Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama

By Marc Maufort | Go to book overview

Breaking Barriers: August Wilson

Yvonne Shafer

August Wilson is one of only seven American playwrights to win two Pulitzer Prizes, and one of only three black playwrights to receive the prize. Unlike many black playwrights he has written plays which appeal to both black and white audiences. When Ma Rainey's Black Bottom opened in 1984, Wilson was completely unknown in the theatre. In the following ten years he achieved such success that, as critic Paul Taylor has noted, "Wilson is the only contemporary dramatist, apart from Neil Simon, who is assured a Broadway production and his have been the pioneer black works at many regional theatres" ( "Emptying the Contents of His Bag"25). He has won Bush, McKnight, Rockefeller, and Guggenheim Foundation fellowships in playwriting, and Tony awards and Drama Critics Circle Awards. In 1988 he achieved the distinction of having two plays running on Broadway, Fences and Joe Turner's Come and Gone. His plays have been described as "powerful," "thrilling," and "explosive." Critic Richard Christiansen noted the unusual quality of Wilson's work which has contributed to his popularity, saying, "Wilson's genius for translating common language into poetry through rhythm, repetition and telling imagery reveals a world of myth, religion, and folk spirit" ( "'Two Trains' Has Ticket to Amazing Trip"16). Remarkably, Wilson has been able to explore and communicate the black experience in America in a way which seems particular to blacks and also achieves a universality which has drawn the white audiences needed for a commercial success in the American theatre. He explores small lives in very particular places, but as Taylor commented, "They're small people in a small space but in 'Two Trains Running' they summon up a universe" ( "Two Trains"16). An analysis of Wilson's background, his approach to playwriting, and the stage history of his plays reveals a unique experience in the American theatre.

Wilson was born Freddy August Kittel in 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His mother's maiden name was Wilson. His background seems an unlikely one to produce either a poet or a playwright who has achieved "widespread acclaim as the most invigorating new voice our theatre" ( Smith, "Playwright" E1). His white father was a German baker named August who "was at best an infrequent and sporadic presence in the household" ( Freedman 36). Young August's mother (who supported the children by a janitorial job and money from welfare), however, was determined that her children would have a chance to compete in society. As Wilson says, "My mother taught me

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