked on The Piano Lesson with him. Wilson's only daughter, Sakina Ansari, found her career as a social worker in Baltimore.
Further Reading on August Wilson
Because August Wilson is relatively new to the literary world, a critical study of his work remains to be done. However, several excellent sources are available in the form of interviews, feature articles, and theater reviews. For detailed biographical information consult Chip Brown's "The Light in August" in Esquire (April 1989). For information of his plays and his aesthetics, see Bill Moyers' A World of Ideas: Conversations with Thoughtful Men and Women about American Life Today and the Ideas Shaping Our Future (1989) and David Savran's In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights (1988). Magazine feature articles include Nick Charles' "August Wilson: Stages of Black America," in Emerge (April 1990); Hillary DeVries' "A Song in Search of Itself: August Wilson Is a Chronicler of Black America's Recent Past," in American Theater (January 1987); and Ishmael Reed's "A Shy Genius Transforms American Theater," in Connoisseur 217 (March 1987).