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A CurtainUp Feature
An Overview of August Wilson's Career
By Elyse Sommer
Check out our Playwright's Album for more famous playwright profiles
Awards and Honors
Chronology of Produced Plays
Links To Reviews
Quotes From Wilsone's Plays and By and About Him
Wilson's father, also called Frederick August Kittle, was a German immigrant and baker. He and Wilson's mother, Daisy were divorced and she worked as a cleaning woman to support him and his sibling. When she remarried the family moved to another working class neighborhood, but this one was predominately white working-class and August learned all about racial hostility. He attended various high schools but when an English teacher accused the 15-year-old Wilson of plagiarizing a term paper, he dropped out of school atogether and turned to self-education at the Carnegie Library.
After his father's death in 1965 Wilson officially changed his last name to honor his mother. He also purchased a typewriter and began to write poetry. (He continued to write poetry all his life and hoped one day to see a volume of his poems published). However he was drawn to the theater and in 1966, inspired by the civil rights movement, he co-founded the Black Horizons Theatre in the Hill District of Pittsburgh with a friend, Rob Penny, where he spent most of his time as a director, a skill, like all his education, self-taught with the help of books.
This poetic chronicler of the African-American experienced left Pittsburgh for St. Paul in 1978 and in 1994 settled in Seattle. But the stories he overheard in the barber shops of the impoverished Hill District of his youth were deeply embedded in him and it was they who served as his creative wellspring and populated all his plays.
While the Eugene O'Neill's Playwright Conference in Connecticut rejected his first plays, the program's director Lloyd Richard recognized his talent and guided him to making Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Broadway ready.
He lived just long enough to complete his effort to put this culture on stage in plays covering the Twenty-first Century, decade by decade, but not in chronological order. As depicted by Mr. Wilson, the lives of his poor and often embittered black characters brought home universal truths about the struggle for dignity, love, security and happiness despite often overwhelming obstacles. They spoke in a dialogue that combined jazz riffs with soulful blues. While Wilson's plays were produced and recognized by mainstream audiences, the writer was passionate about urging fellow African Americans to recognize and honor the pain and passion that was their history.
Despite the wide recognition of his work, Wilson remained dedicated to playwriting, never heeding the siren song of Hollywood. He did write a screenplay of Fences which as of this writing has not been produced, though reports are that a production is going to happen. The Piano Lesson was written and filmed for TV in 1995, not in Hollywood but Wilson's birthplace and spiritual home, Pittsburgh (it's available as a DVD). Besides not allowing other types of writing to divert him from writing plays, he also didn't allow anything to distract him from working steadily. He was said to watch little television, attend movies or even the theater. He did, however, like to do his daytime writing in restaurants and bars then typing his longhand notes at night. He explained his affinity for working in these public places to Laura Hitchcock, Curtainup's chief Los Angeles critic during one of her frequent interviews with him as follows: "What I discovered is the character of these places constantly changes as people come and go and the music changes, and I sort of go with it wherever it goes. If they hadn't played a certain song, I might not have written what I'd written." He also told Laura why he went back to the typewriter after a brief move to working on a computer. "Computers influence the writing. If you insert a line on the typewriter, you have to rewrite the whole page. Then you're rewriting."
Mr. Wilson's belief in the importance of a robust black theater movement embroiled him in a public confrontation with theater critic and arts administrator Robert Brustein. The clash began with Wilson's keynote address at a national theater conference in which he spoke sorrowfully about there being only one regional theater dedicated to the work of African Americans, denounced colorblind casting and declared that an all-black Death of a Salesman would be irrelevant becase it was written for white actors. Brustein dismissed this as "self-segregation." The Wilson/Brustein debate moved from the pages of American Theater magazine and The New Republic to a formal debate at Town Hall, moderated by Anna Deavere Smith. Except for theaters like the Classic Theatre of Harlem, Wilson's wish for more AFrican-American theaters has given way to the trend of more and more color-blind casting.
Wilson was married three times, his first two marriages (Brenda Burton and Judy Oliver) ended in divorce. He is survived by his third wife, costume designer Constanza Romero, two daughters (Sakina Ansari from his first marriage and Azula Carmen Wilson from his third); also by five brothers and sisters (Freda Ellis, Linda Jean Kittel, Richard Kittel, Donna Conley and Edwin Kittel).
Awards and Honors
New York Drama Critics' Circle award Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984), Fences (1987), Joe Turner's Come and Gone, (1988)
Pulitzer Prizes for best drama, Fences (1987)
Tony Award for for best drama, Fences (1987)
1990 Pulitzer Prize for best drama, The Piano Lesson (1990)
American Theater Critics Award (1986, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1998)
Harold Washington Literary Award, 2001
Broadway's Virginia Theater renamed the August Wilson Theater after his death in 2005
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Like William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, John Cheever's Connecticut suburbs and the Bronte Sisters' Yorkshire moors, Pittsburgh's Hill District is the place that has been the foundation and identifier of Wilson's art. Except his first success and third play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1982), it was the setting for all his plays which is why they're often called The Pittsburgh Plays.
