Born Frederick August Kittel Jr. in Pittsburgh in 1945, the fourth of seven children, August Wilson grew up in the impoverished Bedford Avenue area of the city. The family moved after his mother remarried but at 16 he dropped out of school, working low-wage jobs as he followed his passion for the written word by frequently visiting the Carnegie Library. He decided to try his lot as a writer after becoming familiar with the works of Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison. Following his father’s death in 1965, he assumed the name August Wilson as a means of honoring his mother.
Wilson’s best-known plays are “Fences” (1985) (which won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award), “The Piano Lesson” (1990) (a Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award), “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”
In early interviews, he said “the four Bs” served as his greatest influences: blues music, the Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges, the playwright Amiri Baraka and the painter Romare Bearden. In addition, he added writers Ed Bullins and James Baldwin to the list.
The Pittsburgh Cycle
Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, also often referred to as his Century Cycle, consists of 10 plays, all but one set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District (the other set in Chicago), an African-American neighborhood that takes on a mythic literary significance like Thomas Hardy’s Wessex or William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Each play, set in a different decade, provides a snapshot of the Black experience in the 20th century. Wilson says he wanted to “raise consciousness through theater” while also hoping to echo “the poetry in the everyday language of black America.”
The “Cycle,” which begins in the 1900s and continues throughout the 20th century with settings in consecutive decades through the 1990s include: “Gem of the Ocean,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Seven Guitars,” “Fences,” “Two Trains Running,” “Jitney,” “King Hedley II” and “Radio Golf.”