Artists We Love: August Wilson

For many, the only relationship they have with August Wilson is through movies based on his plays: The Piano Lesson, Oscar®-winning Fences and most recently Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, starring Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman, both nominated for Academy Awards® in their roles.

Those movies are just a slice of the breadth of work the playwright produced before he died of liver cancer at age 60 in October 2005.

Photo: The Estate of August Wilson

Behind those representative films, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner wrote a legacy of works — the Century Cycle — a 10-play series, spanning decades of African American life in the United States, largely in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he was born. Those plays are: Jitney, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, King Hedley II, Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf.

His work, which includes a variety of themes that touch on all lives — honor, duty and love — still has impact and continues to prompt conversations, even though he didn’t intend his work to be political.

“I don’t write particularly to effect social change,”, he said. “I believe writing can do that, but that’s not why I write. I work as an artist. All art is political in the sense that it serves someone’s politics.”

His works also draw top-notch talent that want to speak his lyrical language: Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, Charles S. Dutton, Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Courtney Vance, Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson and many others.

Here are some tidbits about and quotes from Wilson that peel back the layers of one of the most influential playwrights of the last 100 years:

  • He was bi-racial, born to a German-American father and an African American mother. He grew up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a diverse community that would feed his creative spirit and his Century Cycle of plays.
Wilson’s childhood home in Pittsburgh.
  • Wilson encountered hardship and racism as a child after his parents divorced and he and his mother moved to Hazelwood, a predominately white Pittsburgh neighborhood. As the only black student at a Catholic high school “there was a note on my desk every single day [and] it said, ‘Go home, n****r,’” he told The New Yorker in 2001. He left school and earned his degree studying alone at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
  • He didn’t truly realize the importance of Pittsburgh in his life until he moved to St. Paul, Minn., in his 30s. “In the Hill District, I was surrounded by all this highly charged, poetic vernacular which was so much part and parcel of life that I didn’t pay any attention to it. But in moving to St. Paul and suddenly being removed from that environment and that language, I began to hear it for the first time and recognize its value.”
Fourteen days after Wilson’s death, the Broadway theatre located at 245 West 52nd Street in midtown Manhattan was renamed in his honor. (Photo: Jackie Cotton)
  • He had varied influences telling The Paris Review they were “the four Bs” – the blues, Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, writer Amiri Baraka and Romare Bearden, a painter. “From Borges, those wonderful gaucho stories from which I learned that you can be specific as to a time and place and culture and still have the work resonate with the universal themes of love, honor, duty, betrayal, etc. From Amiri Baraka, I learned that all art is political, although I don’t write political plays. From Romare Bearden I learned that the fullness and richness of everyday life can be rendered without compromise or sentimentality.” Sticking within the Bs, he also cited author James Baldwin and playwright Ed Bullins, who was minister of culture for the Black Panthers.
  • Wilson was a poet before becoming a playwright, and among his first works was Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, born from his poems. Another early work was Recycle, performed in small theaters and community centers for 50 cents a ticket. Wilson considered the true start to his playwriting career was 1977 when he wrote Jitney, about an unofficial taxi station under threat of demolition and the relationships of the drivers who work there.
James Earl Jones and Mary Alice in the original Yale Repertory Theatre production of Fences. (Photo: Yale Repertory Theatre)
  • He earned two Pulitzer Prizes and a Tony Award®. He won both the writing and theater prizes in 1987 for his play Fences, about a bitter garbageman’s life frustrations and disappointments effect on his wife and son, an accomplished athlete. He was awarded a second Pulitzer for his play The Piano Lesson, about siblings’ conflict about to do about a family piano – keep it or sell it to purchase land their slave ancestors once worked.
  • After writing his first three plays, Jitney, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (the only one not set in Pittsburgh) and Fences, his Century Cycle was born when he decided to write another seven plays, one for each decade of the 20th century, each casting a light on the Black experience. “I wanted to place this 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,” he said.
  • Wilson was a great supporter of Black theater, convening a conference in 1998 on African American Theater at Dartmouth, which spawned the African Gove Institute of the Arts, which strengthens Black theater with solutions to artistic issues and financial shortfalls. “Have a belief in yourself that is bigger than anyone’s disbelief,” he said.
  • Radio Golf premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in April 2005, completing Wilson’s 10-play Century Cycle. Two months later, he is diagnosed with liver cancer dying in October 2005.
  • In January, the playwright was honored with a Forever postage stamp, the 44th in the U.S. Postal Service’s Black Heritage series, which includes such luminaries as Booker T. Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and Martin Luther King Jr. During the commemoration ceremony, Wilson’s daughter, Sakina Ansari, said her father’s work was his proudest achievement. “He used to always say, ‘You have a right to the work and not the reward.’ He didn’t write or do this for accolades. He did it because he recognized this was his life’s mission.”
  • “I do not speak for Black America. There are some 30 million people of African descent in this country, and they have a loud and articulate voice. It would be the greatest of presumptions to say that I speak for them. I speak only for myself and those who may think as I do.”

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