In the last century, Pittsburgh spawned two Pulitzer-prize winning playwrights: George S. Kaufmann and August Wilson. Kaufmann’s greatest success came in the first half of the 1900s with the prize-winning musical Of Thee I Sing in 1931 and the drama You Can’t Take it With You in 1936, while Wilson won two Pulitzers during the last half of the century with Fences in 1987 and The Piano Lesson in 1990.
While both playwrights got their start here and eventually moved to other cities, Pittsburgh’s influence on Wilson’s body of work is unparalleled, making him the playwright most associated with the city. His “Pittsburgh Cycle” of 10 plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, chronicled the black experience in America during that particular era. All but one of those plays is set in Pittsburgh; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in Chicago but makes reference to Pittsburgh.
At times, the city was not kind to Wilson, but like the steel that has been produced here, those times tempered his spirit and forged a gifted writer.
August Wilson was born in Pittsburgh on April 27, 1945, and named Frederick August Kittle Jr. after his white German immigrant father. He was the fourth of seven children born to Daisy Wilson, his African-American mother. They lived in the Hill District at 1727 Bedford Avenue, a site which has since been placed on the List of Pittsburgh Designated Historic Structures and the National Register of Historic Places. His father was largely absent during his childhood. His mother, who worked as a cleaning lady, divorced Kittle and married David Bedord. They moved the family to Hazlewood. While living in a predominantly white neighborhood and attending Central Catholic High School, he and the family faced racial hostility. Eventually, he dropped out of school at 16, but his education did not cease.
An autodidact, he educated himself while working menial jobs by taking advantage of the resources of the Carnegie Library and being a shrewd observer of the culture of the Hill District. After his father died in 1965, Frederick Kittle Jr. changed his name to August Wilson, adopting his mother’s surname in tribute to her. It was also at this time that he decided to be a poet, which displeased his mother who had hoped that he would be a lawyer. Wilson enlisted in the army but left after a year. He began to submit poems to publications such as Harper’s, but it wasn’t until he and a group of fellow poets embraced the Black Power movement and founded a theater workshop and art gallery that he began to find his voice. This led to the founding of the Black Horizons on The Hill Theater, which he and friend Rob Penny started in 1968.
In 1969 WIilson married Brenda Burton and converted to Islam for the sake of the marriage. They had one daughter, Sakina-Ansari Wilson, but eventually divorced in 1972. In 1978, he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he took a position at the Science Center of Minnesota writing educational scripts. In 1979 he wrote his first play Jitney, which garnered acclaim. While in St. Paul, he received a fellowship in 1980 for The Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis. In 1981 he married his second wife, Judy Oliver. Eventually Wilson left his job at the Science Center to pursue his craft while supporting himself by working as a chef for the Little Brothers of the Poor. It was after his second divorce that he left for Seattle.
Though he lived and wrote miles from Pittsburgh, it was his hometown and its people that took center stage throughout his body of work.
His first play to open on Broadway at the Cort Theatre was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 1984. It signified that Wilson had arrived, bringing to American theater a new, fresh perspective. He followed that with Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and the Pulitzer Prize winner Fences. Although Joe Turner was written before Fences, which debuted on Broadway in 1987, it debuted at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway in 1988.
Initially, Wilson did not plan to write a play for each decade of the 20th century exploring life in America for blacks, but after he realized he had written three plays from three different decades, he decided to continue that theme. This decision freed him from having to wonder where his next inspiration would come from.
In 1990, Wilson earned another Pulitzer Prize for The Piano Lesson, but in that same year, he also divorced Judy Oliver. While his personal life stumbled, professionally he followed with Two Trains Running in 1992, Seven Guitars in 1996, King Hedley II in 2001, Gem of the Ocean in 2004, and Radio Golf in 2007, to complete the 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle.” Along the way, he garnered numerous honors and awards, among them a Tony Award and honorary Doctor of Humanities from the University of Pittsburgh in 1995, where he served on the Board of Trustees from 1992-1995.
In 1994, Wilson married for the third time, to wedding costume designer Costanza Romero. They had a daughter, Azula Carmen Wilson. In 2003, Wilson himself hit the stage with an autobiographical, one-man show, How I Learned What I Learned, at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Among the dramatis personae cast as one of Wilson’s characters are such esteemed actors as James Earl Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Angela Basset, Laurence Fishburne, Viola Davis, and Leslie Uggams.
In June of 2005, Wilson was diagnosed with liver cancer and died on October 2, 2005, at the age of 60 in Seattle. He was returned to his hometown of Pittsburgh for burial at Greenwood Cemetery on October 8, 2005. To honor him, Broadway’s Virginia Theater was renamed the August Wilson Theater on October 16, 2005, making it the first to be named for an African-American.
To honor one of the city’s finest artists, Pittsburgh established the August Wilson Center for African American Culture on Liberty Avenue in the Cultural District.
Regretfully, with Wilson’s passing, Pittsburgh and the theater world will never know how he would have interpreted what he observed of the black culture in the initial decades of the 21st century.
By Janice Lane Palko