August Wilson And His Contribution To American Theatre

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On an average chilly day on April 27, 1945, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, no one knew that a star would be born who would work to change the world, Fredrick August Kittel. The early years were difficult for August and charged with racial awareness. August grew up the son of a white man and a black woman in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, which was a majority black and poor area. The environment there had a profound impact on him, and he would go on to write most of his plays with that setting. After his father, Fredrick August Kittel, left the family, he and his other five siblings were raised by his mother, Daisy Wilson. His mother remarried David Bedford, black man, and moved into the primarily white suburb of Hazelwood in 1958.

In this suburb August experienced racial targeting and threats from multiple neighbors. When a teacher accused August of copying another student’s paper, he dropped out of school and decided to be his teacher. He forged his education at the public library and with return visits to learn from Hill District residents. Toward the end of his teenage years he already had the talent to write, but his mother heavily pressured him to enter the career of law. They were unable to agree. As a third alternative, August went into the military for a year before returning to Pittsburgh to work different jobs. After his dad died in 1965, the twenty-year-old decided to honor his mother by changing his name from Frederick August Kittel to August Wilson.

Wilson engaged emotionally in the Black Arts Movement in late 1960s. He also developed interests in Malcolm X as well as the Blues music scene. Wilson and his one of his friends, Rob Penny, co-founded a theatre and named it the Black Horizon Theatre. In 1969, he converted to Islam, partially in an attempt to save his new marriage to Brenda Burton. They had a daughter by the name of Sakina a year after being married but would divorce in 1972, only two years after the birth of their child. August moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1978 where he produced his first play, Jitney, one year later. The play is set in a dirty, run-down, gyspy gas station located in Pittsburgh. Many critics believe that August created this initial setting from something in his past, either a place that he had gone or that had a specific and powerful history attached to it.

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In addition to writing plays in St. Paul, Wilson also worked at a museum called Science Museum of Minnesota, where he was awarded a fellowship in 1980. Apparently, the time to write was insufficient because within a year, he chose to leave that job to devote more time to writing plays, supplementing his income by working on the side as a chef for the Little Brother of the Poor. During this time, Wilson developed a strong bond with the Penumbra Theatre Company which would eventually be responsible for producing numerous plays for this playwright. During this time he remarried a new woman named Judy Oliver in 1981. The year of 1987 would prove to be a landmark year for August Wilson and for American Theater. During that year he released Fences, which became widely recognized as one of the most iconic plays of the century and which still runs on Broadway today. In the not too distant past, it was also made into a movie, starring Denzel Washington. The play takes place in 1950 and explores racial injustice and other cruel and corrupt things about society from that time. The play and its movie adaptation have won wide acclaim from critics and broad appeal from audiences. The playwright was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fences. The city of St. Paul also wanted to honor August for his work, and so they designated May twenty-fifth as August Wilson Day. Before the year ended, the author would earn one more accolade, this time a Tony Award. Around three-years later in 1990, after a divorce from Judy Oliver, August moved to Seattle where the Seattle Repertory Theatre began serial productions of his plays. In that same year, August Wilson managed to earn another Pulitzer Prize, this one for his play, The Piano Lesson, which also enjoyed wide audience support. Just one year later, Wilson, created another hit, Two Trains Running, that made its way to Broadway, as well. During his later life he decided to have yet another marriage to Constanza Romero, which would end up being his last and longest one.

In 1992 another one of his top plays, Seven Guitars, was presented on Broadway. The most exciting part of the year, however, may have been the birth of his second child, Azula, born to Constanza. In 1995, Wilson travelled back to the University of Pittsburgh where he was welcomed with great fanfare. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities Degree and was also given a highly prestigious appointment to the Board of Trustees at the University. After his previous extraordinary hits, it was obvious that he had left his mark on the world but he continued writing because he wanted others to see more of the racial injustice that had gone on in this country. All of his subsequent hits would air on the great Broadway stage, King Hedley II, in 2001, and only one year later, Gem of the Ocean, which had a total of seventy-two performances.

The last play that August authored was Radio Golf. Wilson learned that he had liver cancer just a brief time before his death on October 2, 2005. From his turbulent upbringing and experience, and using a self-made education, August Wilson could create plays that explored race, relationships, and living. His many works entertained audiences and awed critics, and left a lasting imprint on American theatre that is still active today.

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