August Wilson"s plays provide audiences with a thorough and unflinching look at the African American experience in the twentieth century. Get to know this beloved playwright with an introduction to Fences, Wilson"s Pulitzer Prize-winning work set in the 1950s.

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Most playwrights are lucky if they have just one hit. August Wilson had 10.

August Wilson,Yale Repertory Theatre

Wilson, the author of an impressive “cycle” of 10 plays exploring a decade of African American history, was born in 1945 in the ethnically-diverse Hill District neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Originally named Frederick August Kittel after his white immigrant father, Wilson officially adopted his African American mother’s last name and culture. “I grew up in my mother’s household in a which was black,” he said. His identification with a strong black tradition was strengthened as he listened to stories being told among the members of his community; stories of a people with a “rich” yet sorrowful history trying to carve out a meaningful life for themselves in the face of centuries of persecution.

Actors Phylicia Rashad and John Earl Elks in a scene from August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean,set in the first decade of the twentieth century.Yale Repertory Theatre

Though Wilson would become one of the greatest voices of American theater, he didn’t grow up wanting to be a playwright. When he encountered the work of writer Langston Hughes at a young age, however, Wilson knew writing was in his future and he began experimenting with the written word. In addition, after dropping out of school at 15 over a fight with a teacher who accused him of cheating, Wilson designed his own education by making constant trips to the library and reading as much as he could. But instead of diving into plays when he became an adult, Wilson turned to poetry––drama didn’t come until much later.

Yet after trying his hand at only a handful of plays in his thirties, Wilson’s dramas began to strike a forceful chord with audiences in high-profile venues such as the Yale Repertory Theatre as well as on the Broadway stage. His beautifully complex black characters, who were undeniably inspired by the residents of the Hill District, provided intimate snapshots of day-to-day life in America, much like those in the plays of Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill. In addition, Wilson’s works championed “everyday” people who came from a variety of class backgrounds––taxi drivers, garbage men, diner owners, politicians, singers, and innkeepers––and examined important themes like love, legacy, respect, responsibility, and personal identity through their eyes.

As Wilson continued to write, his plays took on an interesting shape as each one illuminated a specific period in black history. Eventually, he created a set of 10 plays: one for each decade of the twentieth century. The cycle, which was woven together by common emotional threads and recurring characters, would eventually be known as the “Pittsburgh Cycle” or the “Century Cycle.” This staggering achievement is considered one of the grandest and most exciting in theater history.

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Wilson’s plays also marked a breakthrough for African Americans in theater. Before Wilson, few dramatic writers were able to capture the black experience in a manner that rang true for those who had lived through it (Lorraine Hansberry and Amiri Baraka were notable exceptions). Yet suddenly, in plays such as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Fences, Two Trains Running and The Piano Lesson, audiences were introduced to characters who were free of traditional and offensive stereotypes. Well-known African American actress Tonya Pinkins said of Wilson’s words, “These were authentic sounds of black people. I knew all of the people in these shows.”

A reading of The Piano Lesson at the Kennedy Center in 2008. Carol Pratt

Still, Wilson insisted he never wrote exclusively for blacks or whites, or any special target audience. While one of his primary goals was to place African American culture front and center in a world where blacks had historically been forced to the social sidelines, he was perhaps most interested in taking a look at the human experience. Wilson knew any audience member, of any color, could find some way to relate to the struggles and successes of his characters. Actor Denzel Washington, who starred in a 2010 revival of Fences, once noted that, though the events in Wilson’s plays might appear to be “specific” to African American life, the overall themes are, in fact, “universal.”

August Wilson passed away in 2005 at the age of 60. Three years later, the Kennedy Center honored Wilson by presenting staged readings of each of the 10 plays in the “Century Cycle.”

Wilson and the Blues

Much of August Wilson’s work has been compared to music and to singing. Wilson himself would probably say this is thanks to his love of the blues, a genre that was born in the rural South but has roots in African music.

Like many blues lyrics, Wilson’s dialogue can be funny, desperate, or poetic. In addition, Wilson tends to assign his characters a special speed or tempo depending on their personality, as if they were each soloists in their own blues song. For example, Levee, the frustrated musician in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom who lives life on the edge, usually speaks in short, choppy sentences. Actress Phylicia Rashad once observed while acting in a Wilson play that the different lines sounded as if every character had “its own rhythm.”

Ma sings the blues in Wilson"s Ma Rainey"s Black Bottom at the Kennedy Center. Scott Suchman