Unknown Black Heroes: August Wilson

Question: What is your favorite play that stars or is about black people? Is it A Raisin in The Sun? How about A Soldier’s Play? Maybe it’s Madea Gets a Pap Smear. Well my favorite is The Piano Lesson by August Wilson.

I first learned of Wilson through Joy Vandervort-Cobb, a theatre professor at the College of Charleston. In a perfect world most folks would know who about August Wilson. Wilson is my next “Unknown Black Hero” and for those of you who missed it, check out my previous hero, SSgt Edward A. Carter Jr. Although he had a large following in the theater community (won two Pulitzer Prizes) he was rather prolific, but many outside of the theatre world don’t know of his work. (I could easily turn this into a rant about the lack of cultural outlets in black neighborhoods but I’m not here for that. Not today anyway.)

August Wilson (nee Frederick Kittel, Jr.) was born and raised Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father Frederick, Sr was a German baker and his mother Daisy (nee Wilson) was a house keeper who was originally from North Carolina. Wilson grew up with six siblings in a neighborhood that was made up of blacks, and Jewish and Italian immigrants and would later move to several other neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.

Wilson dropped out of high school in the 10th grade after he was accused of plagiarizing a term paper about Napoleon Bonaparte. While hiding the fact that he no longer attended school from his mother August Wilson worked many low-wage jobs. While on his jobs he would later base characters of his future plays on his coworkers. While holding down several odd jobs Wilson used the Carnegie Library to educate himself. He spent the bulk of his time reading the works of black writers. Due to his frequenting of the library Wilson was awarded a degree from Carnegie, which was the only one of the kind that was ever presented.

After a short stint in the U.S. Army Wilson found himself again a civilian, being unfulfilled, and working more odd jobs. Within a few years Frederick August Kittel, Jr. Would officially change his name to August Wilson to honor his mother after his father passed away. After purchasing a $10 typewriter Wilson began to write. Needless to say it was on. Three years later in 1968 he would co-found the Black Horizon Theatre in Pittsburgh’s Hill District with Rob Penny.

Wilson wrote over 16 plays during his career but his career can be summed up in three words: The Pittsburgh Cycle.

Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle is a group of 10 plays, all of which are set in the aforementioned Hill District of Pittsburgh except one, 1984’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which was set in Chicago. The cycle spanned the decades of the 20th Century. Many characters appear in various stages of their lives in multiple plays and others are mentioned in various ways throughout the Cycle. 

1900s – Gem of the Ocean (2003)

1910s – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1988)

1920s – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984)

1930s – The Piano Lesson (1990)

1940s – Seven Guitars (1995)

1950s – Fences (1987)

1960s – Two Trains Running (1991)

1970s – Jitney (1982)

1980s – King Hedley II (1999)

1990s – Radio Golf (2005)

Fences (1987) The Piano Lesson (1990) would both win Pulitzer Prizes in their respective years. Fences would also garner a Tony Award for Best Play. If you ever get the chance to see an August Wilson play I highly recommend that you jump at the chance. Wilson died in 2005 after battling liver cancer but he left a very strong and enduring legacy through his contributions to the culture of black folks and American theatre. For more information about August Wilson’s dope-a** check out The August Wilson Center for African-American Culture and the August Wilson Theatre in New York City. People who can type can truly change the world.

Vaya con Dios.


9 responses to “Unknown Black Heroes: August Wilson

  1. Thanks for sharing! I know of August Wilson and “Fences”, but you definitely enlightened me today with more background information 🙂

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  3. The Only Real Outcast

    I remember the Piano Lesson…Great read Keith–I learned something today!

    • No problem Toro. The Piano Lesson was made into a tv movie for CBS back in the mid-1990’s. Charles Dutton and Lou Myers who played Mr. Gaines on A Different World.

      I’m not all swear words and comic books Toro.

  4. as you might have guessed from my online monkier–i LOVE August Wilson!!!!!! i havent seen all of his 10-cycle plays yet but i am working on it! of course living in Pittsburgh, there have been lots of opportunities for me to enjoy his work. i know his sister and niece (@DrGoddess) and they are both great bearers of his legacy! VSB’s happy hour was even at the August Wilson Center 🙂

    all that to say–thanks for writing this!! August Wilson was quite a man

    • I’ve seen or read about half of his works. I liked all of them so I automatically say the rest are dope on the strength of what I know. It’s a shame that he passed so soon too. I bet he had a lot more to put out there.

      You’re welcome Gemmie.

  5. Good post. I’ve been to the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh several times, but I’ve never looked up any info on him smh. But this was a good read. I’ll definitely have to check out some of those plays.

  6. I used to work there…August Wilson’s work is the 🙂

    Hey Wu!!! *waves*

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