Wilson, August 1945–2005
(Frederick August Kittel)
PERSONAL: Born Frederick August Kittel, April 27, 1945, in Pittsburgh, PA; died October 2, 2005, in Seattle, WA, of liver cancer; son of Frederick August (a baker) and Daisy (a cleaning woman; maiden name, Wilson) Kittel; stepfather, David Bedford; married Brenda Burton (divorced), 1969; married Judy Oliver (a social worker; divorced), 1981; married Constanza Romero (a costume designer), 1994; children: (first marriage) Sakina Ansari; (third marriage) Azula Carmen. Ethnicity: Black.
CAREER: Writer. Black Horizons on the Hill (theater company) Pittsburgh, PA, cofounder (with Rob Penny), scriptwriter, and director, 1968–78; Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN, scriptwriter, 1979.
AWARDS, HONORS: Award for best play, New York Drama Critics Circle, and Tony Award nomination, League of New York Theatres and Producers, both 1985, and Whiting Writers' Award from the Whiting Foundation, 1986, all for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom; Outstanding Play Award, American Theatre Critics, Drama Desk Outstanding New Play Award, and New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play Award, all 1986, all for Fences; Pulitzer Prize for drama, Tony Award for best play, and award for best Broadway play, Outer Critics Circle, all 1987, all for Fences; John Gassner Award for best American playwright from Outer Critics Circle, 1987; named Artist of the Year by Chicago Tribune, 1987; Literary Lion Award, New York Public Library, 1988; New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play award, and Tony Award nomination for best play, both 1988, both for Joe Turner's Come and Gone; Drama Desk Outstanding New Play Award, New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play Award, Tony Award nomination for Best Play, American Theatre Critics Outstanding Play Award, and Pulitzer Prize for drama, all 1990, all for The Piano Lesson; Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Award, 1991; Tony Award nomination for best play, and American Theatre Critics' Association Award, both 1992, both for Two Trains Running; Clarence Muse Award, 1992; New York Drama Critics Circle Award and Tony Award nomination for best play, 1996, both for Seven Guitars; recipient of Bush and Guggenheim Foundation fellowships; Tony Award nomination, 2001, for King Hedley II; Tony Award nomination, 2005, for Gem of the Ocean.
Recycle, produced in Pittsburgh, PA, 1973.
The Homecoming, produced 1989.
The Coldest Day of the Year, produced 1989.
Jitney! (two-act play; produced in Pittsburgh, PA, by Black Horizons Theatre Company, 1978; revised version produced in Atlanta, GA, at the Alliance Theatre Company, 1999; in Los Angeles, CA, at Mark Taper Forum, 2000; in New York, NY, at Second Stage, 2000), Overlook Press (Woodstock, NY), 2001.
Fullerton Street, produced 1980.
Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, produced in St. Paul, MN, at Penumbra Theatre, 1981.
The Mill Hand's Lunch Bucket, produced in New York, NY, 1983.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (produced in New Haven, CT, at the Yale Repertory Theatre, 1984; on Broadway at the Cort Theatre, October, 1984), in Three Plays, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1991, by New American Library (New York, NY), 1985.
Fences (produced in New Haven, CT, at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1985; on Broadway at 46th Street Theatre, March, 1987), in Three Plays, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1991, by New American Library (New York, NY), 1988.
Joe Turner's Come and Gone (produced in New Haven, CT, at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1986; on Broadway at Barrymore Theatre, March, 1988; revival production in New York, NY, at Royale Theater, 2003), in Three Plays University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1991, by New American Library (New York, NY), 1988.
(And author of teleplay) The Piano Lesson produced in New Haven, CT, at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1987; produced on Broadway at Walter Kerr Theatre, 1990; teleplay produced by Hallmark Hall of Fame, CBS television special, 1995), New American Library (New York, NY), 1990.
Two Trains Running (produced in New Haven, CT, at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1990; in Washington, DC, at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 1991; at Walter Kerr Theatre, 1992), New American Library/Dutton (New York, NY), 1993.
Seven Guitars (produced in Chicago, IL, at Goodman Theatre, 1995; at Walter Kerr Theatre, 1996), Dutton (New York, NY), 1996.
King Hedley II, produced in Pittsburgh, PA, at Pittsburgh Public Theatre, 2000; produced on Broadway at Virginia Theatre, 2001.
