August Wilson

Author of 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'
Click to follow

Twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize, August Wilson was one of America's most important playwrights, famed for chronicling the Afro-American experience in the 20th century, which he did in 10 plays, each set in a different decade. His writing was described by the playwright Tony Kushner as "in the grand tradition of Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller, the politically engaged, direct, social realist drama". Wilson's heroes and heroines were mainly poor, working-class folk acutely aware of their ancestors' struggles against poverty and racism.

Much of Wilson's writing was influenced by the slum Hill District of Pittsburgh in which he grew up and which is the setting for nine of his plays. He was born there as Frederick August Kittel in 1945. His baker father was a white German immigrant, who reputedly drank excessively, and his mother Daisy was an Afro-American cleaning woman. He later said that his parents had endured an even harder life, about which they rarely talked: "My generation of blacks knew very little about the past of our parents. They shielded us from the indignities they had suffered." He saw little of his father, and was primarily raised by Daisy, whose last name he adopted when he set out to become a writer. When his mother obtained a divorce and remarried, the family (Wilson had five siblings) moved to a largely white suburb where Wilson was the only black student in his class at a Roman Catholic school. "Every single day," he said, "there was a note on my desk that said, 'Go home, nigger.' "

Wilson dropped out of school at the age of 16 and began educating himself at the local library while taking menial jobs. His ambition was to be a poet, and early poems appeared in black-oriented publications at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1968, inspired by the Black Power movement, he and a group of friends founded an art gallery and the Black Horizons on the Hill Theater, in Pittsburgh. In 1978 he moved to St Paul, Minnesota, where he worked at the Science Museum adapting Native American folk tales into children's plays.

The following year he began to write his first full-length play, Jitney, set in a Pittsburgh taxi station, and based on his memories of life in the Hill District. Though it was praised when eventually performed at a small Pittsburgh theatre in 1982, it was another play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984), that established his reputation. Set in a recording studio where, in 1927, the temperamental blues singer is verbally abusing her musicians who, like the singer, have all experienced racist persecution, it was a powerful, if melodramatic piece, that was presented at the Yale Repertory Theater directed by Lloyd Richards, prompting the New York Times critic Frank Rich to hail "a major find for the American theatre", praising Wilson's ability to write with "compassion, raucous humour and penetrating wisdom".

Lloyd Richards (who had become the first black director to work on Broadway when he staged Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun) had worked with Wilson to refine the play, and he was to be a profound influence on the playwright's work in the years ahead, describing his contributions as "clarifying each work's main theme and arranging the material in a dynamic way". When Ma Rainey's Black Bottom transferred to Broadway, it received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as "best play", the Chicago Tribune's Richard Christiansen stating, "Wilson's power of language is sensational." Rich wrote, "This play is a searing account of what white racism does to its victims." Wilson was later to describe himself as "a cultural nationalist . . . trying to raise consciousness through theatre".

Wilson's next play, Fences, was produced at Yale in 1985, and two years later reached Broadway, where it won the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize. Set in the Fifties, it was a scorching drama of a former baseball player who feels that racism denied him the chance of stardom and has become an embittered, illiterate garbage collector, who clashes with his son over the boy's desire to pursue a sporting career. Starring James Earl Jones, the play was a resounding hit, setting a straight-play record when it grossed over $11m in one year. Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1988) was set in the 1910s and won Wilson another award from the New York Critics Circle. It told of a black man, cruelly imprisoned for seven years by white authorities for an unknown offence, who is finally freed and sets out to find his wife, who abandoned him 10 years before. Frank Rich suggested that the play would "give a lasting voice to a generation of uprooted black Americans".

Wilson won his second Pulitzer Prize, and another Tony, for The Piano Lesson (1990), set in the 1930s, in which a black man comes into sharp conflict with his sister when he wants to buy a stretch of Mississippi land on which their ancestors worked as slaves. To raise the capital, he needs to sell a family heirloom, a piano which has carvings by their grandfather, but his sister regards it as an irreplaceable reminder of their past and a symbol of their family's struggle and survival. Time's critic, William A. Henry III, thought the play's piano "the most potent symbol in American drama since Laura Wingfield's glass menagerie" (in Tennessee Williams' classic play).

The playwright had by now set himself the task of writing a 10-play cycle that would chronicle every decade of black experience in the 20th century. Though nearly all his plays were heaped with honours, Wilson had his detractors. Some critics found The Piano Lesson overlong and repetitious, and his introduction of ghosts to help resolve the ending debatable. In The Oxford Companion to American Theatre, Gerald Bordman writes,

The profusion of awards is baffling, for while the plays have powerful scenes or moments, they are basically an unhomogenised melange of styles and techniques. Wilson employs realism, mysticism, some extremely eccentric characters, musical segments and anything else that might work for immediate effect. As a result, the plays, except possibly for Ma Rainey, lack a sense of tone and a legitimate, sustained dramatic thrust.

In contrast, Clive Barnes wrote of The Piano Lesson in the New York Post, "This is a wonderful play that lights up man. See it, wonder at it, and recognise it." (Though he resisted many offers from Hollywood, Wilson adapted The Piano Lesson for television, in 1995.)

Wilson's cycle continued with Two Trains Running (1992), about a failing diner in the 1960s and the reactions of its regular patrons to its impending sale, and it was followed by Seven Guitars (1995), set in the Forties and recreating the events of the last seven days in the life of blues guitarist Floyd Barton. Wilson completed his cycle of dramas with King Hedley II (2001, set in the Reagan era of the 1980s), Gem of the Ocean (2003, set in the 1900s) and Radio Golf (2005, set in the 1990s), which opened at the Yale Repertory Theatre last spring. Lawrence Brummer wrote in the Chicago Tribune,

August Wilson has created the most complete cultural chronicle since Balzac wrote his vast Human Comedy, an artistic whole that has grown even greater than its prize-winning parts.

In August this year, Wilson told his home-town newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that he had been diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer, and the following month it was announced that Broadway's Virginia Theatre would be renamed the August Wilson on 17 October. It will be the first Broadway theatre to bear the name of an African-American.

Tom Vallance