As the Hill Distric plays developed, Wilson began to weave them into a tapestry with overlapping themes and characters. A recurring motif had characters poised between the past with its traumas and the future with its uncertainties. The spirit overarching all was the mythical Aunt Esther who made her first appearance in Gem of the Ocean and completed the cycle in the final Radio Golf. She was a woman said to have lived for more than three centuries who embodied the continuity of spiritual and moral values that Wilson saw as uniting the descendants of slaves to their African ancestors. The humor in his plays derives more from his characterizations than any specific dialogue.
The most consistent flaw in Wilson's story telling was a tendency to expound on his themes for too long and even though there was some trimming during initial runs, the first acts especially tended to remain overlong. The popular 90-minute play without intermission was definitely not his style.
As Wilson's plays are a collage of past and present, real and mythical imagery, his dialogue has always been noted for its musicality. In a 1999 interview in The Paris Review, Wilson tagged his major influences as "four B's": First up on the list are the blues which he fell in love with when he was very young and came across a Bessie Smith recording in a thrift store. Rather than sad and woeful, Wilson saw the blues as instructive and life afforming. In Ma Rainey he has his title character refers to the blues as "life's way of talking." The other B's on his list are Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, for his gaucho stories and his "problematic practice of literature" which taught him to make rewriting an integral problem-solving part of his writing process; playwright Amiri Baraka from whom he learned to see writing as a political art; and the African-American painter Romare Bearden whose canvases were abrim with a rich and colorful black life. He also added the writers Ed Bullins and James Baldwin to this "B" list.
While Wilson's plays had their origins in those Hill District barber shops of his youth, he has been widely quoted as saying that the characters per se came sort of knocking on the door, then making a statement followed by his asking them what happened. In one of Laura Hitchcock's interviews with him (1990 at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center), he elaborated on this process as follows: I hear them in my mind talking and I just write it down. " I don't question what it means or where it's at. A guy says 'What did you go up to see Aunt Esther about?' He says, 'I want to killy my grandfather.' I didn't think that up. It's what the guy said. All I did was ask the question." That knock-on-the-door start gave Wilson the material to put together pieces of what these characters told him in a strictly nonlinear collage style.
Chronology of Produced Plays - the Pittsburgh Plays, in order of their time frame and with synopses
Gem of the Ocean, 1904—— A young African-American, Citizen Barlow, like many others traveling north in the years after the Civil War, arrives in Pittsburgh in search of purpose, prosperity, and redemption. A woman named Aunt Ester, rumored to be 285 years old and possess healing powers, help s him the through his life's journey.
Joe Turner's Come and Gone, 1911—— the title refers to the name of a plantation owner who, in spite of the emancipation proclamation, forced African-Americans to work in his fields, a very different character from Seth and Bertha Holly who run a boarding house for wayward souls who have been mistreated, abused, and sometimes even kidnapped by white society. Actually, the play initially had a different title, Mill Hand's Lunch Bucket, inspired by a Romare Bearden painting
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, 1927—— Four African-American blues musicians wait for Ma Rainey, the famous lead singer of their band. Ma Rainey's arrival escalates the existing tensions and pushes the group to the breaking point.
The Piano Lesson, 1936—— A piano that's been in the Charles family for generations becomes the source of conflict.
Seven Guitars, 1948—— the play begins with the death of guitarist Floyd Barton in 1948, then flashes back to his younger days and back to his death
Fences, 1957-58 and 1963— an exploration of the life and relationships of Troy Maxson, a trash-collector and former baseball hero who embodies the 1950s struggle for justice and fair treatment during the 1950s. T
Two Trains Running, 1969—— Pittsburgh at the height of the civil rights movement. But though political and social change is sweeping through the country Wilson has assembled a group of characters too cynical and down-trodden to be part of the hopeful mood.
Jitney, 1977—— this is the cycle's first play. It's about unlicensed cab drivers at a time when urban renewal is hanging over the head of the cab station's owner, Becker just as his estranged son is about to return home after serving 20 years in prison on a murder conviction.
King Hedley, II, 1985—— Through ex-con King Hedley we see his fierce aspirations and his gradual return to crime with family secrets and honour codes to insure there is blood on the ground at the end but nevertheless evoking the sense of possibility in this decade when a black middle class did begin to emerge.
Radio Golf, 1997—— the play that marks the culmination of the era Wilson has been chronicling. Harmond Wilks has continued the success of his prosperous family's real estate business. As an ambitious developer, he is formalizing an urban renewal project that will of necessity include the demolition of abandoned property as well as a historic home that belonged to the mythical Aunt Esther. The major plot through-line: Whether the obliteration of the past is necessary for the creation of the future.
Wilson's plays are widely published and had he lived, he might well have penned a memoir at some future point. In the meantime, there's no shortage of studies of his work, some of which are listed below.
Conversations with August Wilson (Literary Conversations Series) (University Press of Mississippi January 17, 2006)
by Jackson R. Bryer (Editor), Mary C. Hartig (Editor). ) A selection of the many interviews Wilson gave from 1984 to 2004 which cover at length and in detail his plays and his background. He comments as well on such subjects as the differences between African Americans and whites, his call for more black theater companies, and his belief that African Americans made a mistake in assimilating themselves into the white mainstream. He also talks about his major influences.
