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August Wilson was a phenomenally successful American playwright who won two Pulitzers, five New York Drama Critics Circle awards, and several Tony Awards. In a rare occurrence, in 1988 Wilson had two plays running simultaneously on Broadway—Fences (first performed in 1985) and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1986). Dedicated to representing blacks from every decade of the century in a ten-play cycle, Wilson completed the cycle before his untimely death due to liver cancer in 2005. Wilson’s plays expanded the range of American theater by documenting and celebrating black historical experience, thereby showing that embracing African spiritual and cultural heritage could promote individual and collective healing for blacks.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood Poverty and Dropping Out
August Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945, to an African-American mother, Daisy Wilson Kittel, and a white German father, Frederick August Kittel, who all but abandoned the family soon after August was born. August was one of six children and grew up in poverty in Pittsburg, in a two-room apartment above a grocery store. His mother, whom he idolized, supported her family with cleaning jobs and encouraged her children to read, teaching August to read at age four.
When Wilson was an adolescent, his mother married an African American named David Bedford, who moved them to Hazelwood, a mostly white suburb; there Wilson and his family were victims of racist vandalism and abuse. Wilson dropped out of high school at age fifteen following false charges of plagiarism on a paper he had written. After dropping out of school, Wilson spent much of his time in the library, and prepared himself to be a writer, hoping for several months that his mother would not find out that he was not in school. He was largely self-taught, and educated himself by reading all that he could by the writers in the black literature section of the library. These authors included Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Amiri Baraka. He also eagerly read books on black anthropology and sociology.
Influences of Blues Music and Black Power
His twentieth year, 1965, was a pivotal one for Wilson. He moved out of his mother’s home into a rooming house and joined a group of young black intellectuals, poets, and playwrights. That same year, Wilson bought his first typewriter and a used Victrola, on which he played several jazz and blues records, purchased for five cents each from a nearby resale store. He often speaks of the profound impact of listening to the blues, and specifically Bessie Smith, for the first time. Hearing her voice gave him realization of the nobility and spirituality of African-American folk expression and increased his own self-esteem as a member of the black community.
Later in the fall of 1965, Wilson heard Malcolm X’s recorded voice for the first time. Although the media has tended to downplay this aspect of Wilson’s career and life, the Black Power movement was, as he says in ”The Ground on Which I Stand” (1996), ”the kiln in which I was fired.” He was drawn to the Black Power and Nation of Islam messages of self-sufficiency, self-defense, and self-determination, and appreciated the origin myths espoused by the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad. In 1969 Wilson married Brenda Burton, a Muslim, and briefly converted to Islam in an unsuccessful attempt to sustain the marriage. They had a daughter, Sakina Ansari-Wilson, and divorced in 1972.
Wilson’s poetic work developed his expertise with metaphor and eventually evolved into effective playwrighting. In his preface to Three Plays (1991) Wilson reflects on his first empowering experiences in writing drama: ”When I sat down to write I realized I was sitting in the same chair as Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Henrik Ibsen, Amiri Baraka, and Ed Bullins.” He asserts that regardless of race, all playwrights face the same problems of crafting convincing drama and characters. After moving to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1978 to write plays for the Science Museum of Minnesota, Wilson became the recipient of a fellowship with the Minneapolis Playwrights Center in 1980, and, in 1981 he married Judy Oliver, a social worker.
Wilson’s Broadway success began in 1984 with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. (The title is a reference to a popular dance of the 1920s.) The drama takes place during an imaginary recording session in 1927 where the musicians and singer Ma Rainey confront verbal abuse they have encountered and discuss other forms of abuse, most notably the various experiences of racism that all of them have suffered. First staged in 1984 by the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, it garnered such glowing reviews that before the end of the year it had opened on Broadway. Wilson was hailed as a ”promising new playwright” for American theater. Meanwhile, the play itself went on to win several awards, including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.
Wilson’s next drama, Fences (1985), also had its first performance with the Yale Repertory Theater then opened on Broadway in 1987. From the first, Fences received rave reviews. It grossed eleven million dollars in its first year and won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and four Tony Awards. Wilson confirmed his talent with his next drama, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which opened on Broadway in 1988 and was yet another winner of the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. The play is about an ex-convict’s efforts to find his wife. It is also an allegory for all uprooted black Americans.
A Second Pulitzer Prize
In 1990, after the end of his second marriage, Wilson moved west to Seattle, Washington. While still on the East Coast, though, he triumphed with the Broadway opening of The Piano Lesson (1990), which won him a second Pulitzer Prize. In this drama, a brother and sister quarrel over a piano that has been in the family for generations. Boy Willie wants to sell the piano to buy the land on which their ancestors were slaves, but his sister Berenice wants to keep the piano because of the family history carved on it.
Also in 1990, the Yale Repertory Theater continued the tradition of introducing Wilson’s plays by staging the first production of Two Trains Running, which opened on Broadway in 1992. Set in Pittsburgh in 1968, Two Trains Running takes place at a lunch counter, where the regulars discuss the issues of the times, including the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Wilson’s success as a playwright continued throughout his life as his plays were produced on stage and in film. In 1995 a film version of The Piano Lesson was televised on Hallmark Hall of Fame, and it featured four members of the original Broadway cast. Seven Guitars (1996) won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and King Hedley II debuted on Broadway in 2001. A revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom opened on Broadway in 2003 with Whoopi Goldberg and Charles Dutton. Though his art was at times controversial and his life was shortened by cancer, Wilson’s place in American theatrical history was secured by his passionate writing and activism that moved African-American theater to the forefront of national attention and to the mainstream of Broadway.
