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August Wilson – The Most Compulsive and Strident Voice From the Black American Theatre
August Frederick Kittel Wilson, a prolific American writer whose plays, like Eugene O’Neill’s, Arthur Miller’s and Tennessee Williams’ are produced throughout the U.S. regularly soon became the most important voice in the American theater after Lorraine Hansberry, a position that he maintained until his death in 2005 with a string of acclaimed plays starting from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom first exciting the theater world in 1984.
August Wilson mostly relies on the “4 B’s”: the Blues; fellow playwright, Amiri Bakara; Argentinian author, Jorge Luis Borges, and painter, Romare Bearden to tell what in his estimation he needs to tell in writing his plays. Apart from this, he has no particular method of writing his plays.
The blues have always had the greatest influence on Wilson, as he himself confessed in an interview with Sandra G. Shannon: “I have always consciously been chasing the musicians, It’s like our culture is in the music. And the writers are way behind the musicians… So I’m trying to close the gap.” 1
Wilson was also greatly influenced by playwright Amiri Baraka, who was part of the Black Art movement of the 1960’s. Through Baraka’s writing, Wilson “learned sociology and political commitment” and to include the emotions of anger and violence in his works. But far from supporting Baraka’s advocacy of a violent revolution, Wilson believed that African Americans need to develop a “collective self-reliance grounded in black history and culture” a preoccupation which seems more akin to that of his other mentor, Jorge Luis Borges.
Wilson was influenced not only by good writing but also by art as he claimed, that when he saw the painter Bearden’s work that was the first time that he saw black life presented in all its richness. He was so moved that he there and then resolved that he wanted to do just that-as he wanted his plays to be the equal of Bearden’s canvases. Wilson thus started creating authentic sounding characters that have brought a new understanding of the black experience to audiences in a series of plays, each one addressing African Americans in each decade of the twentieth century.
Although Wilson’s plays have not been written in chronological order, the consistent and key theme in each of them is the sense of disconnection suffered by blacks that have been uprooted from their original homeland, first from Africa and then their moving northwards away from the Jim Crowism of the slave holding south for the northern industrializing cities of Chicago and New York.
Wilson lamented that by their failure to develop their own tradition, which should be a more African response to the world, [African Americans] lost their sense of identity. Wilson has felt therefore that black people must strive to know their roots in order to understand themselves and then regain their lost identity. His plays have therefore been geared to demonstrate the black struggle to either gain this understanding and thence their identity-or escape from it.
Each of his ten plays set in a different decade of the 20th century enables Wilson to explore, often in very subtle ways, the myriad and mutating forms of the legacy of slavery. Each one of this cycle called “The Pittsburgh Cycle” or his “Century Cycle,” set in a different decade, depicting the comedy and tragedy of the African-American experience then, is unprecedented in American theater for its concept, size, and cohesion. Nine of them are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, an African-American neighborhood that takes on a mythic literary significance like Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, or Irish playwright Brian Friel’s Ballybeg.
Although the plays are not strictly parts of a serial story, some characters appear (at various ages) in more than one of them. Children of characters in earlier plays may even appear in later ones. The character Aunt Ester, a “washer of souls” who is reported to be 285 years old in Gem of the Ocean, which takes place in her home at 1839 Wylie Avenue, and 322 in Two Trains Running and who dies in 1985, during the events of ‘King Hedley I1 is the most frequently mentioned in the cycle. In another, Radio Golf , much of the action revolves around plans to demolish and redevelop Aunt Ester’s house, some years after her death.
The plays often include an apparently mentally-impaired oracular character a different individual in each play – for example, Hedley [Sr.] in Seven Guitars, or Hambone in Two Trains Running. Most of the ideas for the plays have come from varied sources such as images, snippets of conversation, or lyrics from blues songs captured by Wilson’s ever-vigilant writer’s eye and ear. As a result of the influences from his immersion into the blues music culture, virtually all of his characters end up singing the blues to show their feelings at key dramatic moments in his plays.
