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August Wilson: Background

This week's reading should be in some ways a bit of a break from what you have been reading thusfar. The Piano Lesson is a fictional piece which tells a story. It does encompass the story of Wilson's history and the history of American Blacks, but it is part of a fictional historical chronicle. And it starts us on a new tact as we begin to look at different ways of knowing.

First, some background:

August Wilson was born in Pittsburgh in 1945, the son of a white father who never lived with his family and a black mother who had come from North Carolina to a Pittsburgh slum, where she worked to keep her family together. Much of his early writing, especially the play Fences, reflects the patterns of his early life and his stepfather.

Wilson's writing is rooted to a large extent in music, specifically the blues. As a poet, writing over several years, Wilson found himself interested in the speech patterns and rhythms that were familiar to him from black neighborhoods, but the value of those patterns became clearer to him when he grew older and moved from Pittsburgh to Minneapolis (He now makes his home with his wife on Seattle's Capitol Hill). From a distance he was able to see more clearly what had attracted him to the language and to begin to use the language more fully in his work.

In the 1960's and 70's Wilson became involved in the civil rights movement and began to describe himself as a black nationalist, a term he has said he feels comfortable with. He began writing plays in the 1960's in Pittsburgh and then took a job in St. Paul writing dramatic skits for the science Museum of Minnesota. He founded the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis and began writing a play, Jitney, about a gypsy cab station, which was produced in 1982. (That play has since been revived in New York during the 2001 season, has moved to London to great acclaim, and will be produced as part of the 2001-2002 season at the Seattle Repertory Theatre this Winter.) Fullerton Street, about Pittsburgh, was another play written in this early period. Wilson's first commercial success, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, eventually premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1984 and then went to Broadway where it enjoyed 275 performances and won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was the first of a planned sequence of ten plays based on the black American experience. As Wilson said, "I think the black Americans have the most dramatic story of all mankind to tell." Wilson's project is ongoing and intense and so far has produced some of the most successful plays in the recent American theatre.

In many of the plays in the cycle (Ma Rainey, Fences, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Seven Guitars) Wilson makes an attempt makes an effort to highlight the elements of African heritage that white society strips away from Blacks.

In The Piano Lesson, which premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1987 and won Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize, Wilson portrays the complexity of black attitudes toward the past and black heritage. The conflict the play exposes is a literal and metaphorical one and the play ultimately focuses on a profound moment of spiritual exorcism. How one exorcises the past - how one lives with it or without it - is a central theme in Wilson's work.

After The Piano Lesson, Wilson wrote Two Trains Running and Seven Guitars and King Hedley II . He is still working on the cycle tracing the history and lives of Black Americans in the North during the 20th Century.

An excellent site for further information is