In A Nutshell
August Wilson was born Fredrick August Kittle on April 27, 1945. His parents were Frederick Kittel, a German immigrant, and Daisy Wilson, an African-American woman. The playwright never saw much of his father growing up. He was mostly raised by his mother, in an apartment with no hot water, in Pittsburgh's Hill District, a mostly black neighborhood. When he was 20, August Kittle officially became August Wilson. He ditched his absent father's name altogether, aligning himself with his mother, her family, and her culture.
Wilson faced lots of racial discrimination in school. This reached a peak in high school, when he was accused of plagiarism. He'd written an excellent twenty-page paper on Napoleon. His teacher didn't believe a black person could write so well and called him a cheater. When the principal backed her up, Wilson dropped out of school. He continued to educate himself in the Pittsburgh Public Library. It looks like he did a pretty good job of it, too: he swiftly became one of the greatest American playwrights of all time.
Though Wilson began his writing career as a poet, he was attracted to the theatre. Along with his friend Rob Penny, he founded Black Horizons theatre company in Pittsburgh. Later on, Wilson's play Jitney got him accepted to the Playwright's Center in Minneapolis. It was there that he first started to think of himself as a playwright instead of a poet.
A few years later he found himself at the O'Neill Playwrights Conference with his play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. There he met the director Lloyd Richards, an African-American man who just so happened to be dean of Yale's Drama School as well as artistic director of the highly influential Yale Repertory Theatre. From there, Wilson's career was made. Richards premiered many of Wilson's plays at Yale Rep and also directed his first six plays on Broadway.
August Wilson is most famous for his ten-play cycle that chronicles the African-American experience in the 20th century. This set of plays is sometimes called the Pittsburgh Cycle, since all but one (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) is set in Wilson's hometown. The cycle is widely considered to be one of the most significant contributions to American drama. Its plays have won just about every award a play can win, including eight New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards, a Tony award for Best Play, and two Pulitzer Prizes.
Fences won Wilson his first Pulitzer Prize. What's amazing is that when the play first came to Broadway, Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone was already playing there. This made Wilson the first black playwright to have more than one play on Broadway at the same time.
Fences was an all-out hit and is widely considered to be Wilson's biggest commercial success. It premiered at Yale Rep under the direction of Lloyd Richards and starred James Earl Jones as the deeply flawed Troy Maxson. Besides the Pulitzer Prize, the play won tons of Tonys and Drama Desk Awards.
Some say that Troy Maxson may be based on David Bedford, Wilson's stepfather. Bedford had many similarities to Troy, like the fact that he was once a talented athlete and had spent time in prison for murder. It's also been said that Rose may be based on Wilson's mother Daisy. Notice the flower names? Hmm. Wherever the play came from, its successful Broadway run cemented Wilson's reputation. It proved he could play in the big leagues. Though he died too early – of liver cancer at the age of 60 – he has taken his place among the greats of American playwriting. (If you want to learn more about Wilson, check out the August Wilson Center's website.)
Why Should I Care?
Although Fences focuses on the African-American experience in its portrayal of a black family struggling to get by in 1950s Pittsburgh, the appeal of the play is universal. The conflict at the center of the play is one that could take place in any family.
Most of us know what it's like to live in the shadow of our parents. Troy Maxson, the main character of Fences, struggles to be a father with nothing to go on but the harsh example set by his own father. We also see Troy's son, Cory, coming of age under Troy's reign. The play shows that no matter how old you are, you're constantly measuring yourself against the example set by your parents. We're pretty sure most people know what this feels like. Even if your family was nothing like the Maxsons, you can probably connect with this basic human struggle.