African-American playwright August Wilson is best known for his work which includes a series of ten plays, The Pittsburgh Cycle, for which he received two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. Each is set in a different decade, depicting the comic and tragic aspects of the African-American experience in the 20th century. Wilson has also received a Pulitzer and Tony Award for play “Fences.”
Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on April 27, 1945. His mother, Daisy Wilson, was African-American heritage and his father was a German immigrant named Frederick Kittel. His grandmother walked from North Carolina to Philadelphia searching for a way to have a better life. As a young boy, Wilson attended St. Richard’s Parochial School and after his parents divorced, he and his mother and siblings moved from the poor area of Pittsburgh to a white suburb area in Oakland.
He dropped out of Gladstone High School in the 10th grade in 1960 after his teacher accused him of plagiarizing a 20-page paper he wrote on Napoleon I of France. Wilson hid his decision from his mother because he did not want to disappoint her. At the age of 16, he began working menial jobs, where he met a wide variety of people on whom some of his later characters were based, such as Sam in The Janitor. He later made an extensive use of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to educate himself, and they later awarded him an honorary high school diploma, the only diploma it has ever bestowed.
After his father’s death, he adopted the pen name “August Wilson.” From a very young age, Wilson always knew he wanted to become a writer but his mother wanted him to study to become a lawyer. She eventually forced him to leave home and he joined the United States Army. After the army, he returned home and began working odd jobs for money. At 20, he decided he was a poet and submitted his poetry to such magazines as Harper’s. He began to write in bars, the local cigar store and cafes, longhand on table napkins and on yellow notepads, absorbing the voices and characters around him. He liked to write on cafe napkins because, he said, it freed him up and made him less self-conscious as a writer.
In 1968, he co-founded the Black Horizon Theater in the Hill District of Pittsburgh along with his friend Rob Penny. He wrote his first play, Recycling, it was performed for audiences in small theaters, schools, and public housing community centers for 50 cents a ticket. Among these early efforts was Jitney, which he revised more than two decades later as part of his 10-play cycle on 20th-century Pittsburgh
Wilson’s play Fences premiered on Broadway in 1987, earning the playwright his first Pulitzer Prize as well as a Tony Award. Joe Turner opened on Broadway in 1988. August Wilson died of liver cancer on October 2, 2005, in Seattle, Washington a few months after his new play, Radio Golf, had opened in California.