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Fri, 04.27.1945

Theatrical Icon, August Wilson

August Wilson

*On this date in 1945, August Wilson was born. He was an
African American Playwright and Activist.

Born in Pittsburgh to a white father (Frederick August Kittle, who never lived with his family) and a Black mother (Daisy Wilson) from North Carolina. His mother raised him along with five siblings.  During the 1960s Wilson left school in the 9th grade and worked at menial jobs at age 16. He received his education in libraries and in town hubs.

Wilson began writing plays in Pittsburgh and then took a job in St. Paul writing dramatic skits for the Science Museum of Minnesota.  He then became involved in the civil rights movement, describing himself as a Black Nationalist. He moved to Minneapolis and began to write, clearly using speech patterns and rhythms that were familiar to him from Black neighborhoods of Pittsburgh.

His writing was also strongly influenced by the blues and artist Romare Bearden. In 1968 he founded and directed the Black Horizon Theater Company in Pittsburgh in a predominantly Black neighborhood referred to as “The Hill” District.  In 1972 he began writing a play, Jitney, about a Gypsy cab station, which was produced in 1978 at Black Horizon and in 1982 at the Eugene O'Neill Center's National Playwright Conference.

Wilson also founded the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis. Shortly after, he wrote Fullerton Street, which was not as well received as Jitney.  His first commercial success was Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which was developed at the Playwrights Center in 1983, Yale Repertory Theater in 1984 and Broadway where it enjoyed 275 performances and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.  The play was also set in a movie studio and Charles Dutton played the character of Levee.

Wilson’s next play was Fences. It presented a slice-of-life in a Black tenement in (Pittsburgh?) set in the late 1950s through 1965. Joe Turner's Come and Gone opened at the Yale Repertory Theater in late 1986 and moved to New York in early 1988. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.  Two Trains Running opened in 1992 and starred Laurence Fishburne and Cynthia Martells. Seven Guitars opened at the Goodman Theater, Chicago in 1995. The play has since moved to Broadway with a successful run. Set in Pittsburgh, it’s about the blues and how they mean different things to Blacks and to Whites.

Wilson's drama, King Hedley II opened at the Virginia Theater on Broadway in April 2001, and it starred Brian Stokes-Mitchell and Leslie Uggams. Wilson ended his 10-work cycle of plays at the theater where his first debuted more than 20 years ago. "Radio Golf" premiered at the Yale Repertory Theater, Timothy Douglas directing the staging through May 14, 2005.  August Wilson died on October 2, 2005 in Seattle, Washington.

Reference:
Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History
Volume 1, ISBN #0-02-897345-3, Pg 175
Jack Salzman, David Lionel Smith, Cornel West

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