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August Wilson: Steel City Playwright
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August Wilson: Steel City Playwright

Picture of Lindsay Parnell
Updated: 25 January 2016
Lindsay Parnell looks at the work of playwright August Wilson, a dramatist who took as his subject the fractures and schisms of the African American consciousness in American society, and who used the unique backdrop of his hometown Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, as inspiration.

The Steel City has undoubtedly birthed some of the greatest literary minds, and pens, of the last century. Gertrude Stein, WD Snodgrass and Willa Cather all at one point called Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania home, but it was August Wilson who put this eastern city on the map in literary terms. He was born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945 into an impoverished home, financial circumstances which would ultimately force him to exit formal education. But the brilliant young mind and avid reader spent ample time in the Carnegie Library devouring and feeding his love of the written word. It was his hometown of Pittsburg that shaped not only the industrial and urban settings of his dramatic canon, but also the inspired characters, exhilarating voices and passionate narratives that became synonymous with his name.


After taking his mother’s surname shortly after her death, August Wilson embarked on what would become a highly accomplished literary career. His first play, Black Bart and the Sacred Hill, would be published and performed in 1981. But it was Wilson’s acclaimed ‘Century Cycle’ plays that would solidify his reputation as a leading dramatic voice of the modern American stage.


Wilson’s dramatic canon is defined by his ‘Century Cycle’ of plays, also known as ‘The Pittsburg Cycle’. Written over his twenty-year career, Wilson’s ten play series covers nearly a century of American history in an exploration of the modern African-American experience. Written nonsequentially, the ‘Pittsburg Cycle’ consists of: Gem of the Ocean (set in the 1900s, written in 2003), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (set in the 1910s, written in 1988), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (set in the 1920s, written in 1984), The Piano Lesson (set in the 1930s, written in 1990 and Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama), Seven Guitars (set in the 1940s, written in 1995), Fences (set in the 1950s, written in 1987 and Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama), The Two Trains Running (set in the 1960s, written in 1991), Jitney (set in the 1970s, written in 1982), King Hedley II (set in the 1980s, written in 1999), and finally Radio Golf (set in the 1990s, written in 2005). Wilson’s cycle of loosely connected plays set in a fictionalized depiction of his hometown, presents a thorough interrogation of modern African American identity in America.


The most notable scripts of the series, and dual Pulitzer winners The Piano Lesson and Fences, both feature an interrogation of identity by destabilizing the stereotypical portrayals of the African Americans. Ward accomplishes this through a rejection of the violent racial bigotry plaguing American history. The Piano Lesson features a family’s musical heirloom at the center of quarreling siblings. Brother Boy Willie wishes to sell an inherited and cross-generational family piano to purchase the land where his ancestors were enslaved. Sister Bernice, both haunted and inspired by her family’s past, fights to keep the instrument as a physical manifestation of their blood history. Wilson’s play examines the fragile intimacies of domestic relationships and the living power of lineage and inherited rituals. These notions would be revisited in Fences in which patriarch Troy is a former African American baseball star who has fallen victim to the racist injustice of professional athletics. He lives in domestic turmoil with his wife, children and veteran younger brother. Troy’s morbid impulses and premeditations on death drive his actions and speech throughout the play, culminating is a stunning and unsettling climax.


Wilson’s work constitutes a meticulous investigation of a lineage of African American history. He courageously questioned the often perverse state of affairs of a racially fractured country. Exploring not only cultural identity, but gendered identity as well, the stage was Wilson’s instrument for his own musings. Wilson’s body of work is much like the jazz music he was drawn to. With his dialogue a seductive lullaby of rhythm and cadence, August Wilson was a master dramatic puppeteer of words and the stage. He was an inspired wordsmith with an ability to express his own social and cultural consciousness. His unapologetic interrogations of identity result in some of the most inspired American stage plays of the last century.


By Lindsay Parnell