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August Wilson

August Wilson

August Wilson (1945-2005) was an award-winning Black American playwright and poet. He is famous for his American Century Cycle of ten plays, nine of which are set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Each play focuses on the struggles of working-class Black Americans who aspire to transcend their circumstances. Set in different decades spanning post-slavery to pre-civil rights America, August Wilson's plays explore the challenge of being Black in a racist society. The New York Times dubbed him the “Theater’s Poet of Black America” in 2005.1

August Wilson: Biography

August Wilson's biography starts in a historically black neighborhood of Pittsburgh. His father was of German descent and his mother was Black and from North Carolina. Growing up biracial, Wilson struggled to feel connected to either the Black or white communities. His family experienced racial violence when they moved to a predominantly white neighborhood. His father was mostly absent, and later his mother divorced him and remarried. Wilson bounced around three high schools. He dropped out after he was falsely accused of plagiarism.

August Wilson, Wilsons childhood home in the Hill District, StudySmarterFig 1 - The childhood home of August Wilson is where most of his plays are set, in the Hill District of Pittsburgh.

Picking up menial jobs, he spent his free time reading and studying about the Harlem Renaissance at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh through the works of Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright. He eventually earned his high school degree independently.

Wilson's father died when he was 20, and he aptly changed his last name from "Kittel" to "Wilson" to honor his mother. He began to write poetry in the 1960s, though he was interested in theatre and helped found the Black Horizon Theater in 1968.

Ten years later and still without major success as a poet, Wilson moved to St. Paul, Minnesota. He began to write plays in the late 1960s and continued through the 1970s. Wilson found more mainstream success with his plays in the 1980s, starting with Jitney in 1982. He wrote most of his plays during the 1980s and continued to be a prominent voice in the Black Arts movement for the remainder of his life.

Over the next three decades, Wilson wrote and produced many more plays. He received multiple awards, such as the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards for best plays, and he also received Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships to continue his writing.

Wilson was diagnosed with liver cancer and died on October 5, 2005.

August Wilson: Poems

While he is most well known for his plays, Wilson's writing started with poems. Wilson listened intently to other customers at cafés and restaurants during his free time. He was also inspired by his first experience listening to a Betty Wilson record. He realized that Black culture was passed down through oral tradition.

Wilson picked up a used typewriter and began compiling his notes. Most of his poetry went unpublished, except for a few poems in Black World and Black Lines. He continued to write poetry, and he would often perform poetry readings. Today, his written poetry is still hard to find, except in the form of his plays.

August Wilson: Plays

Wilson started transforming his poetry inspiration into plays in 1968 when he opened Black Horizon Theater with a student community activist group to promote self-awareness in the Black community. Here he wrote and directed his first play, Recycling (1968).

August Wilson, Wilson's theater in Manhattan, StudySmarterFig 2 - The August Wilson Theater was built to honor the playwright and his legacy. The facade is a historic landmark.

Wilson is most famous for his plays, but in particular, The American Century Cycle. This collection of ten plays explores the Black American experience and the human condition. Nine of them are set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where he grew up. He wrote over sixteen plays in total.

Wilson's plays explore the evolution of Black identity and its distinct challenges within each era and its relation to the next. The Piano Lesson shows the immediate aftermath of the abolishment of slavery when the main characters must choose between honoring their legacy or erasing it in order to make a living in the Jim Crow South. This led to the Great Migration, where black people left the rural south in historic numbers for the urban north of America. Joe Turner's Come and Gone focuses on a halfway house that provides refuge for transients.

Wilson's plays also explore the deeply entrenched institutionalized racism that prevents characters from realizing their ambitions. This idea is found in Fences. Opportunities had changed between generations when father and son are at odds over the latter's potential sports career when the former was never given a chance despite his talent.

His most well-known plays are Jitney, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, and The Piano Lesson.