Gem of the Ocean, produced in Chicago, IL, at Goodman Theatre, 2003; produced on Broadway at Walter Kerr Theatre, 2004.
Radio Golf, produced in New Haven, CT, at Yale Repertory Theatre, 2005.
(Author of preface) August Wilson: Three Plays (contains Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone), afterword by Paul C. Harrison, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1991.
The Ground on Which I Stand, Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 2000.
Contributor to play Urban Blight. Author of the book for a stage musical about jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton. Work represented in A Game of Passion: The NFL Literary Companion, Turner, 1994; Selected from Contemporary American Plays, 1990; and The Poetry of Black America. Contributor to periodicals, including American Theatre, Black Lines and Connection.
SIDELIGHTS: August Wilson, who was born Frederick August Kittel, has been hailed since the mid-1980s as an important talent in the American theater. He spent his childhood in poverty in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he lived with his parents and five siblings. Though he grew up in a poor family, Wilson felt that his parents withheld knowledge of even greater hardships they had endured. "My generation of blacks knew very little about the past of our parents," he told the New York Times in 1984. "They shielded us from the indignities they suffered." Wilson's goal is to illuminate that shadowy past with plays that focus on black issues. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, and Seven Guitars are part of this ambitious project.
Wilson has noted that his real education began when he was sixteen years old. Disgusted by the racist treatment he endured in the various schools he had attended until that time, he dropped out and began educating himself in the local library. Working at menial jobs, he also pursued a literary career and successfully submitted poems to black publications at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1968 he became active in the theater by founding—despite lacking prior experience—Black Horizons on the Hill, a theater company in Pittsburgh. Recalling his early theater involvement, Wilson described himself to the New York Times as "a cultural nationalist … trying to raise consciousness through theater."
According to several observers, however, Wilson found his artistic voice—and began to appreciate the black voices of Pittsburgh—after he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1978. In St. Paul Wilson wrote his first play, Jitney!, a realistic drama set in a Pittsburgh taxi station. Jitney!, noted for the fidelity with which it portrayed black urban speech and life, had a successful engagement at a small theater in Pittsburgh. Wilson followed Jitney! with another play, Fullerton Street, but this work failed to strengthen his reputation.
Wilson then resumed work on an earlier unfinished project, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, a play about a black blues singer's exploitation of her fellow musicians. This work, whose title role is named after an actual blues singer from the 1920s, is set in a recording studio in 1927. In the studio, temperamental Ma Rainey verbally abuses the other musicians and presents herself—without justification—as an important musical figure. But much of the play is also set in a rehearsal room, where Ma Rainey's musicians discuss their abusive employer and the hardships of life in racist America.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom earned Wilson a trip to the O'Neill Theatre Center's National Playwrights Conference. There Wilson's play impressed director Lloyd Richards from the Yale Repertory Theatre. Richards worked with Wilson to refine the play, and when it was presented at Yale in 1984 it was hailed as the work of an important new playwright. Frank Rich, who reviewed the Yale production in the New York Times, acclaimed Wilson as "a major find for the American theater" and cited Wilson's ability to write "with compassion, raucous humor and penetrating wisdom."
Wilson enjoyed further success with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom after the play came to Broadway later in 1984. Chicago Tribune contributor Richard Christiansen reviewed the Broadway production as "a work of intermittent but immense power" and commended the "striking beauty" of the play's "literary and theatrical poetry." Christiansen added that "Wilson's power of language is sensational" and that Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was "the work of an impressive writer." The London Times's Holly Hill agreed, calling Wilson "a promising new playwright" and hailing his work as "a remarkable first play."
Wilson's subsequent plays include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences, which is about a former athlete who forbids his son to accept an athletic scholarship, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone, which concerns an ex-convict's efforts to find his wife. Like Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, these plays underwent extensive rewriting. Guiding Wilson in this process was Lloyd Rich Page 3770 | Top of Articleards, dean of Yale's drama school and director of the school's productions of Wilson's plays. "August is a wonderful poet," Richards told the New York Times in 1986. "A wonderful poet turning into a playwright." Richards added that his work with Wilson involved "clarifying" each work's main theme and "arranging the material in a dynamic way."
