The late August Wilson and his celebrated crowning achievement, “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” helped earn the playwright a series of awards and launched the careers of several talented actors. This week, the PBS network will air a documentary on the extraordinary life and rise of Wilson from his humble Pittsburgh beginnings.
Born Fredrick August Kittell Jr. on April 27, 1945, the future stage giant faced racial hostility growing up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District despite his bi-racial background. An avid reader, Wilson dropped out of high school at 15 after a teacher reportedly accused him of plagiarism. Wilson studied so much on his own at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh that it awarded him a degree – allegedly the only time such an occurrence has taken place.
After struggling with odd jobs and the death of his parents, the playwright officially took the stage name August Wilson in honor of his late mother. He then became a poet, a career that was not successful. However, Wilson remained a writer and after a move to St. Paul, Minn. in 1978, his fortunes would change. While in St. Paul, Wilson wrote his first major play, Jitney, which earned him a fellowship at the Minneapolis Playwright Center.
In 1982, his play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was accepted at the Eugene O’Neil Playwright’s Conference. This would be an even larger turning point for Wilson as it was the foundation of his relationship with Lloyd Richards, who later directed the first six of Wilson’s plays for Broadway.
In 1987, Wilson’s play Fences debuted on Broadway, which he won both a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Drama. The following year, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone made its Broadway debut. Wilson earned his second Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for The Piano Lesson.
Just as Wilson’s star was rising even higher, he was diagnosed with liver cancer in the summer of 2005. Given just months to live, Wilson died before the premiere of his final installment of The Pittsburgh Cycle, titled Radio Golf. Wilson was 60.
PBS’ American Masters series will debut the documentary The Ground On Which I Stand on Friday, February 20 in conjunction with WQED Multimedia. It is the first such documentary done on the life of Wilson.