Who was August Wilson? Facts About the African American Playwright Won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award

 

August Wilson’s debut play, Jitney, was written in 1979. In 1987, he won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for his play Fences. Wilson received a second Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for The Piano Lesson. Seven Guitars premiered on Broadway in 1996, followed by King Hedley II in 2001 and Jewel of the Ocean in 2004. Wilson died in Seattle, Washington, on October 2, 2005.

Early Life and Education

Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Daisy Wilson, his mother, was of African American descent. Frederick Kittel, his father, was a German immigrant.

Kittel attended St. Richard’s Parochial School as a child. When his parents divorced, he, his mother, and his siblings relocated from Pittsburgh’s impoverished Bedford Avenue neighborhood to the predominantly white Oakland neighborhood. After being subjected to the constant racism of his peers at Central Catholic High School, he switched to Connelly Vocational High School and, later, Gladstone High School. Wilson began his independent study in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh when he was 15 years old, where he earned his high school diploma.

Upon his father’s death in 1965, Wilson, then 20, took the pen name “August Wilson” in honour to his mother and declared himself a poet. Wilson and a buddy, Rob Penny, co-founded the Black Horizon Theater in 1968.

Wilson remained mostly focused on making it as a poet until 1978, when he relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota.

Plays: ‘Fences, ‘The Pittsburgh Cycle,’ ‘The Piano Lesson’

Wilson’s first significant play, Jitney, was written in 1979 and earned him a residency at the Minneapolis Playwright Center.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, his new play, was accepted at the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference the following year. The year 1982 was very fruitful for Wilson because it was the year he met Lloyd Richards, who went on to direct Wilson’s first six Broadway plays.

Fences opened on Broadway in 1987, garnering Wilson his first Pulitzer Prize as well as a Tony Award. Fences, set in the 1950s, tackled issues of the ever-changing Black experience and race relations in America. Fences was the sixth installment of the playwright’s ten-part series titled The Pittsburgh Cycle (also known as The Century Cycle), with each “part” denoted by a decade. Joe Turner, the cycle’s second installment, premiered on Broadway in 1988.

With the Broadway premiere of The Piano Lesson, he received another Pulitzer Prize in 1990.

Three Plays by August Wilson, a collection of Wilson’s work, was published in book form in 1991. The following year saw the Broadway debut of Two Trains Running.

Seven Guitars made its Broadway debut in 1996.

King Hedley II premiered on Broadway in 2001, while Gem of the Ocean followed a year later in Chicago. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was recreated on Broadway in 2003. The Broadway production of Gem of the Ocean began in 2004 and ran for 72 performances.

Death

Wilson died on October 2, 2005, in Seattle, Washington, of liver cancer. His latest play, Radio Golf, had only premiered a few months before in Los Angeles, California.

Personal Life

Wilson married Brenda Burton in 1969. Sakina was born in 1970, and the couple split two years later.

Wilson married his second wife, Judy Oliver, in 1981. The couple divorced in 1990.

Wilson married for the third time in 1994 to a costume designer named Constanza Romero, with whom she had a daughter, Azula, in 1997.

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