Happy Birthday, August Wilson!
Folks, it’s one of my favorite playwrights (and family members’) birthday!
Now, truth be told, I always missed August Wilson’s birthday because, like the names April, June and May, I always thought he was born in August, hence his name, so every August I was looking to say “Happy Birthday” and was late every time. Every. Time. SMH.
There’s so much to say about August Wilson and his work but I’m not trying to mourn today, I want to celebrate! So, I’ll start off my saying Thank You to Medgar Evers College for focusing upon the works of August Wilson at their Annual Black Writers’ Conference.
August Wilson was born in Pittsburgh, PA in 1945. He was very poor, one of six children and his mother, Daisy Wilson, was a Black woman from North Carolina, who worked as a janitor down at the City courthouse. His father, Frederick Kittel, was a White man from Germany who was a baker by trade but who kept sabotaging his life due to his struggles with alcoholism. He left the family and Daisy Wilson raised six children on her own. They lived in two rooms in the back of a home owned by a shop owner. It is now an historic landmark in the Historic Hill District.
Always a bright and rebellious child, Wilson dropped out of high school in the 9th grade because his teacher thought he had plagiarized a paper he had written on Napoleon. Since he was not allowed to drop out of school, he pretended to go to school everyday to fool his mother and, instead, went to the Carnegie Library. Despite being a ruse, Wilson later discovered “The Negro Section” at the Library and decided to read every book. For all intents and purposes, he became an organic intellectual by being an unofficial “Black Studies” major. His only high school diploma was granted by the Hill District Branch of the Carnegie Library. When he received it, he cried.
He later joined the military, then left, hung out “in the streets” in the Hill, especially with his fellow “Centre Avenue Poets” (Rob Penny, Chawley Williams, Nick Flournoy and Sala Udin), co-founded Black Horizons Theater in 1968 with Rob Penny and then later moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he became a playwright, nurtured by Penumbra Theater. He applied to the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Center (and was repeatedly rejected) until, on his fourth try, he was discovered by esteemed director, Lloyd Richards (who had been the Director of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway), which changed both of their lives, forever. The next year, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” a play based in Chicago in the 1930s about “the Mother of the Blues” and her band on the day they recorded one of her hit songs at Paramount Studios, appeared on Broadway. He never looked back.
August Wilson says his four major influences were “the four B’s”: The Blues, Amiri Baraka, Romare Bearden and Jorge Luis Borges.
For the next 25+ years, August Wilson wrote TEN plays to chronicle the African American experience in 20th Century, North America. In order of the ten play cycle (not their order of production), they are:
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
The Piano Lesson
Two Trains Running
King Hedley II
Have you seen any of them? Have you read them? Do you have any favorites? Needless to say, you should see all of them, a few times each to fully appreciate Wilson’s depth. Most of your favorite actors got their start in August Wilson plays.
And most of the rest, including the likes of the great, Denzel Washington, don’t feel complete as artists / thespians unless they’ve performed in one.
Larry Fishburne transformed into Lawrence Fishburne (and, subsequently, Neo) from performing in an August Wilson play with Roscoe Lee Brown. S. Epatha Merkerson. Angela Bassett. Courtney B. Vance. Ella Joyce. Charles Dutton. Samuel Jackson. Viola Davis. And that’s just a handful of folks whose careers were enhanced from being in an August Wilson play. You know why? Roots and Culture, Dignity and Justice.
Theater is always collaborative. But as a playwright, August Wilson single-handedly changed the landscape of Broadway. See, Broadway was slipping. People were tired of the same musicals and serious drama was on a heavy decline—until August Wilson came on the scene. Not only did he enhance the African American presence on Broadway by, like, 100%, he also enhanced the entire genre of dramatic theatre. Think about that for a moment.
So, it’s befitting that August Wilson is the first and only African American to have a Broadway Theatre named after him and it bears his (very nice) signature.
And he has an African American Cultural Center in Pittsburgh named after him:
You can see the inside of the Center here in an episode of “The Life of the Mind with Dr. Goddess: Paradise’s Hip Hop History Collection”. That was a great exhibit and August Wilson would have loved those artifacts of Hip Hop History—and Paradise’s beard.
August Wilson even imagined Barack Obama before many of us did. Indeed, check out Harry Lennix (yes, from The Matrix) as “Harmond Wilkes” in “Radio Golf”, a play set in 1997, about a man who aspires to be the first, Black Mayor of Pittsburgh. Sound familiar?
It’s not magic. We have to keep elected officials accountable. Stop letting them play you and stop playing yourself. But, do go to more plays!
So, here’s the giveaway.
- I have an original playbill of a Broadway production of an August Wilson play (not this one pictured).
- I have a Hold Me To It! Button
- And the latest book (for which I wrote the Introduction) August Wilson: Pittsburgh Places in His Life and Plays
I want you to tell the world about August Wilson! Do it on Facebook, Twitter and Sign Up for My Mailing List and the top three winners will get a prize!
3. Post to my page with the LINK! saying something like, “Dr. Goddess, thanks for teaching me more about August Wilson today, on his Birthday! http://drgoddess.com/augustwilsongiveaway
4. Tweet: @DrGoddess taught me more about #AugustWilson for his birthday giveaway!: http://bit.ly/hFCMJN
The contest ends at Midnight PST (3am EST) to accommodate all you folks out West.
FYI, I do teach and give lectures on Black Theatre, in general, and August Wilson, in particular. If you’d like a lecture, please contact Dr. Goddess here. It’s an absolute joy teaching Theatre and when it comes to August Wilson, I feel exceptionally blessed because I am not just a family member, I am a fan.
Happy Birthday, Uncle Freddy!