Both Fences and Joe Turner's Come and Gone were praised when they played on American stages. The New York Times's Frank Rich, in his review of Fences, wrote that the play "leaves no doubt that Mr. Wilson is a major writer, combining a poet's ear for vernacular with a robust sense of humor (political and sexual), a sure instinct for cracking dramatic incident and passionate commitment to a great subject." And in his critique of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Rich speculated that the play "will give a lasting voice to a generation of uprooted black Americans." Rich contended that the work was "potentially its author's finest achievement yet" and described it as "a teeming canvas of black America … and a spiritual allegory."
Wilson is intensely passionate about portraying the truth of the black experience, about being the voice of the ghetto. While he did not set out to create his plays in a series, it became clear to him that his plays in combination were creating a twentieth-century history of the black experience in America. "I'm taking each decade," Wilson said, "and looking at one of the most important questions that blacks confronted in that decade and writing a play about it. Put them all together, and you have a history."
In 1990 Wilson claimed his second Pulitzer Prize, this time for The Piano Lesson. Set during the Great Depression of the 1930s, this drama pits brother against sister in a contest to decide the future of a treasured heirloom—a piano, carved with African-style portraits by their grandfather, an enslaved plantation carpenter. The brother wants to sell it to buy land, while the sister adamantly insists that the instrument carries too much family history to part with. Acclaim for the play was widespread, although some commentators were put off by the supernatural elements that came to play in the climax of this otherwise realistic piece. "When ghosts begin resolving realistic plays, you can be sure the playwright has failed to master his material," wrote Robert Brustein in the New Republic. Brustein also found the play overlong and repetitious, and asserted that Wilson's focus on the effects of racism was limiting him artistically. Others praised the work unreservedly, however, including Clive Barnes of the New York Post. He declared, "This is a play in which to lose yourself—to give yourself up … to August Wilson's thoughts, humors and thrills, all caught in a microcosm largely remote for many of us from our own little worlds, yet always talking the same language of humanity." Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote that Wilson has given "miraculous voice" to the black experience, and William A. Henry III of Time dubbed the play's piano "the most potent symbol in American drama since Laura Wingfield's glass menagerie" in the Tennessee Williams classic. Barnes concluded, "This is a wonderful play that lights up man. See it, wonder at it, and recognize it." Wilson later adapted The Piano Lesson for a Hallmark Hall of Fame television production. It was judged a success by John J. O'Connor, who wrote in the New York Times: "If anything, The Piano Lesson is even more effective in this shortened version."
Two Trains Running continued Wilson's projected ten-play cycle about black American history. The play, which came to Broadway in 1992, is set in a run-down diner on the verge of being sold. Reactions by the diner's regular patrons to the pending sale make up the body of the drama. Some critics, such as the New Yorker's Mimi Kramer, found the play less subtle and dramatic than its predecessors, but Newsweek's David Ansen praised the "musical eloquence" of Wilson's language, which he felt enhanced a "thematically rich" work. And Henry wrote in Time that Two Trains Running is a "delicate and mature" play that shows Wilson "at his lyrical best."
Two Trains Running was followed by Seven Guitars. Set in the 1940s, it recounts the tragic story of blues guitarist Floyd Barton, whose funeral opens the play. Action then flashes back to recreate the events of Floyd's last week of life. Seven Guitars was the first major production of a Wilson play without the direction of Richards, who was forced to abandon the project due to illness. The task of directing fell to Walter Dallas, whose staging at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago William Tynan characterized as "skillful" in a Time review. Yet the critic's overall assessment was mixed. "Part bawdy comedy, part dark elegy, part mystery," he wrote, "August Wilson's rich new play, Seven Guitars, nicely eludes categorization…. But though full and strong in its buildup, the play loses its potency as it reaches its climax…. Though Floyd is as charming and sympathetic a protagonist as we could want, the surprising truth is that his death has little effect on us. We leave the theater entertained and admiring but not truly moved." Vincent Canby differed markedly in his judgment, writing in the New York Times, "Though the frame of Seven Guitars is limited and employs only seven Page 3771 | Top of Articlecharacters, Mr. Wilson writes so vividly that the play seems to have the narrative scope and depth of a novel. When the curtain comes down, it's difficult to remember which characters you've actually seen and which you have come to know only through stories recollected on stage…. Seven Guitars plays with such speed that you begin the journey one minute, and the next thing you know, you're leaving the theater on a high."