The play Fences evolved from his seeing an image of a man holding a baby, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone from the depiction of a struggling mill hand in a collage by acclaimed black painter Romare Bearden, whom Wilson has cited as having a particularly strong influence on his work.
Born Frederick August Kittel in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 27, 1945, Wilson, the fourth of six children, grew up in a black slum in a two-room apartment with no provision for hot water or a telephone above a grocery store at Bedford Avenue in an economically-depressed neighborhood inhabited predominantly by black Americans, as well as Jewish and Italian immigrants.
His father a white German immigrant baker, also named Frederick August Kittel, seldom spent time with his family. as Wilson reveals that his father very rarely came around. So he grew up in his mother’s household in a cultural environment which was black. His mother, Daisy Wilson, an African American cleaning woman from North Carolina, whose own mother had walked north from North Carolina to Pennsylvania in search of a better life, had to raise her six children relying on welfare checks and wages from house cleaning jobs thus managing to keep them clothed, guided, schooled and fed. According to him, she had a very hard time feeding Wilson and the rest of her children. But in spite of all that. Wilson admitted that he had a wonderful childhood. …For as a family, they did things together: saying the rosary every night at seven o’clock., sitting down and having dinner at a certain time. …and being that they didn’t have a TV, listening to the radio.
August Wilson’s induction into the racism and race-consciousness that was to be a constant theme in his works started in the late 1950s, when his mother married a black man, David Bedford, causing them to move from the Hill to a then predominantly white working class neighborhood, Hazelwood, where they encountered racial hostility with bricks being thrown through the windows at them. Though there was now racial unity if not harmony in the home, the relationship between Wilson and his stepfather was rocky even when he was a teenager. An ex-convict whose race prevented him from earning a football scholarship to college, David Bedford would become a source for Wilson’s protagonist Troy Maxson a former baseball player blocked from the major leagues by segregation in his play Fences, which won my interest in August Wilson a few years ago.
August Wilson’s literary career owes much to his mother who taught him to read very early, a process which to Wilson was transforming:him enabling him to unlock information and to be better able to understand the forces that are oppressing you. Learning to read at the age of four, Wilson consumed books voraciously, at first reading the Nancy Drew mysteries his mother managed to buy for the family. When he was 5 years old, he secured his first library card from the Hill District branch of the library on Wylie Avenue. He made such good use of it that he soon wore it out and cried when he lost it. At the age of 12 he was already a regular. client in the library. Wilson was not an exceptional student. He was so distracting that he soon developed a reputation for yelling answers out of turn in class.
His mother sent him to St. Richard’s parochial school in the Hill, and then to Central Catholic High School in Oakland. As the only black student there, he was constantly taunted and harassed. Threats and abuse drove him away in 1959, just before the end of his freshman year but the next school at which he enrolled, Connelly Vocational High School proved unchallenging.
So he switched to Gladstone High School, which was just across the street. Though he was supposed to move to the 10th grade but because he hadn’t graduated from the 9th at Central, he had to take 9th grade subjects. As the work was well behind what he had already done, he was bored and remained complacent until he decided he wanted to get into the after-school college club run by one of the teachers.
It was that teacher who, doubting that a black child could do that well on his own, writing such a well-written 20-page term paper on Napoleon as Wilson submitted accused him of plagiarism. This mostly white parochial high school also gave him a harsh dose of racism often finding notes on his desk which read “Nigger go home.” Sick of this he dropped out in the 10th grade in 1960 at the age of 15 and for a while not telling his mother.
“I dropped out of school, but I didn’t drop out of life,” as he recalled leaving the house each morning and going to the main branch of the Carnegie Library in Oakland “where they had all the books in the world. … I felt suddenly liberated from the constraints of a pre-arranged curriculum that labored through one book in eight months.”
At home, Wilson’s family had to endure racial taunts at the mostly white Hazelwood area of Pittsburgh. At age 15, Wilson began to educate himself, beginning in the “Negro” section of the public library, reading works by Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, and other black writers, Wilson made such extensive use of the Carnegie Library to educate himself that they later awarded him a degree, the only such one they have bestowed anyone.
