August Wilson was a prolific playwright known for chronicling the 20th Century African American experience. His work resonated with the American public during a time when people were unaccustomed to seeing reflections of African American life in art. On Christmas Day in 2016, his Pulitzer Prize winning play, Fences was released theatrically to rave reviews. Here are 8 amazing facts to teach your children about August Wilson and his contribution to our fabulous history.
1. He was biracial.
August Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel in 1945 to Daisy Wilson, who was African American, and Frederick Kittel, a German immigrant. His parents divorced when he was a child and his father was reportedly absent from his childhood. When he was 20 years old, his father died and he adopted the pen name “August Wilson” as a tribute to his mother.
2. He faced racism and adversity at a young age.
When Wilson’s parent’s divorced, Wilson moved out of the Hill District of Pittsburgh to the then-predominately white neighborhood of Hazelwood. He was the only black student at a Roman Catholic high school. In 2001, he told The New Yorker, “There was a note on my desk every single day [and] it said, ‘Go home, nigger.'” As a result, he left school at 15 years old and earned his high school diploma by studying on his own at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. He bought his first typewriter with $20 he earned writing a term paper for one of his sisters.
“Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.” – August Wilson
3. He was a poet.
In his twenties, Wilson submitted poems to magazines while working odd jobs. Invigorated by the Black Power Movement, he and a group of fellow poets started a theater workshop and art gallery. In 1978, Wilson took a job working at the Science Museum of Minnesota. His job was to adapt Native American folk tales into children’s plays. He wrote his first notable play, Jitney in 1979 and earned a fellowship to the Minneapolis Playwright Center.
4. Coined the “Century Cycle,” ten of his plays chronicle the 20th Century African American experience by decade.
With the exception of Ma Rainey, all of the “Century Cycle” plays take place in the Hill District of Pittsburgh where Wilson was born. Wilson once said, “I wanted to place this culture onstage in all its richness and fullness and to demonstrate its ability to sustain us in all areas of human life and endeavor and through profound moments of our history in which the larger society has thought less of us than we have thought of ourselves.”
5. He won the Pulitzer Prize twice.
In 1987, Wilson’s popular play Fences premiered on Broadway starring James Earl Jones. He won a Tony Award and his first Pulitzer Prize. At the time, Fences set a record for a non-musical Broadway production by grossing $11 million in a single year! In 1990, Wilson took home another Pulitzer for The Piano Lesson following its premiere on Broadway.
“Have a belief in yourself that is bigger than anyone’s disbelief.” – August Wilson
6. Fences almost didn’t get made into a motion picture.
In 2016, a film adaptation of Wilson’s play Fences was released directed by Denzel Washington and starring Washington and Viola Davis. However, it wasn’t the first time an attempt was made to make the film. In 1990, a major Hollywood studio optioned Fences but Wilson caused controversy by insisting on a black director. Wilson is quoted as saying, “I am not carrying a banner for black directors. I think they should carry their own. I am not trying to get work for black directors. I am trying to get the film of my play made in the best possible way. I declined a white director not on the basis of race but on the basis of culture. White directors are not qualified for the job. The job requires someone who shares the specifics of the culture of black Americans.” He was a vocal opponent of “colorblind casting,” citing as an example that an all-black “Death of a Salesman” was “irrelevant because the play was ‘conceived for white actors as an investigation of the specifics of white culture.'” Some suggested that Wilson’s viewpoints were a form of self-segregation.
7. He was influenced by a variety of arts and artists.
In an interview in The Paris Review, Wilson called his major influences the “four B’s”: the blues, Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, writer Amiri Baraka and painter Romare Bearden. He is quoted as saying, “From Borges, those wonderful gaucho stories from which I learned that you can be specific as to a time and place and culture and still have the work resonate with the universal themes of love, honor, duty, betrayal, etc. From Amiri Baraka, I learned that all art is political, although I don’t write political plays. From Romare Bearden I learned that the fullness and richness of everyday life can be rendered without compromise or sentimentality.” He also listed playwright Ed Bullins and activist and author James Baldwin among his influences.
8. He worked until his death.
Wilson died of liver cancer in October 2005 in Seattle, Washington. His play, Radio Golf, the last of the Century Cycle opened in Los Angeles just a few months earlier.
About The Author
Faye McCray is an attorney by day and writer all the time. Her work has been featured on My Brown Baby, AfroPunk, AfroNews, For Harriet, Madame Noire, Black Girl Nerds, Black and Married with Kids, and other popular publications. Faye also has a number of short stories and a full length novel available for purchase on Amazon. Most importantly, Faye is a proud wife and mother to three beautiful and talented young boys who she is fiercely passionate about raising. You can find Faye on Twitter @fayewrites and on the web at fayemccray.com.