Jitney (1982)

Passengers turn to “jitneys” (unlicensed taxis) when they need to venture into neighborhoods that other cab drivers won’t. The play is set in a jitney station in 1977 where the drivers’ lives intersect. Many of them held previous occupations, one being a tailor, while two were war veterans. Originally, the production had an extended run, but it was later rewritten by Wilson for a Broadway debut in 2017, winning a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984)

Set in a recording studio in 1927 Chicago, the play follows a band waiting for Ma Rainey, the lead singer, to record music. Veterans in the band clash with the young, ambitious trumpet player, while studio executives grow impatient with their lagging schedule. The play explores the systematic exploitation of Black musicians by white executives, who paid them small sums while continuously earning royalties on the wildly successful hits of many Black artists.

August Wilson, Ma Rainey and her bandmates, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The play is based on the real-life Ma Rainey and her band.

Fences (1986)

Fences is the story of the Maxson family struggling against systemic racism in 1950s Pittsburgh. Troy, the father, is a failed baseball player and ex-convict, working as a garbage collector to support his family. His sons aspire to professional careers in football and music. The driving narrative force is the tension between Troy's pessimism about his children’s aspirations and his own failure to live according to his standards. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play in 1987.

Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1988)

Set in the 1910s, the narrative follows the intersecting lives of previously enslaved Black Americans. They struggle to find their place in society while staying at the boardinghouse of Seth and Bertha Holly. The play is noted for its attention to historical details. Many of the residents come from different backgrounds, and their manner of speech reflects this. Many Black people were migrating to the north where racism was less severe, and boardinghouses acted as semi-permanent homes. First staged in 1986, it won several Tony nominations after its Broadway debut in 1988.

The Piano Lesson (1987)

The Piano Lesson explores the sense of identity one creates when one chooses to deny or embrace their past. Two siblings, Bernice and Boy Willie, argue over what to do with a family heirloom piano. The piece has carvings from an enslaved ancestor. Berniece wants to keep it, while Boy Willie hopes to sell it to buy the land he sharecrops. The piano represents the lives and hard work of their parents to build a legacy. First staged as reading, it made its theatrical debut at the Yale Repertory Theater in 1987. It won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Wilson grew up in a household of four women—three sisters and his mother—whom he credits with his inspiration for strong female characters.

August Wilson: Monologues

Wilson’s plays are famous for their monologues. Often, characters have defining moments where their dialogue is front and center. In Fences, Cory finally confronts his father at the climax of the play. In Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the titular character Ma Rainey quickly establishes her independence and awareness of her exploitation as a black music artist by the white executive recording industry. The fame and success of Wilson’s plays have generated competitions around the country based on the reading of his characters' monologues.

A large and well-known monologue competition is the National August Wilson Monologue Competition. Founded in 2007 by True Colors Theater Company, they worked closely with Wilson to develop this program across the country. It is now hosted in over fifteen regions throughout the United States, including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh.

August Wilson: Quotes

Let's further explore the most common themes of Wilson's work with quotes from his plays.

As long as the colored man look to white folks to put the crown on what he say...as long as he looks to white folks for approval...then he ain’t never gonna find out who he is and what he’s about. He’s just gonna be about what white folks want him to be about. That’s one sure thing.”

(Toledo, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Act I, Scene 1)

Wilson’s characters struggle with identity and their place in a predominantly white society. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom explores the exploitation of Black people in the music industry. Each character has different aspirations. To realize those aspirations, they have to contend with a white-dominated business. They must decide for themselves what they are willing to do for success. Toledo believes in working together, whereas other characters are more interested in their own career.

If they got a white fellow sitting on the bench... you can bet your last dollar he can’t play. The colored guy got to be twice as good before he get on the team. That’s why I don’t want you to get all tied up in them sports. Man on the team and what it get him? They got colored on the team and don’t use them. Same as not having them. All them teams the same.”

(Troy Maxon, Fences, Act I, Scene 3)

Fences explores the racist obstacles that Black people faced in the 1950s. For Troy, joining a baseball team as a Black man was a waste of time. They did not take advantage of a Black player, no matter his level of skill. However, Cory challenges his father and insists that things have changed. Troy is still embittered about his failure to become a professional baseball player and wants to protect his children from the loss he feels.

