For Black History Month the Spartan Echo is highlighting inspirational people who have contributed to the advancement of our culture, and we’re kicking it off by talking about one of the most celebrated African American playwrights of all time.
August Wilson was born on April 27th, 1945, in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. As a teenager he attended a predominantly white catholic school where he faced racial discrimination. He then transferred to Connelly Vacation high school, but quickly realized that he wasn’t challenged by the curriculum.
The last high school that Wilson would attend was Gladstone High School; it was here that he was accused of plagiarism for an essay on Napoleon Bonaparte. As a result, he dropped out of high school at age 15 and began educating himself at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. While studying at the Carnegie Library, Wilson became inspired by the likes of Langston Hughes, and decided he would become a poet.
After a brief stint in the U.S army and various jobs as a porter and dishwasher, Wilson began to use his writing talent to create and publish plays. In the 70’s Wilson wrote many plays, but it wasn’t until the 80’s that his plays began to receive national recognition. In 1982 Wilson wrote the play Jitney which premiered at the Pittsburgh Allegheny Repertory Theatre.
That same year he followed it with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a play about the trailblazing blues singer Ma Rainey. Two years later Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom premieres at the Yale Repertory Theatre and is a smashing hit among critics. The play would then move to Broadway and Wilson would win his first New York Drama Critics Circle award for Best Play of the Year.
In 1985, Wilson wrote his most famous play, Fences. Two years later the play would open on Broadway and in addition to winning another New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Wilson would also win his first Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for his achievement in Drama. August Wilson’s success transcended well into the 90’s and in 1990 his play The Piano Lesson opened on Broadway garnering him a fourth critic circles award and a second Pulitzer Prize.
These three plays helped to create the feat that is known as the “Century Cycle.” The century cycle includes 10 plays by August Wilson. Each play takes place in a different decade, highlighting the contrasting experiences of African Americans in America throughout the 20th century. Wilson continued to write plays that examined the lives of African Americans well into the early 2000’s.
Sadly, in 2005 Wilson was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and passed away on October 2nd. In recent years, Wilson’s plays Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom have been adapted into Oscar winning films. In fact, this year the film adaptation of The Piano Lesson will be released to audiences further cementing the legacy of August Wilson.
Wilson will always be remembered as playwright who was able to capture the complexity of African Americans, while exploring the struggles and triumphs they faced over the years. His ability to examine the souls of African Americans and authentically depict their ever-changing existences make August Wilson one of the most important playwrights in the modern theatre.