Like Richard Wright ,Wilson was caught up in the power of words. His fascination with language made him an avid listener, soaking up the conversations he overheard in coffee shops and on street corners, and using the titbits of conversations to construct stories in his head.
By his late teens, Wilson had dedicated himself to the task of becoming a writer. For by this time, he knew what he wanted to be, a writer, even though this created tension with his mother, who wanted him to become a lawyer. But when he continued to work at odd jobs, she got so fed up with what she considered his lack of direction that she forced him out of the home. He then got enlisted in the U.S. Army for a three-year stint in 1962, but somehow got himself discharged a year later, and went back to working odd jobs such as porter, short-order cook, gardener, and dishwasher
August Kittel changing his name to August Wilson thus honoring his mother after his father’s death in 1965 marked the symbolic starting point of his serious writing career. For that same year he bought a used typewriter, paying for it with twenty dollars that his sister, Freda, gave him for writing her a term paper on Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. It was also the year that he discovered and first heard the blues, when he heard a tune sung by Bessie Smith entitled “Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jellyroll Like Mine.” He was mesmerized by the emotions that Smith’s sassy delivery exuded. The source of his artistic vision could thus be traced to this time. The blues had a big impact on Wilson, for through the blues, as well as his experiences listening to the tales of the older folks, he learned that “both the history and culture of African Americans had their roots in an oral, rather than a written tradition. By stages it would lead to the understanding that this oral tradition consists of an extended riposte to a set of values and codes imposed on blacks by white America”. These two things stimulated his literary and theatrical prowess.
His literary development moved up one stage further when at the age of 20 Wilson moved into a boarding house, rented a room and began writing lines of poetry on paper bags while sitting in a local restaurant, gathering inspiration from tales swapped by elderly men at a nearby cigar store. Here he got the other important part of his education. For “Pittsburgh” as he once described it “is a very hard city, especially if you’re black,” so each day which he said was rough. had to be continually negotiated. to the deprivation was that he grew up without a father.So when he was 20, he went down onto Centre Avenue to learn from the community how to be a man.
That community provided many fathers for him in– the old men chatting in Pat’s Place or on street corners; the inhabitants of the diners where Wilson sat and listened; like-minded friends with artistic inclinations. His true father was both the small community that nurtured him and the larger Pittsburgh that, by opposing, stimulated and defined his artistry.
Furthermore, Wilson expanded his literary landscape by immersing himself in the works of Dylan Thomas and John Berryman as well as in Amiri Baraka’s poems and plays which he loved because of their lively rhythms and street-smart language.
Wilson’s literary education continued at Pittsburgh’s Halfway Art Gallery, where he found an audience for his poetry, and became acquainted with some of “Pittsburgh’s black literati.” Together they formed the Center Avenue Poets Theatre Workshop. In the late ’60s, as a part of this talented group of poets, educators and artists of the future, young men, whose regular haunts were at the Halfway Art Gallery and the Hill Arts Society, Wilson remembered that he always had a napkin and a pencil ready by him. Although some of his poems were published in some small magazines over the next few years, he failed to achieve recognition as a poet.
Earlier on we identified mostly literary and artistic influences on the works of August Wilson. Apart from these there were ideological as well as political influences on his life and works much of which came from Malcolm X. Malcolm X bore such a strong influence on Wilson that he gave him the sense of direction he needed to resist the easy temptations of the streets. For it was Malcolm X who offered the young fatherless Wilson a vision of black manhood. It is as a mark of his devotion to him, that Wilson even possessed an album of his speeches which one expects he must have been listening to over and over again thus forming part of his linguistic landscape along with those familiar voices and discussions in the pubs and restaurants he frequented.
According to Wilson himself: “When we saw or heard Malcolm we saw or heard ourselves. Whatever the self was: Malcolm the Bad Nigger. Malcolm the Boisterous. Malcolm the Defiant. Malcolm the Brave. He was all these and more” It is then not surprising that this theme pervades Wilson’s male protagonists, as each seeks to “survive as a black man in America” .
