August Wilson (née Frederick August Kittel)
April 27, 1945 – October 2, 2005
Frederick August Kittel was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to a White German immigrant father, Frederick August Kittel, and a Black American mother, Daisy Wilson. For part of Kittel’s childhood, his family lived in the Hill District, a buzzing predominantly Black neighborhood. When Kittel’s parents divorced, he and his five siblings remained with their mother while their father became fairly absent from their lives. Some sources state that the elder Kittel had a quick temper and drank to excess.
Kittel’s mother remarried to David Beckford, a Black man, and the family moved to Hazelwood, a nearby suburb that was mostly White. Despite living in the North, this was still the 1950s so the family had to contend with a great deal of harassment. This hostility would extend into the classroom where Kittel would be subjected to the open racism of classmates.
As the only Black student enrolled in his grade at a local Roman Catholic high school, ill-treatment from his classmates would eventually force him to leave the school. But similar hostility would result in him transferring twice more during his freshman year. The harassment reached a boiling point and Kittel dropped out of school when a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a paper.
Yet, he continued his education independently and obtained a high school diploma by studying and reading on his own at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. He also spent time back in the Hill District where he hanged around the neighborhood and soaked up knowledge from the residents.
Kittel enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1962 with plans to serve for three years but ended up leaving after only one year. Back at home, he supported himself by working a variety of odd jobs.
The course of his life would change dramatically in 1965. His sister paid him $20 to write her term paper. He then used that money to buy his first typewriter and decided that he would become a poet. Around this time, Kittel’s father passed away and he stopped using his birth name. Instead, he combined his middle name with his mother’s surname to create “August Wilson”, the name under which he would write.
August Wilson would spend a little over a decade focused primarily on writing poems and short-stories while achieving little success. But, influenced by the growing Black Power Movement of the late 1960s, the Black Arts Movement would inspire Wilson and fellow writers, artists, and educators to create the Centre Avenue Poets Theater Workshop.
The workshop introduced Wilson to Rob Penny and the two became long-time collaborators. They also co-founded the Black Horizon Theater, a Black nationalist theater based in the Hill District. Within the theater company, Penny functioned as the playwright-in-residence while Wilson worked as the resident director, having taught himself from a book borrowed from the library. The theater company did not have a theater so instead staged performances in local school auditoriums.
In the mid-1970s, the theater company was dissolved and Wilson relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota in 1978 for a job where he was tasked with adapting Native American folk tales into children’s plays. The project allowed him to build confidence in his abilities as a playwright. But, far away from home, he missed the sights, sounds, people, and activity that was the Hill District. To ease his homesickness he made another attempt at writing plays. But this time he set the stories in the Hill District and channeled the neighborhood’s vibe in writing about the place and its people.
Beginning in the late 1970s with his first play, Jitney, Wilson would complete a new play about every two years. His plays which focused on different facets of the Black experience would go on to be produced for the stage and several would win awards and be adapted for film. Wilson created a connection through his plays where they were mostly set in the Hill District. The planned main body of his work was to consist of ten plays with each representing a different decade of the 20th century.
Wilson’s legacy consists of a body of work that told the story of the Black experience through plays. His contributions were significant because he was a Black playwright writing Black characters at a time when this was not the norm. Lloyd Richards, the famed Black artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre directed his first six plays on Broadway. And his plays provided early career opportunities for actors and actresses such as Angela Bassett, Charles S. Dutton, Viola Davis, Delroy Lindo, Courtney B. Vance, Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson, and Ruben Santiago Hudson.
August Wilson died on October 2, 2005, from liver cancer. He had been married three times, divorced twice, and had two daughters.
- “August Wilson.” n.d. The National Endowment for the Humanities. Accessed November 23, 2020. https://www.neh.gov/about/awards/national-humanities-medals/august-wilson.
- “August Wilson: The Man Behind the Legacy.” n.d. Center Theatre Group. Accessed November 23, 2020. https://www.centertheatregroup.org/programs/students/learn-about-theatre/august-wilson-monologue-competition/august-wilson-biography/.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2020. “August Wilson Biography.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. August 17, 2020. https://www.biography.com/writer/august-Wilson.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. 2020. “August Wilson.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. October 1, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/August-Wilson.
- Isherwood, Charles. 2005. “August Wilson, Theater’s Poet of Black America, Is Dead at 60.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. October 3, 2005. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/03/theater/newsandfeatures/august-wilson-theaters-poet-of-black-america-is-dead-at-60.html.
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