Early Life and Influences
August Wilson was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 27, 1945, to an African American mother and a German immigrant father. His birth name was Frederick August Kittel, but he changed his name in 1965 to honor his mother, Daisy Wilson. His father was often absent from the family home, and the couple divorced when Wilson was a teenager.
Wilson grew up in the poor but lively Hill District of Pittsburgh, a historically African American neighborhood. The family moved out of the area when his mother remarried, but the Hill District influenced Wilson throughout his life and serves as the setting of many of his plays. After dropping out of school at age 15, Wilson worked a number of menial jobs but also read widely, devouring the works of American authors Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, who instilled in him the desire to become a writer.
The Emerging Playwright
In the late 1960s Wilson joined the Black Arts Movement, a political and social literary movement that inspired many African American artists—including Wilson—to explore and express their culture and experiences. During the 1960s he cofounded and directed plays at Pittsburgh's Black Horizons Theater and also published poetry. After moving to Minnesota in the late 1970s, he began writing plays. His first play, Jitney, about a group of men trying to make a living as jitneys, or unlicensed cab drivers, was produced in 1982. Two years later, in 1984, the playwright had his first Broadway success with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, about a group of African American recording artists in Chicago, which received a Tony Award nomination for Best Play.
Success and Awards
Wilson went on to write a number of plays, most set in the Pittsburgh neighborhood where he grew up. Wilson eventually completed a cycle of plays—one for each decade in the 20th century—documenting the challenges in the lives of African Americans. Two of those plays, Fences, set in the 1950s, and The Piano Lesson, set in the 1930s, won the Pulitzer Prize. The last in the cycle, Radio Golf, set in the 1990s, opened just a few months before Wilson's passing.
Wilson was married three times and had two children. He died from liver cancer on October 2, 2005. Following his death the New York Times mourned Wilson as "Theater's Poet of Black America."
In the introduction to his play King Hedley II Wilson talked about his goal in writing the Century Cycle of 10 plays. He wanted to bring African American culture into the nation's theaters to present "its richness ... and ... demonstrate its ability to sustain us ... through profound moments of our history." Wilson succeeded in that mission, as the tribulations and triumphs of his plays' diverse characters still connect powerfully with audiences around the world.