A Biography of August Wilson: The Playwright Behind 'Fences'

Writer received two Pulitzer Prizes for depictions of African American life

August Wilson
August Wilson during the 10th Annual U.S. Comedy Arts Festival at St. Regis Hotel in Aspen, Colo. Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc.

Award-winning playwright August Wilson had no shortage of fans during his life, but his writing enjoyed renewed interest after a film adaptation of his play “Fences” opened in theaters on Christmas Day 2016. The critically acclaimed film not only earned kudos for stars Viola Davis and Denzel Washington, who also directed, but exposed new audiences to Wilson’s work as well. In each of his plays, Wilson shined a spotlight on the lives of the working class African Americans overlooked in society.

With this biography, learn how Wilson’s upbringing influenced his major works.

Early Years

August Wilson was born April 27, 1945, in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a poor black neighborhood. At birth, he bore his baker father’s name, Frederick August Kittel. His father was a German immigrant, known for his drinking and temper, and his mother, Daisy Wilson, was African American. She taught her son to stand up to injustice. His parents divorced, however, and the playwright would later change his surname to his mother’s, for she was his primary caregiver. His father did not have a consistent role in his life and died in 1965.

Wilson experienced fierce racism attending a succession of nearly all-white schools, and the alienation he felt as a result eventually led him to drop out of high school at 15. Leaving school did not mean Wilson had given up on his education. He decided to educate himself by regularly visiting his local library and voraciously reading the offerings there.

A self-taught education proved fruitful for Wilson, who would earn a high school diploma due to his efforts. Alternatively, he learned important life lessons by listening to the stories of the African Americans, mostly retirees and blue-collar workers, in the Hill District.

A Writer Gets His Start

By 20, Wilson decided that he would be a poet, but three years later he developed an interest in theater.

In 1968, he and his friend Rob Penny started the Black Horizons on the Hill Theater. Lacking a place to perform, the theater company staged its productions at elementary schools and sold tickets for just 50 cents by herding in passersby outside just before the shows started.

Wilson’s interest in theater waned, and it wasn’t until he moved to St. Paul, Minn., in 1978 and began adapting Native American folktales into children's plays that he renewed his interest in the craft. In his new city, he began to recall his old life in the Hill District by chronicling the experiences of the residents there in a play, which developed into “Jitney.” But Wilson’s first play staged professionally was “Black Bart and the Sacred Hills,” which he wrote by piecing together several of his old poems.  

Lloyd Richards, the first black Broadway director and dean of the Yale School of Drama, helped Wilson refine his plays and directed six of them. Richards was artistic director of Yale Repertory Theater and head of the Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference in Connecticut to which Wilson would submit the work that made him a star, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Richards gave Wilson guidance on the play and it opened at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1984.

The New York Times described the play as “a searing inside account of what white racism does to its victims.” Set in 1927, the play details the rocky relationship between a blues singer and a trumpet player.

In 1984, “Fences” premiered. It takes place in the 1950s and chronicles the tensions between a former Negro leagues baseball player working as a garbage man and the son who also dreams of an athletic career. For that play, Wilson received the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The playwright followed up “Fences” with “Joe Turner's Come and Gone,” which takes place in a boardinghouse in 1911.

Among Wilson’s other key works is "The Piano Lesson," the story of siblings fighting over a family piano in 1936. He received his second Pulitzer for that 1990 play. Wilson also wrote "Two Trains Running," "Seven Guitars," "King Hedley II," "Gem of the Ocean" and "Radio Golf," his last play.

Most of his plays had Broadway debuts and many were commercial successes. "Fences," for example, boasted earnings of $11 million in one year, a record at that time for a nonmusical Broadway production.

A number of celebrities starred in his works. Whoopi Goldberg acted in a revival of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" in 2003, while Charles S. Dutton starred in both the original and the revival. Other famous actors who’ve appeared in Wilson productions include S. Epatha Merkerson, Angela Bassett, Phylicia Rashad, Courtney B. Vance, Laurence Fishburne and Viola Davis.

In total, Wilson received seven New York Drama Critics' Circle awards for his plays.

Art for Social Change

Each of Wilson’s works describes the struggles of the black underclass, be they sanitation workers, domestics, drivers or criminals. Through his dramas, which span different decades of the 20th century, the voiceless have a voice. The plays expose the personal turmoil the marginalized endure because their humanity all too often goes unrecognized by their employers, by strangers, by family members and America overall.

While his plays tell the stories of an impoverished black community, there’s a universal appeal to them as well. One can relate to Wilson’s characters in the same way one can relate to the protagonists of Arthur Miller’s works. But Wilson’s plays stand out for their emotional gravitas and lyricism. The playwright didn’t want to gloss over the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and their impact on his character’s lives. He believed that art was political but didn’t consider his own plays to be explicitly political.

"I think my plays offer (white Americans) a different way to look at black Americans," he told The Paris Review in 1999. "For instance, in ‘Fences' they see a garbage man, a person they don't really look at, although they see a garbage man every day. By looking at Troy's life, white people find out that the content of this black garbage man's life is affected by the same things - love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty.

Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.”

Illness and Death

Wilson died of liver cancer on Oct. 2, 2005, at the age of 60 in a Seattle hospital. He had not announced that he was suffering from the disease until a month before his death. His third wife, costume designer Constanza Romero, three daughters (one with Romero and two with his first wife) and several siblings survived him.

After he succumbed to cancer, the playwright continued to receive honors. The Virginia Theater on Broadway announced that it would bear Wilson’s name. Its new marquee went up two weeks after his death.