August Wilson

National Humanities Medal


In just fifteen years, American playwright August Wilson has become one of the most important voices in modern theater. He has won acclaim from literary and theater critics for his plays, which portray the African American experience in the twentieth century, one decade at a time.

Born Frederick August Kittel in 1945 to a white German-American father and an African American mother, Wilson took his mother's name in the early 1970s. He grew up in Pittsburgh's ethnically diverse Hill District, where he was surrounded by the sounds, sights and struggles of urban African American life that would later fuel his creative efforts. But Wilson's appreciation for the culture in which he had grown up did not bloom fully until he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, in his early thirties. From that distance, he gained an appreciation of the richness of the culture and the language of the place where he had spent his youth.

"In the Hill District, I was surrounded by all this highly charged, poetic vernacular which was so much part and parcel of life that I didn't pay any attention to it. But in moving to St. Paul and suddenly being removed from that environment and that language, I began to hear it for the first time and recognize its value," he says.

Originally a poet and short-story writer, Wilson's first experience with theater wasn't until 1968, when he and a friend started Black Horizons Theatre Company in Pittsburgh. There, Wilson learned to direct plays, but still didn't consider writing them. It wasn't until 1977 that he converted some of his poems into a play. Called Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, the production was a success, but Wilson doesn't count that play as part of his playwriting career. Instead, he says, his career began in 1979 with his work on Jitney.

"Before that, I couldn't write dialog because I didn't value and respect the way that black people talked. I thought that, in order to make art out of it that, you had to change it. With Jitney, I decided I was just going to let them talk the way that they talked, and that was the beginning."

Since Jitney, Wilson has cranked out an award-winning play every year or two. In 1982, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was accepted for a workshop production by the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center's national Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Connecticut ,and, in 1984, the play opened at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

In 1983, Wilson wrote Fences, which opened on Broadway in 1987 and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best play of the year.

At this point, having already written three plays, each set in a different decade of the twentieth century, Wilson set for himself the task of writing seven additional plays, one for each of the remaining decades in the century, each illuminating the African American experience of that time.

Before the 1980s were over, four more of Wilson's plays won New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards, and one of these plays-The Piano Lesson-won Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize. In the 1990s, two more plays won Circle awards. Two Trains Running was cited as the best American Play of 1991-92, and Seven Guitars was recognized as the best new play in 1995-96. August Wilson was taking the theater world by storm.

In addition to these creative efforts, Wilson sought to strengthen and promote African American theatre. Following a public debate with critic/producer Robert Brustein in January 1997 in New York City concerning race, culture and theatre, Wilson convened a conference on African American Theater at Dartmouth in 1998. As a result of that meeting, the African Grove Institute of Arts was born as a home for African American theatre, and August Wilson serves as chairman of its board of directors.

To date, Wilson has written eight of the plays he will include in his ten-play series. The eighth, King Hedley II, is scheduled to premiere on December 15 in Wilson's hometown of Pittsburgh. The premiere will inaugurate the newly built Pittsburgh Public Theatre.

The last two plays in the cycle-which will cover the first and last decades of the century-are yet to come. The process of writing these plays, Wilson says, will begin with a single line of dialog that surfaces from his creative depths. Gradually, characters will begin to reveal themselves and Wilson will come to know them and the story they wish to tell.

By Marlis C. McCollum

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.