On November 16, 1990, playwright August Wilson (1945-2005) moves to Seattle. He is in the midst of composing his monumental, 10-play cycle chronicling African American life in the twentieth century, with each play set in a different decade. Fences (set in the 1950s) won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and Piano Lesson (set in the 1930s) won a Pulitzer in 1990. In the context of increasing renown, Wilson will continue writing plays in Seattle. Most will be staged by Seattle Repertory Theatre, as well as on Broadway in New York and elsewhere. By the time of his death on October 2, 2005, August Wilson will be considered one of the great playwrights of the twentieth century, a giant figure compared to Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller.
The Long Road to Seattle
August Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945, in Pittsburgh. His father was a white German baker who abandoned the family early on, and his mother, Daisy Wilson (d. 1983), was an African American school janitor who instilled in her six children great pride and a limited tolerance for injustice. August grew up in the Hill section of Pittsburgh, dropped out of school at age 15, and educated himself by spending days at a time in the Carnegie library and on the street, from which he drew many of his characters. When he decided to become a writer, he changed his name to Wilson to distance himself from his always-distant father and to honor his mother.
He became a poet at the age of 20. After a short stint in the Army, in the late 1960s he cofounded with Rob Penny the Black Horizon Theater in Pittsburgh. He later (1978) moved to St. Paul, served as a writer at the Science Museum of Minnesota, at night working on his plays. His breakthrough came when Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was accepted in 1982 for production at the National Playwright's Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom earned the New York Drama Critic's award.
A Relaxed, Civilized Place
Wilson moved to Seattle in 1990 following the breakup of his second marriage in the summer of 1990. He was looking for a "relaxed, civilized" place to settle (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). In 1994 he married his third wife, Constanza Romero, who was the costume designer at the Yale Repertory Theatre for the first production of The Piano Lesson.
The Seattle Repertory Theatre has staged most of his plays. Sharon Ott, former artistic director for the theater said, "I think that in the next 50 years, if not before, it will be very clear that the most important American dramatist of the latter part of the 20th century is August Wilson" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).
August Wilson was one of only four playwrights to have a Broadway theater named after him. In August 2005 the Virginia Theater at 245 West 52nd Street in New York was renamed the August Wilson Theater.
August Wilson was a charismatic and beloved figure in Seattle's vibrant theater world. About his work, he once wrote, "I wanted to place this [African American] culture onstage in all its richness and fullness and to demonstrate its ability to sustain us in all areas of human life and endeavor and through profound moments of our history in which the larger society has thought less of us than we have thought of ourselves" (The New York Times).
August Wilson announced in August 2005 that in June he had been diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer. He died at Swedish Hospital in Seattle on October 2, 2005. He was survived by two daughters, Sakina Ansari Wilson (b. 1970), and Azula Carmen Wilson (b. 1997), and by his wife.