Wilson, August (1945-2005)

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 2/03/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10315

August Wilson was a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who lived the final 15 years of his life in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. His 10-play cycle of dramas covered each decade of African American life in the twentieth century. His stories are largely set in his native Pittsburgh, where he grew up in the black section of town known as The Hill. Wilson was the son of a volatile white German father and a doting African American mother. He dropped out of school at 15 and immersed himself in libraries and books. His first ambition was to be a poet but he later turned to theater as a way to tell the stories of the American black experience. His breakthrough came in 1984 with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. There followed a series of critically acclaimed plays, the best known of which are the Pulitzer-winning Fences and The Piano Lesson. Wilson moved to Seattle in 1990, where he collaborated with the Seattle Repertory Theatre. In 2005, shortly after completing his 10-play cycle, he succumbed to liver cancer. A Broadway theater was renamed the August Wilson Theater and a pedestrian promenade in Seattle Center was renamed August Wilson Way.

Frederick August Kittel

August Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945, in Pittsburgh to a German-born white father, Frederick "Fritz" Kittel (d. 1965), and a black mother, Daisy Wilson Kittel (d. 1983). He was the fourth of six children. His father, a baker, was mostly absent throughout his childhood. Wilson's memories of his father "were of a destructively violent man" who drank "muscatel by the gallon" and threw bricks during arguments (Cambridge, 7; Lahr). His mother supported the family by working as a cleaning lady. She was strong-willed and competitive, and she adored her son. Wilson recalled, "She made me believe that I could do anything" (Lahr).

They lived in Pittsburgh's Hill District, also known at the time as Little Harlem. Wilson would later bring this neighborhood to life in his plays. Around 1957, his mother divorced his father and moved the family to the nearby working-class neighborhood of Hazelwood.

There she married David Bedford, a black man who had once been a high school football star and had become a city sewer worker, community leader, and avid reader. Bedford, not Fritz Kittel, became an important father figure to Wilson. "I loved the man," Wilson later said of Bedford (Lahr). Much later, Wilson learned that Bedford had once spent 23 years in jail "for having killed a man during a robbery" (Cambridge, 7).

Wilson was a precocious child, learning to read at age four. In kindergarten, he was already entertaining his class with his stories, and by grade school he was writing poetry. He had a gift for language and a reputation for intellectual grandiosity; his nickname in school was "Napoleon" (Lahr). He also had inherited some of his father's volatility. His sister called him a "kid with a temper" and a poor loser at games (Lahr). One of his childhood friends said he could be "mad scary" when he got emotional and that "you'd think he was gonna snap out, attack you, or beat you up or something" (Lahr). Sometimes, he did. He later said that he considered life a "battle" and that he learned early that "society was lined up against you" (Lahr).

Defining Moment

The battle was joined in earnest when he entered Central Catholic High School and was the only black student in his grade. Once, during the Pledge of Allegiance, a white student muttered the word "nigger" to Wilson. Wilson waited until the class reached the line "liberty and justice for all," and then he turned and punched the student. As a result, Wilson transferred to a vocational school, where he "bounced" an abusive teacher "off the blackboard" and left the school (Lahr).

Wilson enrolled in Gladstone High School and it wasn't long before he experienced one of the defining points in his life, also involving a teacher. He was assigned to write about a historical figure and he chose Napoleon, his favorite because "he was a self-made man" (Lahr). Wilson threw himself into the assignment, researching it, writing it, and renting a typewriter and paying his sister 25 cents a page to type it.

After he turned the paper in, the teacher told him he had intended to give him an A-plus but became suspicious that the paper was too good. The instructor suspected that one of Wilson's older sisters had written it for him. He challenged Wilson to prove he had written it. Wilson replied hotly that he didn't have to prove anything. The teacher gave him a failing grade and handed the paper back.

"I tore it up, threw it in the wastebasket, and walked out of school," said Wilson (Lahr). He never went back. He was 15. He was afraid to tell his mother. So every morning for the rest of the school year he walked out the door and spent the day at the local library. There, he discovered he did not need teachers. He had books: "The world opened up. I could wander through the stacks" (Lahr).