Further praise came from Newsweek reviewer Jack Kroll, who called Seven Guitars "a kind of jazz cantata for actors," with "a gritty, lyrical polyphony of voices that evokes the character and destiny of these men and women who can't help singing the blues even when they're just talking." The play, he continued, "bristles with symbolism" and with "anguished eloquence." Kroll found the protagonist's death "shocking, unexpected, yet inevitable" and the characters overall "not victims, wallowing in voluptuous resentment," but "tragic figures, bursting with the balked music of life."
Not long after Seven Guitars opened, Wilson gave a keynote address to the Theatre Communications Group National Conference. The address, titled "The Ground on Which I Stand," was first published in American Theatre in 1996. Wilson's remarks created critical controversy and feud. According to Jonathan Little, writing for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, this address "can be read as the culminating manifesto of his personal politics, his aesthetics, and his vision for the future." A series of responses and counterattacks appeared in print both from Wilson and from critic Robert Brustein, leading to the culmination of a debate on January 27, 1997, at the New York City Town Hall. Little reported that critical reaction to the debate was mixed with both plaudits and criticisms given to the arguments made by both men.
In 2001, Wilson's ninth play in his cyclic history opened on Broadway for a surprisingly brief twelve-week run. King Hedley II is a dark retrospective, drawing upon the life of title character King Hedley, an ex-convict attempting to rebuild his life in 1990s Pittsburgh. Hedley, who first appeared as "a cracked old man who sees ghosts" in Seven Guitars (a technique the playwright uses often, according to Ashyia Henderson in Contemporary Black Biography), deals with his past while figuring out how to go "legit" in the midst of the brutality of a black ghetto. The play depicts the decline of the black family and the prevalence of violence and guns in contemporary inner-city neighborhoods.
Discussing Wilson's body of work, Lawrence Bommer stated in the Chicago Tribune, "August Wilson has created the most complete cultural chronicle since Balzac wrote his vast 'Human Comedy,' an artistic whole that has grown even greater than its prize-winning parts." As for the playwright, he has repeatedly stressed that his first objective is simply getting his work produced. "All I want is for the most people to get to see this play," he told the New York Times while discussing Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Wilson added, however, that he was not opposed to having his works performed on Broadway. He told the New York Times that Broadway "still has the connotation of Mecca" and asked, "Who doesn't want to go to Mecca?"
In September of 2005, Wilson announced that he had been diagnosed with liver cancer. He died shortly after he made his illness known to the public.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bogumil, Mary L. Understanding August Wilson, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1998.
Contemporary Dramatists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 39, 1996, Volume 50, 1988, Volume 63, 1991.
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 40, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 228: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Second Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Elkins, Marilyn, editor, August Wilson: A Casebook, Garland (New York, NY), 1994.
Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Flowers, Betty Sue, A World of Ideas: Conversations with Thoughtful Men and Women about American Life Today and the Ideas Shaping Our Future, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1989.
Hartigan, Karelisa V., editor, Within the Dramatic Spectrum, University Press of America (Lanham, MD), 1986.
Herrington, Joan, I Ain't Sorry for Nothin' I Done: August Wilson's Process of Playwrighting, Limelight Editions (New York, NY), 1998.
International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 2: Playwrights, St. James Press (Chicago, IL), 1993.
King, Bruce, editor, Contemporary American Theatre, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1991.
Nadel, Alan, editor, May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson, University of Iowa Press (Iowa City, IA), 1994.
Notable Black Men, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Pereira, Kim, August Wilson and the African-American Odyssey, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1995.
Shannon, Sandra Garrett, The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, Howard University Press (Washington, DC), 1995.
Wolfe, Peter, August Wilson, Twayne (New York, NY), 1999.
African American Review, winter, 1993, Jay Plumb, "Blues History and the Dramaturgy of August Wilson," pp. 561-567; winter, 1995, Qun Wang, "Blues, History, and the Dramaturgy of August Wilson," pp. 605-613; spring, 1996, p. 99; fall, 2001, review of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, p. 471.
American Theatre, October, 1996, Robert Brustein, "Subsidized Separatism," pp. 100-101; March 1997, Stephen Nunns, "Wilson, Brustein, and the Press," pp. 17-19.
Black American Literature Forum, spring, 1991, Sandra G. Shannon, review of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, pp. 135-136, 143-145.
Black Scholar, spring, 1995, Alice Mills, "The Walking Blues: An Anthropological Approach to the Theater of August Wilson," pp. 30-35.