You trying to tell me a woman can’t be nothing without a man. But you alright, huh? You can just walk out of here without me—without a woman—and still be a man. That’s alright. Ain’t nobody gonna ask you, “Avery, who you got to love you?’’ That’s alright for you. But everybody gonna be worried about Berniece.”

(Berniece, The Piano Lesson Act II, Scene 2)

Wilson’s plays are known for their strong female characters. Berneice is well aware of the sexist limitations placed upon her. She wants to keep the family heirloom piano to honor their legacy, while her brother wishes to sell it. Berniece understands that she needs to advocate for herself and her mother’s legacy. Wilson grew up with three sisters and was mostly raised by his mother. They were feminists without explicitly saying they were. Their refusal to accept the existing state of affairs influenced the characters that Wilson created, and he reflects this in their manner of speech and presentation.

August Wilson - Key takeaways

  • August Wilson was an award-winning Black American playwright and poet most famous for his ten-play American Century Cycle.
  • Nine plays of The American Century Cycle are set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and they focus on the struggles of working-class Black Americans in different decades.
  • Wilson was a poetry writer, which influenced his playwriting.
  • His plays explore Black identity, racism, and the human condition.
  • Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Fences both won Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

1. Isherwood, Charles. “August Wilson, Theater’s Poet of Black America, Is Dead at 60”, The New York Times (October 3, 2005).


References

  1. Fig. 2 - The August Wilson Theatre (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:W_52_St_Nov_2021_16.jpg) by Epicgenius (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Epicgenius) is licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about August Wilson

August Wilson was an award-winning Black American playwright and poet.


August Wilson wrote over sixteen plays.

August Wilson was Black. He had a white father and Black mother.


August Wilson was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


August Wilson is famous for his American Century Cycle, which is a series of ten plays exploring Black people and their struggles during each decade.


Final August Wilson Quiz

Question

Who is August Wilson?

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Answer

He is a Black American playwright and poet.

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How many plays did August Wilson write?



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Over sixteen

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When was August Wilson born?

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1945

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After dropping out of high school, August Wilson spent most of his time

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reading and studying at the library

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While known for his plays, Wilson started writing 

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Answer

poems

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August Wilson felt African American culture was passed down through

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Answer

oral tradition

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What was Wilson's first play?

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Answer

Recycling

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Wilson's most famous series of plays is called

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Answer

The American Century Cycle

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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984) explores

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Answer

the systematic exploitation of Black musicians by the music industry

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Fences is the story of 


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the Maxson family struggling against systemic racism in 1950s Pittsburgh.

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Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1984) is noted for 

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Answer

its attention to historic details

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The Piano Lesson (1987) explores 


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the sense of identity one creates when one chooses to deny or embrace their past.

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The dialogue of Wilson's plays have inspired the creation of

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Answer

the National August Wilson Monologue Competition

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What does Wilson credit his inspiration for female characters in his plays?

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growing up with his mom and three sisters

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The piano in The Piano Lesson represents

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the legacy of Berniece and Boy Willie's family

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What is the play Fences about?

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Fences explores the evolving challenges of the Black community and the attempt to build a safe home in a racist society.

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What is the setting of Fences?

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Fences is set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in the 1950s. 

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Who is Troy Maxson?

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Rose's husband

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Unlike Troy, Rose is

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empathetic and loving towards Cory and Lyons

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In contrast to Troy, Cory is

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optimistic and ambitious about his future

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Gabriel Maxson believes

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he is reincarnated as a saint, due to his head injury.

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Jim Bono is a 

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follower and friend of Troy

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Alberta is

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Troy's secret lover

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Why does Troy dissaprove of Cory's football recruitment?

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He expects Cory will face the same racist obstacles and waste his time

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After Rose learns of Troy's affair, she

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breaks up with him and takes in Raynell, his newborn daughter

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How does Cory react to his father's death?

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he refuses to go to the funeral

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What does the fence symbolize?

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the segregation of the Black community

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What are three themes in Fences?

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Race Relations and Ambition

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Troy prefers that Cory

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pursue a career in a reliable trade

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When Troy reveals the affair, how does Rose feel?

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Rose feels betrayed and that her sacrifices to build a family were unreciprocated by Troy.

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