Inevitably, his mother found out. He remembered, "My mother was very disappointed. She saw a lot of potential that I'd squandered, as far as she was concerned" (Lahr). She was more than disappointed; she was furious. She had "wanted me to go to a nice Catholic college and be a lawyer" (Moyers). She told her son "he was no good and would amount to nothing" (Lahr). She banished him to the basement, where he resolved to "show" her. He decided to become a writer.

Becoming August Wilson

This hardly proved practical for a teenager, however. So, to get out of the house, Wilson joined the Army at age 17. He signed up for a three-year hitch but his Army career ended after one year. According to one account, he passed a test for Officer Candidate School, but couldn't become an officer because he wasn't yet 19 and "if he couldn't be an officer, he wasn't interested" (Lahr).

He left the Army in 1963 and drifted for a while. Then he returned to Pittsburgh where, in April 1964, he bought a used typewriter and sat down in his boarding house room and embarked on his new career as a poet and writer. He typed out every combination of his name and his mother's maiden name and settled on the pen name "August Wilson" because "it looked best on paper" (Lahr). He wrote several poems and sent them to Harper's Magazine, where they were quickly rejected. He later said he wasn't deterred, but "emboldened" to grow as an artist (Lahr).

Over the decade, Wilson supported himself with a variety of odd jobs -- dishwasher, cook, gardener, porter, and mailroom clerk -- yet he continued to prepare himself for his true vocation of literature. He loved Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), and he bought some tweedy suits, white shirts, and a pipe and took to "intoning poetry in an English accent" (Lahr). "People thought he was crazy in the neighborhood," according to one old friend from those days (Lahr). But Wilson didn't mind: "I saw myself as a grand person" (Lahr).

Blues and Theater

Meanwhile, he had discovered the art form that would infuse so much of his later work: the blues. He bought a thrift-shop copy of Bessie Smith's (1894-1937) "Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine" and played it 22 times straight. He later called this song an "epiphany" and a "birth, a baptism, and a redemption all rolled up into one" (Lahr). He said he suddenly realized that people such as his mother and his fellow boarding house residents "had a history I didn't know they had" (Lahr). He realized he was the "carrier of some very valuable antecedents" (Lahr).

He also began to hang out at Pat's Place, a Pittsburgh cigar store and pool hall, where he absorbed the stories of the elderly black men. Wilson would continue, all of his life, to sit and write in places that were full of life and conversation. Around 1967, Wilson made his first foray into theater when he and some poet friends started their own literary/theater group called the Centre Avenue Poets Theatre Workshop. A small literary journal, Signal (soon renamed Connection), grew out of that. Wilson became the poetry editor.

In 1968, Wilson and playwright Rob Penny co-founded the Black Horizons Theatre. Wilson said they founded the theater as a way to "politicize the community" (Feingold). Penny became the group's resident playwright. Wilson directed some plays. He recalled, "I wasn't writing any plays then. I was directing -- I mean I didn't know how to do that either; I'd never even seen a play" (Feingold).

He married Brenda Burton, a member of the Nation of Islam, in 1969, and had a daughter with her, but the marriage lasted only two years. By 1971 Wilson was finished with Black Horizons Theatre. He began concentrating on his poetry, for which he was finally gaining recognition. "Muhammad Ali," his first published poem, came out in Black World in 1969, and more poems were subsequently published in Negro Digest, Black Lines, and Black Americans: Anthology of the Twentieth Century.

St. Paul

Wilson's desire to write plays was sparked by seeing Athol Fugard's (b. 1932) groundbreaking play about apartheid, Sizwe Bansi is Dead. He began writing one-act plays. Then in 1976 a director friend, Claude Purdy (1940-2009), suggested that Wilson turn his poems about a character named Black Bart -- a Western satire -- into a play. Wilson did so and in 1977 he received a call from Purdy in St. Paul, Minnesota, asking Wilson to come out to St. Paul and re-write the play.

"He sent me a ticket and I went; and I said, 'This is a nice place, I should move up here.' And a couple of months after that, I did," Wilson recalled (Feingold). He married a white social worker, Judy Oliver, and found a job adapting Native American stories into children's plays at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Yet he continued to develop more serious dramatic work, inspired by the fact that for the first time he lived in a city where there "weren't many black folks around" (Lahr). He "got lonely and missed those guys and sort of created them -- I could hear the music" (Lahr). For the first time, he felt that he was creating characters who were "talking black language" (Brantley).