Chicago Tribune, October 15, 1984; June 8, 1987; December 17, 1987; December 27, 1987, pp. 4-5; January 20, 1993, p. 20; January 24, 1993, section 13, pp. 8-9; January 26, 1993, section 1, p. 16; January 15, 1995, section 13, pp. 16-17, 21.
Christian Science Monitor, October 16, 1984, Hilary Davies, "August Wilson—A New Voice for Black American Theater," pp. 29-30; March 27, 1987, Hillary DeVries, "A Street-Corner Scribe of Life in Black America" (interview), p. 1, 8; March 30, 1988, p. 21.
Ebony, January, 1985; November, 1987, Alex Poinsett, "August Wilson: Hottest New Playwright," pp. 68, 70, 72, 74; September, 2001, Charles Whitaker, "Is August Wilson America's Greatest Playwright?" (interview), p. 80.
Esquire, April, 1989, Chip Brown, "The Light in August," pp. 116, 118, 120, 122-127.
Essence, August, 1987, Brent Staples, "August Wilson," pp. 51, 111, 113.
Los Angeles Times, November 24, 1984; November 7, 1986; April 17, 1987; June 7, 1987; June 8, 1987; June 9, 1987; February 6, 1988.
Maclean's, May 28, 1990, p. 62; May 18, 1992, pp. 56-57.
Massachusetts Review, spring, 1988, pp. 87-97.
MELUS, fall, 1989, Sandra G. Shannon, "The Good Christian's Come and Gone: The Shifting Role of Christianity in August Wilson Plays," pp. 127, 141-142.
Nation, April 18, 1987, p. 518; June 1, 1990, pp. 832-833; June 8, 1992, pp. 799-800; December 8, 1984, Paul Berman, review of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, p. 626-628.
New Republic, May 21, 1990, Robert Brustein, "The Lesson of The Piano Lesson," pp. 28-30.
Newsmakers, Issue 2, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002.
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New York Post, March 28, 1988; April 17, 1990.
New York Times, April 11, 1984; April 13, 1984; October 12, 1984; October 22, 1984, p. C15; May 5, 1985, p. 80; May 6, 1986; May 14, 1986; May 19, 1986, p. C11; June 20, 1986; March 27, 1987, p. C3; April 5, 1987, pp. 1, 39; April 9, 1987; April 17, 1987; May 7, 1987; December 10, 1987; December 11, 1987; March 27, 1988, pp. 1, 34; March 28, 1988, p. C15; January 30, 1989, p. 69; April 17, 1990, p. C13; March 10, 1991, section 2, pp. 5, 17; January 25, 1995, pp. C13-C14; February 3, 1995, p. D26; February 5, 1995, section 2, pp. 1, 5; February 7, 2003.
New York Times Book Review, March 3, 1996, p. 22.
New York Times Magazine, March 15, 1987, Samuel Freedman, "A Voice from the Streets," pp. 36-50; June 10, 1987, pp. 36, 40, 49, 70.
People, May 13, 1996, p. 63.
Theater, fall-winter, 1984, pp. 50-55; summer-fall, 1986, pp. 64; summer-fall, 1988, Mei-Ling Ching, review of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Fences, and The Piano Lesson, pp. 69-71; fall, 1991, Lisa Wilde, review of Two Trains Running, pp. 73-74.
Theatre Journal, December, 1994, pp. 468-476.
Time, April 6, 1987, p. 81; April 27, 1987; April 11, 1988, pp. 77-78; January 30, 1989, p. 69; April 27, 1992, pp. 65-66; February 6, 1995, p. 71.
Times (London, England), November 6, 1984; April 18, 1987; April 24, 1987.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), February 9, 1986, pp. 12-13.
Variety, February 26, 1996, p. 175.
Vogue, August, 1988, pp. 200, 204.
Washington Post, May 20, 1986; April 15, 1987; June 9, 1987; October 4, 1987; October 9, 1987.
A & E Biography Web site, http://www.biography.com/ (November 18, 2003), "August Wilson."
Black Collegian Online, http://www.black-collegian.com/ (November 18, 2003), "August Wilson."
CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/ (November 18, 2003) James Earl Jones, "Playwright: August Wilson. His Poetic Plays about African-American Life Offer Plainspoken Truths That Transcend Race."
PostGazette, http://www.post-gazette.com/ (November 18, 2003), Chris Rawson, "August Wilson: A Timeline."
Syracuse University Web site, http://provost.syr.edu/lectures/ (November 18, 2003), "August Wilson."
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2590000701