The writings of Malcolm X in this way had great influence on the orientation of Wilson and on his writings. Wilson through him took up the banner of cultural nationalism which meant black people working toward self-definition, self-determination, as Wilson put it. “It meant that we had a culture that was valid and that we weren’t willing to trade it to participate in the American Dream.” He became involved in the debates of the ’60s and continued up to his death to consider himself “a black nationalist and a cultural nationalist.” following various black identity movements and fighting for social justice.
From poetry which he did not have such a successful publishing record in, August Wilson moved on to the area where he was to gain his fame, theater. August Wilson first became aware of the theater through Pearl Bailey in Hello, Dolly, around 1958, 1959. “My mother was in New York and brought back the program, her first and only Broadway show.” But his first brushes with theater had been off-putting. In 1965, he saw a 30-minute excerpt of The Rhinoceros at Fifth Avenue High School. “That was the first theater I recall, and I wasn’t impressed.” He met some of the actors in John Hancock’s 1966 Pittsburgh Playhouse company, but he stayed for only 20 minutes of Bertolt Brecht’s A Man’s a Man. But in 1968, when Mr. Penny wrote a play and the Tulane Drama Review had a special issue on black theater “… was the first time I’d seen black plays in print — there hadn’t been any plays on the Negro shelf at the library. So we did them all.”
In 1969 Wilson and his friend Rob Penny, a playwright and teacher, founded the black activist theater company Black Horizons on the Hill District of Pittsburgh focusing on politicizing the community and raising black consciousness. Through this theater formed to promote “black self-awareness,” Wilson produced and directed plays that “challenged both the aesthetic and the ideological premises of the reigning Caucasian theater”. Black Horizons also gave him the chance to present his own early plays, mostly in public schools and community centers.
His first play, Recycling, drawing on the unhappy 1972 termination of his 1969 marriage to Brenda Burton.was performed for audiences in small theaters and public housing community centers, Soon thereafter, his friend Claude Purdy moved to St. Paul to work with its black theater group, Penumbra, inviting Wilson to join him.
In 1976 Dr. Vernell Lillie, who had founded the Kuntu Repertory Theatre at the University of Pittsburgh two years earlier, directed Wilson’s one-act play The Homecoming. When Wilson saw that same year Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Banzi is Dead, a comic-tragic account of life under apartheid at the Pittsburgh Public Theater was the first time he saw a whole, professional play.
Wilson, Penny, and poet Maisha Baton also started the Kuntu Writers Workshop to bring African-American writers together and to assist them in publication and production.
To find the voice that would make him famous as a playwright, Wilson thought that he needed to gain distance from his roots which opportunity came in 1978 when he visited his friend Claude Purdy in St. Paul, Minnesota in response to his earlier invitation to join him. Purdy urged Wilson to write a play and Wilson felt more ready than ever before for as he told the New York Times.. “Having moved from Pittsburgh to St. Paul, I felt I could hear voices for the first time accurately..” . In ten days of writing while sitting in a fish-and-chips restaurant, Wilson finished a draft of Jitney, a play about jitney drivers set in a gypsy-cab station in Pittsburg which he submitted to the Minneapolis Playwrights Center and which won him a $200-a-month fellowship. Jitney was revised more than two decades later as part of his 10-play cycle on 20th century Pittsburgh.
At Saint Paul, Minnesota Claude Purdy helped him secure a job writing educational scripts for the Science Museum of Minnesota where he was also writing short plays for its Children’s Theater. Wilson’s satirical play, “Black Bart and the Sacred Hills,” a musical satire based on the story of the life of an outlaw of the Old West was adapted from his poems at Mr. Purdy’s suggestion and became an item in a workshop production four years later..
Though the drama written during this period does not show much genius, “Yet behind the self-consciousness of these early works is a notable ease with words and a poetic melding of the colloquial and the profound”
In 1981 Wilson moved to Seattle where he would develop a relationship with Seattle Repertory Theatre which would ultimately be the only theater in the country to produce all of his works including his ten-play cycle and his one-man show How I Learned What I Learned.
