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Who is August Wilson?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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August Wilson is an American playwright, best known for his ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle, which chronicles part of the African-American experience in America during the 20th century. He was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1945, and died in 2005. Over the course of his sixty years he won many awards in recognition of his work, including multiple Pulitzer Prizes, multiple Drama Desk awards, and a Tony Award.

Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel, Jr., in Pittsburgh to a white father, a German baker, and an African-American woman, a cleaning lady. Ultimately his mother ended up raising young August, along with his five siblings, alone, until she remarried in the 1950s to David Bedford. The entire family moved to the Hazelwood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, which was a mostly white neighborhood, and they were subjected to both indirect and direct racism, including attacks on their house by white members of the neighborhood.

August attended Central Catholic High School in the late 1950s, where he was the only African-American student. Eventually, after repeated beatings and constant threats, he left the school, and enrolled in Connelly Vocational High School, and then Gladstone High School, finding both schools to be less than challenging, and eventually dropping down during his 10th grade year when a teacher insisted he had plagiarized a twenty-page paper he had written about Napoleon. August then began educating himself, using the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to learn about a wide range of topics, and reading voraciously. The Carnegie library eventually awarded August Wilson an honorary degree because of his frequent use of their facilities, the only such degree they have conferred to date.

He spent the early 1960s working odd jobs to appease his mother, who didn’t want him to become a writer. When his father died in 1965, he changed his name to August Wilson after his mother’s maiden name, and he would write under that name for the rest of his life. In the late-1960s he founded his own theatre, the Black Horizon Theater, and it was here his first play, Recycling was first performed. Over the next years, August Wilson would have a number of plays performed at regional and professional theatres, including Homecoming and Sizwe Banzi is Dead.

Most of his early works are not commonly known, however, as they are overshadowed by his Pittsburgh Cycle. This cycle consists of ten plays, one for each decade of the 20th century, with nine of them taking place in Pittsburgh and looking at the African-American experience in the United States. The first of these, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, was written in 1982, and covers the 1920s. The next, Jitney, was written in 1983, and covers the 1970s. The next, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, was written in 1984 and covers the 1910s. The next, and perhaps his most famous piece, was Fences, for which August Wilson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and which was written in 1985 and covers the 1950s. His next play, The Piano Lesson, written in 1989 and covering the 1930s, also won a Pulitzer Prize. The remainder of the cycle was written over a longer period of time, with the last piece, Radio Golf, handling the 1990s, completed just before his death in 2005.

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Discussion Comments

By anon187329 — On Jun 17, 2011

Wilson's honorary degree was a high school diploma from the Carnegie Library. How fitting as that is where he was truly educated.

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