Wilson was also inspired by the art of Romare Bearden (1911-1988), who created paintings and collages depicting black life. He later called Bearden his "artistic mentor" (Lahr). Wilson joined the Playwrights Center of Minneapolis and began writing a series of plays depicting black life in America, with titles such as Jitney!, Fullerton Street, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. To make ends meet he worked as a cook.

During his off-hours, he hung out at a fish-and-chips restaurant and polished Jitney!, about the men he knew at a Pittsburgh taxi stand. Wilson submitted the play to the National Playwrights Conference, an annual event at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, where selected playwrights develop new works. The conference rejected it. Wilson was so convinced of its worth that he re-submitted it. The conference rejected it again.


A resigned Wilson resumed work on his Ma Rainey play, about the 1920s blues singer Ma Rainey (1886-1939) and the musicians who surrounded her. In 1982, he submitted Ma Rainey's Black Bottom to the O'Neill Center conference, which accepted it. Crucially, the play also captured the attention of Lloyd Richards (1919-2006), the artistic director of the conference and the head of the Yale Drama School. Richards, of Jamaican descent, enjoyed national respect and influence. He had directed the landmark 1959 Broadway hit about black life in America, A Raisin in the Sun. Wilson later said that Richards became "my guide, my mentor, and my provocateur" (Lahr). After a series of staged readings and revisions at the O'Neill Center, Richards directed Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1984. It was an immediate critical success and was mentioned in glowing terms in The New York Times.

 Then, on October 12, 1984, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom opened at the Cort Theatre on Broadway to rave reviews. New York Times theater critic Frank Rich wrote:

"This play is a searing inside account of what white racism does to its victims -- and it floats on the same authentic artistry as the blues music it celebrates … Mr. Wilson articulates a legacy of unspeakable agony and rage in a spellbinding voice" (Rich, 335).

The play went on to win the 1985 New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Wilson, now firmly established as an important new voice in theater, rejected overtures to become a Hollywood screenwriter and instead threw himself into an ambitious theatrical project: a cycle of plays about black American life, covering each decade of the twentieth century. He already had drafts of two plays ready -- Fences (set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s) and Joe Turner's Come and Gone (set in Pittsburgh in the 1910s). In April 1985 Richards directed Fences at the Yale Repertory Theatre, and in April 1986 he directed Joe Turner's Come and Gone, also at Yale. Both plays moved on to Broadway.

Awards and More Plays

Fences, starring James Earl Jones (b. 1931), ran on Broadway for more than a year in 1987 and 1988. The New York Times, in its review, called Wilson "a major writer, combining a poet's ear for vernacular with a robust sense of humor (political and sexual), a sure instinct for dramatic incident, and a passionate commitment to a great subject" (Rich, 525). In 1987 Fences won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the two biggest prizes in American theater. Upon learning that he won the Pulitzer Wilson said: "It's always great when someone sees value in your work. I think they are responding to the humanity of the characters, recognizing themselves on some level. Of course, it is a black family. Maybe, for the first time, a general audience has been touched by blacks'' (Freedman).

Joe Turner's Come and Gone arrived on Broadway in 1988 and won the New York Drama Critics' award. Wilson considered it the best of his three plays thus far, although he added that he always considered his last play to be the best. That same year, The Piano Lesson, which took its name from a Bearden painting, opened in Boston and subsequently went to Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and finally, in April 1990, to Broadway. Just days before the Broadway opening, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Wilson's second in three years. Wilson responded:

"This is thrilling, for this play in particular, because I think the ideas in this play -- the questions of what you do with your legacy, of how you put it to use -- are larger than those in Fences. For that reason, I think I embrace the award a bit more than the award for Fences" (McFadden).

He would later say that winning the Pulitzers "hasn't affected me. What it does is change the way people look at you, but it doesn't change the way I look at myself. What did I do? I wrote some plays. I wrote a couple of plays. I've been writing 26 years and I've got a whole bulk of writing" (Shannon).


