Black History Month : August Wilson, Playwright
Born on April 27, 1945, August Wilson grew up in the Hill district of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His childhood experiences in this black slum community would later inform his dramatic writings, including his first produced play, Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, which was staged in 1981.
Then, in 1984, August Wilson was catapulted to the forefront of the American theatre scene with the success of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, produced at Yale and later in New York in 1984. The play was voted Best Play of the Year (1984-85) by the New York Drama Critics' Circle.
Wilson continued to work in close collaboration with Lloyd Richards of the Yale School of Drama, and by early 1990's, had established himself as the best known and most popular African-American playwright. Wilson also set for himself a daunting task--to write a ten play cycle that chronicles each decade of the black experience in the 20th century. Each of Wilson's plays is a chapter in this remarkable cycle of plays and focuses on what Wilson perceives as the largest issue to confront African-Americans in that decade.
His second play, Fences--set in the 1950's--tells the story of Troy Maxon, an illiterate garbage collector who has become embittered by a white-controlled system that has denied him the baseball stardom he feels he deserves. Fences opened on Broadway in the spring of 1987 to enormous critical acclaim and earned Wilson his first Pulitzer Prize.
In April of 1988, Joe Turner's Come and Gone opened on Broadway, again to enormous critical acclaim. This play--which documents the 1910's--tells the story of Harold Loomis, a black man cruelly imprisoned for seven years by the white authorities for an unknown offense. Finally free, Loomis sets out in search of his wife Martha who he hasn't seen in ten years. Joe Turner's Come and Gone was voted Best New Play of the Year by the New York Drama Critics' Circle.
The Piano Lesson--set in 1930's--opens with the arrival of Boy Willie at his sister Berniece's house. Willie dreams of buying the same Mississippi land that his ancestors once worked as slaves, but in order to raise the capital for this purchase, he must convince his sister to part with a family heirloom, a piano that is both a reminder of the family's enslaved past and a tribute to their survival. The Piano Lesson was named Best Play of the Year by the New York Drama Critics' Circle. It also earned Wilson his 2nd Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as a Drama Desk Award.
In April of 2005, Wilson finally completed his ten-play cycle when Radio Golf premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre. Two months later, he was diagnosed with liver cancer. And on October 2, 2005, August Wilson passed away at the age of 60.
Wilson's other awards include the New York Drama Critics Circle Award (1985, 1987, 1988), the Whiting Foundation Award (1986), the American Theatre Critics Award (1986, 1989, 1991), the Outer Circle Award (1987), the Drama Desk Award (1987), the John Gassner Award (1987), the Tony Award (1987), the Helen Hayer Award (1988), and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1987, 1990).
Wilson's play Jitney, is currently showing at Two River Theatre in Red Bank, NJ.
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