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August Wilson: The American Shakespeare

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Photo by Jennifer M. Tucker.

August Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was the son of Daisy Wilson, an African American woman, and Frederick August Kittel, a white German baker who left the family when Wilson was young. As a ninth-grader, August Wilson dropped out of high school after he was falsely accused of plagiarizing a paper on Napoleon. From that day on, he went to the library daily and spent time in the Hill District, immersed in the culture and language that would later inspire his plays.

Wilson always knew that he wanted to be a writer and began his career as a poet. He discovered playwriting through politics, when in 1968 he and his friend, Rob Penny, co-founded the Black Horizons Theatre, an African American activist theater company. Black Horizons provided an opportunity for Wilson to produce plays by African American writers who, in turn, inspired him to try playwriting himself.

In 1978, Wilson moved to Saint Paul, Minnesota for a job at a science museum writing educational scripts for dioramas. A fellowship at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis helped him grow as a playwright. The play that brought Wilson national attention was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which was accepted for the 1982 O’Neill Conference. Ma Rainey went to Broadway in 1984, followed by Fences in 1988. Fences won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, four Tony Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

As Wilson continued to write plays about the African American experience, he realized that he had unwittingly written them in different decades of the 20th century. This prompted him to take on the challenge of writing The American Century Cycle, ten plays for ten decades, each representing different aspects of the African American experience. It took Wilson almost 20 years to complete the Cycle.

Wilson moved to Seattle in 1990 and formed a relationship with Seattle Rep, which is one of the few theaters in the country that has produced all of the works in The American Century Cycle as well as Wilson’s autobiographical one-man show, How I Learned What I Learned. Wilson was diagnosed with liver cancer in June 2005 and died only four months later on October 2, 2005.