Late in 1990, Wilson's personal life was transformed. He divorced his second wife and, on November 16, 1990, moved to Seattle. Most of his Capitol Hill neighbors were probably unaware that a two-time Pulitzer winner was in their midst until February 1991, when Seattle Times columnist Don Williamson wrote a column headlined "A Late Welcome to a New Neighbor." The Seattle Times later speculated that Wilson wanted to be near the Seattle Repertory Theatre, which had just produced his newest play, Two Trains Running (following productions at Yale and Boston). Yet Wilson's personal assistant said only that the playwright liked Seattle "because it reminded him of St. Paul -- as opposed to New York, where he would never live" (Berson, "Work Routine").

Wilson, in a 1991 interview for the African American Review, put it in his own words:

"I moved to Seattle because I got divorced. Seattle is a nice town. I had been there a couple of times, and it was as far west as I could get and as far away from New York as I could get. And I didn't know anyone in Seattle. I still don't know anyone in Seattle. That's fine with me" (Shannon).

The interviewer asked, "So it wasn't an aesthetic move?" to which Wilson replied, "No" (Shannon). In 1993, he told Seattle Times interviewer, over coffee in a Capitol Hill deli, that he didn't attend much theater, didn't drive, and preferred a "simple life. ... Give me my books and records and I'm happy" (Berson, "Story Weaver"). Wilson married his third wife, Constanza Romero, a costume designer, in 1994.

Writing and Performing

Wilson wrote most of his next play, Seven Guitars, at two Capitol Hill eateries, the Broadway American Grill and B&O Espresso. He always liked to write in noisy places full of conversation. He often took the bus to other Seattle hangouts, including Lowell's at Pike Place Market, Cafe Minnies, and the Mecca Cafe. Seven Guitars, set in the 1940s, premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 1995, later moving to Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Broadway. Meanwhile, Wilson co-produced a TV-movie version of The Piano Lesson, starring Charles S. Dutton (b. 1951) and Alfre Woodard (b. 1952), that was broadcast on the Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1995. His early play Jitney, heavily revised and shorn of its exclamation mark, premiered in Pittsburgh in 1996 and then moved on to New Jersey.

The Seattle Rep had meanwhile staged four of Wilson's plays, including a version of The Piano Lesson, directed by longtime collaborator Richards. In a 1996 interview, Wilson was asked why he had not worked with the Seattle Rep's artistic director Daniel Sullivan (b. 1940):

"If I worked with someone other than Lloyd Richards, Daniel would not be my first choice of director. He's a very good director, but I think I'd want to find a black director" (Rosen).

However Wilson would soon develop a close and fruitful relationship with the Seattle Repertory Theatre. His play King Hedley II, set in the 1980s, was produced at the Seattle Rep in March 2000, not long after its premiere at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre.

In May 2003, Wilson delivered a new work to the Seattle Rep that was a complete departure from his usual format. It was a one-man show, titled How I Learned What I Learned, performed by Wilson himself. It was his acting debut, and he told stories of his childhood and coming of age while puffing on a cigarette. He confided that he "never wanted to be an actor" and he didn't "like people staring at me" (Berson, "Leap").

Why did he do it? Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson explained: "It's no secret that this is a kind of gift to Seattle Repertory Theatre (which has produced many Wilson scripts), to kick off its new works series this spring" (Berson, "Solo").

Completing the Cycle

Wilson shared a "rambling turn-of-the-century house" in Capitol Hill with his wife and daughter, Azula (Lahr). The living room had almost no furniture -- "it's gone beyond eccentricity," bemoaned his wife -- and he did a lot of his writing in the basement, alongside a punching bag and a "labyrinth of water pipes" (Lahr). He was often out of town on various theatrical projects. Once when he came back to Seattle, his three-year-old daughter accused him of living in "all of those other places, Boston, New York, Pittsburgh" instead of Seattle (Lahr).

Wilson worked steadily -- between bouts with his punching bag -- on completing what came to be called his Twentieth Century Cycle or Pittsburgh Cycle. In 2003, Gem of the Ocean, set in the 1900s, opened at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. In April 2005, Radio Golf, set in the 1990s and the last of the cycle, opened at the Yale Repertory Theatre.

In the summer of 2005, bad news arrived: Wilson was being treated for liver cancer and his prognosis was serious. He was resting at home. Within weeks, the Jujamcyn Production Company in New York announced that it planned to rename the Virginia Theater on Broadway the August Wilson Theater because Wilson was "one of the most important American playwrights ever" (McKinley, "Renamed"). King Hedley II had played there in 2001. The Seattle Times lauded the national outpouring of praise for Wilson and said, "Frankly, Wilson helped put us on the map," in an editorial headlined "An American Shakespeare."