The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson (University of Michigan Press May 1, 2006 by Harry Justin Elam Jr.. Theater scholar and critic Elam examines Wilson's published plays within the context of contemporary African American literature and in relation to concepts of memory and history, culture and resistance, race and representation.
The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson (Cambridge Companions to Literature December 17, 2007 ) by Christopher Bigsby (Author)
The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson (Howard University Press (December 1996 ) by Sandra G. Shannon
I Ain't Sorry for Nothin' I Done: August Wilson's Process of Playwriting (Limelight Editions July 1, 2004) Paperback) by Joan Herrington
August Wilson: A Literary Companion (Mcfarland Literary Companions June 2004) by Mary Ellen Snodgrass. Provides the reader with a source of basic data and analysis of characters, dates, events, allusions, staging strategies, and themes in 166 encyclopedic entries
May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson (University Of Iowa Press November 1, 1993) by Alan Nadel, Editor
August Wilson and Black Aesthetics (Palgrave Macmillan August 21, 2004) by Dana Williams and Sandra Shannon (Editors),essays that address issues raised in Wilson's "The Ground on Which I Stand" speech. Essays and interviews range from examinations of the presence of Wilson's politics in his plays to the limitations of these politics on contemporary interpretations of Black aesthetics.
August Wilson by Harold Bloom (Chelsea House Publications Feb 2009) part of critical views series by Bloom.
Links To Reviews (alphabetical order)
Fences( Broadway 2010)
Fences (2009, Huntington Theater, Boston)
Fences (LA-Odyssey 2006)
Fences (LA-Pasadena Playhouse )
Gem of the Ocean (Los Angeles & New York, 2003, 2004)
Gem of the Ocean (London 2006)
Jitney (Off-Broadway, 2000)
Joe Turner's Come and Gone(Los Angeles 2013)
Joe Turner's Come and Gone(London 2010)
Joe Turner's Come and Gone (Los Angeles 2006)
King Hedley II (LA 2000)
King Hedley II/ Wilson, August (NY 2001)
King Hedley II (London 2003)
King Hedley II (Philadelphia 2003}
King Hedley II (Signature Wilson Season, 2007)
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Broadway 2003)
The Piano Lesson (Off-Broadway 2012)
The Piano Lesson (Louisville, KY 2001)
Radio Golf/ August Wilson(DC 2009)
Radio Golf (NJ-McCarther theater & Broadway, 2007)
Radio Golf (LA 2006)
Two Trains Running (Signature Wilson Season 2006 )
Foreigners in a strange land, they carry as part and parcel of their bags a long line of separation and dispersement as they search for ways to reconnect, to reassemble, to give clear and luminous meaning to the song which is both a wail and a whelp of joy. — From the prefatory note of Joe Turner's Come and Gone which describes the quest of the play's major characters but also applies to his own emergence as a playwright.
I done already got too many things to forget about. --- Mattie Campbell, in Joe Turner's Come and Gone
Some people build fences to keep people out. . .and other people build fences to keep people in.--- Bono in Fences
You ain't never done nothin' but hold me back. Afraid I was gonna be better than you. --- Cory to his father Troy in Fences
You got to fight to make it mean something. . . What good is freedom if you can't do nothing with it? --- Solly Two Kings, the ertwhile Underground Railroad keeper voicing the overriding concern about the challenges freedom poses, In Gem of the Ocean.
That's what we all are -- a leftover from history. —Toledo in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
I'd rather believe if I rubbed Prophet Samuel's head I'd get rich. That make more sense to me than to talk about somebody being three hundred and twenty- two years old.—— Memphis in Two Trains Running
You the cowboys and I'm the Indians. See who wins this war.—Sterling Johnsonn Radio Golf
I'm going to be the mayor of everybody. It's not about being white or black it's about being American. ——Harmond in Radio Golf
If you want to beat the system, you got to make your own rules. ---August Wilson
Your belief in yourself must be larger than anyone's disbelief—August Wilson to new playwrights, quoted in Laura Hitcock's Back Stage West article Seven Plays, Seven Guitars.
I always tell people I'm a struggling playwright. I'm struggling to get the next play down on paper.— August Wilson, NYTimes interview
Black culture is still alive, still vital. The human spirit cannot and will not be broken.— August Wilson, NYTimes interview.
It is a lingo that has an inherent rhythm of its own. Most of us have been black all our lives. But we kid each other about August's writing. We'll say, "I've never heard anything in my life like that, have you?"—Charles S. Dutton, about Wilson's dialogue, based on his own experience in playing charaters in his plays. Dutton is one of numerous well-known television and film actors who got their start acting in Mr. Wilson's plays. The list of well known actors who've appeared in at least one of his plays includes S. Epatha Merkerson, Angela Bassett, Roscoe Lee Browne, Whoopy Goldberg, Phylicia Rashad, Courtney B. Vance, Laurence Fishburne, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Keith David, Viola Davis, Delroy Lindo, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Leslie Uggams and Brian Stokes Mitchell.
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