August Wilson: The Man Behind the Legacy
August Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945, to mother Daisy Wilson, a cleaning lady who primarily cared for August and his siblings, and his father, also Frederick August Kittel, a German immigrant and baker. August Wilson was the fourth of six children and the oldest son.
Growing up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the setting for many of his plays, Wilson attended St. Richard’s Parochial School and then progressed to Central Catholic High School in 1959. In the era of Jim Crow laws and stark prejudice against African-Americans, Wilson faced hostility and harassment that forced him to transfer to two other high schools during his freshman year. In 1960, at age 15, Wilson dropped out of Gladstone High School after a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a paper on Napoleon. Undaunted by his troubled high school experience, Wilson continued his education informally at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and on the streets of the Hill District, soaking in the language of its people and the culture of his community.
In 1962, Wilson enlisted in the U.S. Army for three years, but left after one year of service. He then worked odd jobs as a dishwasher, porter, cook, and gardener to support himself. In 1965, Wilson purchased his first typewriter for $20, using money paid to him by his sister Freda for writing a term paper for her. At this time, Wilson began to write poetry.
In the late 1960s, at the threshold of the Black Arts Movement, Wilson joined a group of poets, educators, and artists who formed the Centre Avenue Poets Theater Workshop. Wilson met friend and collaborator, Rob Penny, through this group, and in 1968, they co-founded the Black Horizon Theater, a community-based, Black Nationalist Theater Company in the Hill District of Pittsburgh.
Wilson served as the self-taught resident director, and Penny was the playwright-in-residence up until the mid-1970s when the company dissolved. Penny and Wilson produced several plays from and inspired by the black canon, a collection of literature and artwork by African-American artists, assembled and celebrated to raise awareness about the African-American experience. In 1970, Wilson married his first wife, Brenda Burton, and had his first daughter, Sakina Ansari Wilson.
In 1978, Wilson moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he concentrated more on playwriting and became a company member of the Penumbra Theatre led by colleague Lou Bellamy. In 1979, Wilson wrote Jitney, which he considered his first real play. Wilson received a fellowship from the Minneapolis Playwrights Center in 1980, and the following year, he married his second wife Judy Oliver.
Wilson’s third American Century Cycle play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which premiered at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in 1982, was the first to gain him widespread recognition. In the same year, Wilson met Lloyd Richards, the African-American artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre who would direct Wilson’s first six plays on Broadway. In 1987, Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for Fences, and in 1990, The Piano Lesson earned Wilson his second Pulitzer.
In 1990, he transitioned to Seattle, Washington, where he met Costume Designer Costanza Romero in 1994. They married and together had a daughter, Azula Carmen Wilson, in 1997. Wilson continued to work and earn numerous accolades throughout his lifetime. In June 2005, at the age of 60, Wilson was diagnosed with liver cancer. He died on Sunday, October 2, 2005, in Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center.
Shortly after his death, on October 16, 2005, the former Virginia Theater on Broadway was renamed August Wilson Theatre, and on February 17, 2006, the African American Cultural Center of Greater Pittsburgh officially became the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. In addition to these buildings, the August Wilson Monologue Competition, now in its seventh year, further preserves Wilson’s legacy.