PITTSBURGH, Pa. — August Wilson became a nationally recognized playwright in 1987, when his play “Fences” won four Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
“Fences” focused on a 1950s garbageman’s struggle to provide for his family in Pittsburgh. Troy’s past haunts him as he tries to relate to his two sons, and he becomes estranged from his wife after she agrees to raise the daughter he fathered with a mistress. The family finds peace and some reconciliation after Troy’s death. The title refers to a literal and allegorical fence around the family’s home that takes Troy years to build and is only finished in the final act of the play.
Nominated for six Tony Awards, the breakthrough play faced tough competition from “Les Misérables,” “Me and My Girl” and Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound.” A powerful performance from James Earl Jones won him his second Tony and the play’s director, Lloyd Richards, joined featured actress Mary Alice in bringing home awards. But it was the coveted Best Play Award that affirmed Wilson’s writing as a landmark work.
Born in the Hill District of Pittsburgh into a large family in 1945, Wilson grew up in an apartment above a grocery store at 1727 Bedford Ave. Wilson was born as Frederick August Kittel Jr., the son of a German immigrant and an African-American woman named Daisy Wilson from North Carolina.
Growing up biracial with an absent German father, he took his mother’s surname after his father’s death in 1965, but found he struggled to fit into the culture of the largely African-American Hill District.
After his mother remarried, the family moved to Hazelwood, which was predominantly white. In 1959, Wilson became one of 14 African-American students at Central Catholic High School. The only black student in his class, Wilson later said racism greeted him every day and he left the school after one year.
Frustrated with school, Wilson dove into the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and consumed books by the dozen, essentially educating himself. He would earn his high school diploma through the library. He spent his free time in the Hill District, talking with locals in coffee shops and stores and learning about their lives.
Wilson’s home life deteriorated when his mother disapproved of his plans to become a writer and forced him to leave home. Wilson enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1962, but left after a year and worked odd jobs while writing notes on napkins in bars and cafes. He’d later type those notes up at home and combine them with his independent education to create powerful narratives that captured the community on paper.
Known for his formal style of dressing despite his humble jobs, Wilson became inspired by the Black Power movement. He co-founded the Black Horizon Theater in the Hill District with Rob Penny in 1968 and directed his first plays.
In 1969, he married Brenda Burton and converted to Islam. The couple had one child, but the marriage didn’t last and they divorced in 1972.
Wilson continued to develop his work by collaborating with Penny through the early 1970s. They joined with poet Maisha Baton and started a workshop group to help African-American writers called the Kuntu Writers Workshop. Penny was a professor for the Africana studies department at the University of Pittsburgh, where the group is still active.
Wilson moved to St. Paul, Minnesota in 1978 to write educational scripts for the Science Museum of Minnesota. He quit that job after a few years, but remained in the area and received a fellowship for the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis in 1980. He also met and married his second wife, Judy Oliver.
When he won acclaim for his work in 1987, Wilson continued writing about the Hill District in his series of plays known as the Pittsburgh Cycle, which he’d started in the early 1980s. Each of the 10 plays is set in a different decade of the 20th century; some characters appear in more than one play and other characters are children of characters in earlier plays. The series is also sometimes known as August Wilson’s Century Cycle.
Wilson earned a second Pulitzer Prize for “The Piano Lesson” in 1990. He then moved to Seattle where he met and married his third wife, Costanza Romero, and their daughter was born in 1997.
After a lifetime of accolades and awards, Wilson’s chronicles of African-American culture ended in the 1990s with his last completed play, and the final play in the cycle, “Radio Golf.” All but one of his plays were set in Pittsburgh.
Though his plays rarely had overt political agendas, Wilson believed that by honoring the black experience, the arts could effect societal change. He longed for black theater that could survive without having to depend on white audiences, but at the same time, he saw the value in exposing white people to the characters he knew so intimately, telling The Paris Review in 1999, “For instance, in ‘Fences’ they see a garbageman, a person they don’t really look at, although they see a garbageman every day. By looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this black garbageman’s life is affected by the same things -- love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.”
On Oct. 2, 2005, Wilson died of liver cancer in Seattle at the age of 60. His body was interred at Greenwood Cemetery in Pittsburgh.
The African American Cultural Center of Greater Pittsburgh was officially renamed the August Wilson African American Cultural Center on Feb. 17, 2006.
“Fences” was revived on Broadway in 2010. It received another 10 Tony Award nominations and won three: Best Revival of a Play, Best Lead Actor in a Play (Denzel Washington) and Best Lead Actress in a Play (Viola Davis).
A film adaptation of “Fences,” directed by Washington and starring Washington and Davis, was released in 2016. Filmed on location in Pittsburgh, the movie received four Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Davis won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her performance.
A Netflix original production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a 1982 play set in Chicago that is part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, was also filmed in Pittsburgh in 2019. It stars Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in his final film role prior to his death in August 2020.
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