Wilson once explained that St. Paul and Seattle — cool, northern, Scandinavian cities — appealed to him precisely because of their unlikeness to Pittsburgh, allowing him to look back more intently at the true material of August Wilson Country, source of his rich stream of stories, characters, images and conflicts.
August Wilson died on October 2, 2005 at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle after in a rare and dramatic moment, initiating a month long wait for his departure after he announced on August 26, 2005, through his hometown newspaper, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that he had been diagnosed with liver cancer in June 2005 and had been given three to five months to live. The previous December, August Wilson’s thoughts had turned to mortality at his approaching 60th birthday when he said, “There’s more [life] behind me than ahead. I think of dying every day. … At a certain age, you should be prepared to go at any time.”When in May 2005, he was diagnosed with liver cancer and the next month his doctors determined it was inoperable, he showed that he was indeed prepared, telling the Post-Gazette, “I’ve lived a blessed life. I’m ready.”
Wilson has won many prizes and awards including two Pulitzer Prizes, best drama, for Fences in 1987 and for The Piano Lesson in 1990; seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, 1984, for Fences, 1987, and for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, 1988; Tony Award, best drama, for Fences, 1986-87; American Theater Critics Award, 1986, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1998 and Harold Washington Literary Award, 2001.
August Wilson had received many honorary degrees, including more than two dozen honorary doctorates with one from the University of Pittsburgh where he served as a member of the University’s Board of Trustees from 1992 until 1995. He also had Rockefeller and Guggenheim Fellowships, a National Humanities Medal, the 2003 Heinz Award in whereHumanities and Arts and the only high school diploma issued by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. He was a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Wilson received the Freedom of Speech Award at the 10th Annual U.S. Comedy Arts Festival held in Aspen, Colorado, and sponsored by HBO.
On October 16, 2005, the Virginia Theatre in New York’s Broadway theatre district was renamed the August Wilson Theatre, the first Broadway theatre to be named after an African-American. In addition, a street has been renamed August Wilson Way.
The historic home of the playwright at Bedford Avenue,where his mother raised him and her other children was dedicated as an official state historic landmark on May 30, 2007.
He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in suburban Pittsburgh on October 8, 2005. His survivors, his third wife, costume designer Constanza Romero, and his two daughters, Sakina Ansari and Azula Carmen were amongst friends, relatives, writers, producers as well as City officials at the graveside.
1. Shannon, Sandra G. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Washington, D.C.: Howard University, 1995.
- Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992.
- Contemporary Dramatists, 6th ed. St. James Press, 1999.
- August Wilson: A Casebook (Casebooks on Modern Dramatists, Volume 15), edited by Marilyn Elkins, Garland Publishing (November 1, 1999),
- Elkins, Marilyn. ed. August Wilson: A Casebook. NY: Garland, 2000.
- Gates, Henry Louis, and Alan Nadel. eds. May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson. U of Iowa, 1993.
- Shafer, Yvonne. August Wilson: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport CN: Greenwood, 1998
- Shannon, Sandra G. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Washington, DC: Howard UP, 1996.
- Shannon, Sandra G., MacMillan, Palgrave,.August Wilson and Black Aesthetics, (2004)
- Wang, Qun. An In-Depth Study of the Major Plays of African American Playwright August Wilson: Vernacularizing the Blues on Stage. Lewinston, NY: Mellen, 1999.
- Wolf, Peter. August Wilson. NY: Twayne Publishers, 1999.
- African American Review, Vol. 27, No. 4, 1994, pp. 539-59; Spring 2001, p. 93.
- Esquire, April 1989, pp. 116-27.
- New York Times Magazine, March 15, 1987, pp. 36-40, 49, 70; September 10, 1989, pp. 18-19, 58-60.
- Theater, Fall-Winter 1984, pp. 50-55.
Resources on August Wilson:
Comprehensive August Wilson Website.
Reuben, Paul P. “Chapter 8: August Wilson.” PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL: http://web.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap8/wilson.html.
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