Magazine article Humanities

The Theater of Life: August Wilson

Magazine article Humanities

The Theater of Life: August Wilson

Article excerpt

IN JUST TWENTY 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 Theater 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. …

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