Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright August Wilson was a prolific artist who eloquently chronicled African-American life. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. called him “the most accomplished black playwright in this nation’s history.”
Born in 1945, Wilson grew up in a working class neighborhood in Pittsburgh. His father, a German American baker, abandoned the family when Wilson was still young, and his mother moved the family to a mostly white suburb when she remarried. Disgusted with the racism he experienced in the Roman Catholic high school he attended, where he was the only black student in his class, Wilson dropped out of school at the age of sixteen and took his education into his own hands, spending days at the library.
In 1978, he moved to St. Paul, Minn., where he wrote his first major play, Jitney. A subsequent play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, opened in 1984 at the Yale Repertory Theater before immediately moving to Broadway and winning a New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play Award, launching his career.
He may be most known for a 10-play series often referred to as the Pittsburgh Cycle. All but one of the plays is set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood, where Wilson was raised. Set in different decades of the 20th century, each play depicts the loves, comedies, triumphs and tragedies of the African-American experience.
The first African American to have two plays running simultaneously on Broadway, Wilson was also one of seven American playwrights to win two Pulitzer Prizes, for Fences and The Piano Lesson, both of which premiered at the Yale Repertory Theater before opening to acclaim on Broadway.
Wilson died in Seattle in 2005. He was 60.