Works in Literary Context
Wilson enlivened the American theater by creating plays that celebrated the African-American historical experience. His success resulted in part from his ability to translate the specifics of black life into the conventions of realism and naturalism within his themes of the search for identity, racial exploitation and injustice, empowerment through the blues, and spiritual regeneration. While he adheres to traditional dramatic form, his plays imply no easy answers. Embracing the spiritual, Wilson’s plays give voice to the mystical as integral to everyday life and experience. Complex and mysterious, his plays show the poisonous effects of a bitter legacy on black individuals and their communities and include thrilling if infrequent moments of personal liberation.
American Realists and Experimentation
Following World War II, American writers began to create innovative and self-aware works that reflected popular culture. From chronicling the elite classes of society, writers increasingly experimented with influences of media and oral language from popular culture. Wilson’s plays and characters echoed this realism in the landscape of their everyday life. Audience members recognized and identified with Wilson’s use of language to define his black characters. In an interview with Heather Henderson in Theater, actor James Earl Jones states, ”Few writers can capture dialect as dialogue in a manner as interesting and accurate as August’s.”
In contrast to the middle-class settings of American Realism, the naturalist dramaturgy gave voice to more working-class and impoverished characters enmeshed in a struggle against their own desperate circumstances. An example of such a character is Laura Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie (1944). Wilson’s characters are also generally concerned with economic struggles, as in Fences, where the action significantly begins on payday. Writing in the Village Voice, a reviewer called Wilson a mythmaker, a folk ethnologist, ”collecting prototypical stories, testimonies, rituals of speech and behavior” while working with ”basically naturalistic panorama plays” to create complex characters, none of whom are ”unindicted or unforgiven.”
Works in Critical Context
The widespread critical acclaim of August Wilson’s art has assisted in establishing his stature as the foremost African-American playwright of the late twentieth century. Critics and scholars have written extensively on Wilson’s portraits of African Americans. As the poet/playwright, he employed the ”language ofhis community, as an on-sight storyteller, to place us magically into the field of play on the regional and national stages of America and abroad. This is a part of August Wilson’s legacy,” writes Haki R. Madhubuti. According to Elizabeth Alexander, professor of African American Studies at Yale University, Wilson’s
characters with historical integrity talk, really talk, about profound issues of black progress. No matter the decade, no matter the characters, all of August Wilson’s plays ask black people: Where do we go from here? What is progress? Can we do it together? What is our inheritance? Lest you imagine that talk as dissertational, however, August Wilson makes characters named Slow Drag and Levee and Toledo and Cutler lie, woof, and signify, in the great oral tradition of Negro talk in the spaces we’ve made our own.
The critical reception of Fences was almost unanimously positive when it opened on Broadway. Clive Barnes, who had been somewhat critical of Wilson’s first Broadway play, fully embraced Fences, calling it in New York Theatre Critics Reviews ”the strongest, most passionate American writing since Tennessee Williams.” Barnes, writing for the New York Post, praised Fences as ”one of the richest experiences I have ever had in the theater.” A critic for New York Magazine praised the work for its universal qualities, calling it an ”elegant play” not only because of its artful and fluid composition but also because in it race is subsumed by humanity.” The play ”marks a long step forward for Wilson’s dramaturgy.”
The Piano Lesson
The Piano Lesson won Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize in 1990 as it further developed his familiar theme of overcoming the bitter legacy of slavery through a revitalized connection with an African heritage. A reviewer for Time called the play the richest yet of dramatist August Wilson” and the piano the most potent symbol in American drama since Laura Wing-field’s glass menagerie.” Clive Barnes, writing for the New York Post, stressed the significance and power of the piano as a living symbol of the family’s past and emphasized the effective confrontations in the play between the living and the dead, between the real and the supernatural. In contrast, an unnamed reviewer for New York Magazine was largely critical of the Broadway production for having too many confusing subplots and contradictions and for the uncompelling” use of the supernatural. Writing for The New York Times, Frank Rich notes that the music enhances the mystical aspects of the play, concluding, That haunting music belongs to the people who have lived it, and it has once again found miraculous voice in a play that August Wilson has given to the American stage.”
- Wilson, August. Three Plays. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991.
- Alexander, Elizabeth. ”The one who went before: remembering the playwright August Wilson, 1945-2005.” American Scholar 75.1 (Winter 2006): 122.
- Brookner, Anita. ”A Disturbing Absence of Disturbance.” Spectator 294 (January 3, 2004): 29-30.
- Brustein, Robert. ”Subsidized Separatism.” American Theatre 13 (October 1996): 27, 100-101.
- Glover, Margaret E. ”Notes on August Wilson: The Songs of a Marked Man.” Theater 19 (Summer-Fall 1988): 69-70.
- Madhubuti, Haki R. ”In Memoriam: August Wilson: 1945-2005.” Diverse Issues in Higher Education 22 (November 2005): 19.
- Parks, Suzan-Lori. ”Interview.” American Theatre (November 2005): 22.
- Saunders, James. ”Essential Ambiguities in the Plays of August Wilson.” The Hollins Critic 32 (December 1995): 1-12.
- Usekes, (Cigdem. ”American Drama.” American Drama 37 (2003): 115-125.
- Wessling, Joseph H. ”Wilsons Fences.” The Explicator (Winter 1995): 123-128.
- Wilson, August. ”The Ground on Which I Stand.” American Theatre 7 (September 1996): 14-16, 71-74.
- –. ”August Wilson Responds.” American Theatre 13 (October 1996): 101-107.
- August Wilson. Retrieved November 19, 2008, from www.augustwilsoncenter.org. Last updated on November 20, 2008.
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