On October 2, 2005, Wilson died of liver cancer at Swedish Hospital in Seattle, surrounded by his family. Sharon Ott, former Seattle Rep artistic director, said "I've been fortunate in my life to be around a few real geniuses and there is no doubt August was one of them" (Berson, "Dies"). Wilson's body was displayed for mourners in a Seattle funeral home before being taken to Pittsburgh for his funeral.

At the funeral service in Pittsburgh, actors Charles Dutton and Phylicia Rashad (b. 1948) read excerpts from his work. Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (b. 1961) played one of Wilson's favorite tunes, "Danny Boy."

August Wilson Way

Broadway's Virginia Theater was officially re-christened the August Wilson Theater on October 16, 2005, with a new marquee displaying Wilson's signature in lights. Rocco Landesman (b. 1947), the Broadway entrepreneur who owned the theater said, "The name of August Wilson is written in stone forever" (McKinley, "Virginia"). It became one of the few Broadway theaters named after a playwright (the only two others were the Eugene O'Neill Theater and the Neil Simon Theater) and the only one named after an African American.

The accolades continued to pour in long after Wilson's death. In 2012, Broadway actor Brandon J. Dirden (b. 1978) was interviewed in The New York Times about what it was like to act in Wilson's plays:

"Every true Wilsonian actor would agree: This is not me doing something to the language, this is the language doing something to me ... One writer has given me enough work to look forward to for the rest of my life" (Dirden).

Pittsburgh's African American Cultural Center was renamed the August Wilson Center for American Culture. In 2006, a pedestrian-only stretch of Republican Way -- running through Seattle Center from Warren Avenue to Marion Oliver McCaw Hall -- was renamed to honor Wilson. The portal into the promenade is a 12-foot high steel and glass door, decorated with his image and quotes from his works. The promenade's name is August Wilson Way.

Sources: The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson ed. by Christopher Bigsby (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Peter Wolfe, August Wilson: Twayne's United States Authors Series (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999); John Lahr, "Been Here and Gone," The New Yorker, April 16, 2001, pp. 50-65 (also reprinted in The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson, listed above); Michael Feingold, "August Wilson's Bottomless Blackness," Bill Moyers, "August Wilson: Playwright," David Savran, "August Wilson," Sandra G. Shannon, "August Wilson Explains His Dramatic Vision: An Interview," and Carl Rosen, "August Wilson: Bard of the Blues," in Conversations with August Wilson ed. by Jackson R. Bryer and Mary C. Hartig (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006); Frank Rich, Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for The New York Times, 1980-1993 (New York: Random House, 1998); Robert D. McFadden, "'Piano Lesson' Wins Drama Pulitzer as 21 Prizes Given," The New York Times, April 13, 1990 (www.nytimes.com); Ben Brantley, "The World That Created August Wilson," Ibid., February 5, 1995; Samuel G. Freedman, "Story of Black Life in 1950s Wins Pulitzer," Ibid., April 17, 1987; Jessie McKinley, "Theater Is to be Renamed for a Dying Playwright," Ibid., September 2, 2005; McKinley, "Virginia Theater Takes on a New Name: August Wilson," Ibid., October 19, 2005; Brandon J. Dirden, "Snapshot," Ibid., December 30, 2012, p. AR-2; Misha Berson, "August Wilson's Solo Show Deftly Catches Life's Contradictions," The Seattle Times, May 27, 2003 (http://seattletimes.com); Berson, "August Wilson Settling into a Work Routine Here," Ibid., May 26, 1991; Berson, "August Wilson Makes Leap from Playwright to Thespian," Ibid., May 18, 2003; "An American Shakespeare," Ibid., September 9, 2005; Berson, "Playwright August Wilson Dies," Ibid., October 3, 2005; Don Williamson, "An Author's Treasures: A Late Welcome to a New Neighbor," Ibid., February 10, 1991; Janet I-Chin Tu, "A Story to Tell -- Playwright August Wilson, Now Settled in Seattle's Misty Nest, Writes about the Black Experience Like No Other Storyteller," Ibid., January 18, 1998.

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