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August Wilson

A Life



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About The Book

The first authoritative biography of August Wilson, the most important and successful American playwright of the late 20th century, by a theater critic who knew him.

August Wilson wrote a series of ten plays celebrating African American life in the 20th century, one play for each decade. No other American playwright has completed such an ambitious oeuvre. Two of the plays became successful films, Fences, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis; and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. Fences and The Piano Lesson won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama; Fences won the Tony Award for Best Play, and years after Wilson’s death in 2005, Jitney earned a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.

Through his brilliant use of vernacular speech, Wilson developed unforgettable characters who epitomized the trials and triumphs of the African American experience. He said that he didn’t research his plays but wrote from “the blood’s memory,” a sense of racial history that he believed African Americans shared. Author and theater critic Patti Hartigan traced his ancestry back to slavery, and his plays echo with uncanny similarities to the history of his ancestors. She interviewed Wilson many times before his death and traces his life from his childhood in Pittsburgh (where nine of the plays take place) to Broadway. She also interviewed scores of friends, theater colleagues and family members, and conducted extensive research to tell the story of a writer who left an indelible imprint on American theater and opened the door for future playwrights of color.


Prologue Prologue
To arrive at this moment in my life, I have traveled many roads, some circuitous, some brambled and rough, some sharp and straight, and all of them have led as if by some grand design to the one burnished with art and small irrevocable tragedies.


On March 22, 2003, under a somber gray sky, August Wilson walked slowly up the steps of St. Benedict the Moor church, the grand, imposing Roman Catholic cathedral on Crawford Street at the base of Pittsburgh’s Hill District. The temperature was in the low fifties, typical for early spring in Pittsburgh, but an unforgiving drizzle added a nip to the air. Wilson had cut short a trip to Syracuse to be back in Pittsburgh that day. He sported a black turtleneck and a brown tweed jacket, topped by a trench coat to keep away the chill. His signature Borsalino fedora shadowed the deep circles under his puffy eyes; his neatly trimmed beard was more salt than pepper.

He hadn’t originally planned on spending the day back home in Pittsburgh. His latest play, Gem of the Ocean, was about to make its world premiere in less than a month at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. He had finished a very rough draft and he would rewrite during rehearsals, the same way he had revised the other plays in his ambitious ten-play cycle about African Americans in the twentieth century.

Gem was the ninth play in the cycle. He had one more to go, and he already felt the pressure of completing the goal he had set for himself so long ago. He had also foolishly agreed to write and perform a one-man autobiographical show for a benefit fundraiser at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. He hadn’t written a word, and he had just two months left before he had to get up on the stage and play himself as a young man. He was a perennial procrastinator, but standing on the steps of that church, looking up toward the Hill District, he was burdened by grief and memories, many of them painful. He had mourned his mother, Daisy Wilson, at this very church twenty years ago, almost to the day. He knew he was going to pay tribute to her in his one-man show, and he had already thought about what to say. “There will come a day when you will suffer the most profound grief imaginable,” is what he eventually wrote. “And you look up and you find out that all them years you been living on your mother’s prayers and now you’ve got to live on your own.”

This church, so noble and grand, evoked images from the past. As a boy, Wilson had attended the parochial school at Holy Trinity in the Lower Hill District, but the school was demolished during an ill-informed period of urban renewal in the late 1950s. Several parishes merged to form St. Benedict the Moor, named for an Italian Franciscan friar who was born of African slaves and celebrated for his charity. The church commissioned a giant statue of its patron saint in 1968, the same year as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The eighteen-foot-tall landmark faces with its arms stretched in welcome to the people of downtown Pittsburgh, its back turned on the Hill District. The orientation of the statue of a saint with African blood turning its back on his people had infuriated Wilson the day it was unveiled. It still did.

But he was here to bury one of his friends, not resurrect old grievances. Wilson never missed a funeral. His life and his work reinforced the notion that attention must be paid to history, to ancestral roots, to family, and to friends, both celebrated and obscure. He stopped briefly outside the church to greet Nate Smith, the legendary labor leader who had famously laid down in front of a moving bulldozer in 1969 to protest the absence of Black union workers at the Three Rivers Stadium construction site. Smith’s bald head glistened, his mournful eyes rimmed red. Wilson had been an impressionable young man in his early twenties when Smith led thousands in protest marches in downtown Pittsburgh, ultimately forcing the mayor and the union leaders to develop a plan to admit Blacks and women into the city’s entrenched trade unions. Smith was one of his heroes back then, but today the two men met as peers, fellow mourners.

While Smith was organizing protests, Wilson was living in a shady basement apartment on Crawford Street, just a block over from St. Benedict’s. He was an aspiring young poet, a high school dropout who loved words as much as he loved the sweet smell of a woman’s perfume in the late-night hours. He wrote poetry on a manual Royal Standard typewriter. That typewriter had been replaced long ago, and the apartment building had been demolished. But he had forged deep friendships with his fellow poets back then. He had found his vocation right here on these streets by becoming one of a quartet known as the Centre Avenue Poets: Chawley Williams, Nicholas Flournoy, Rob Penny, and Wilson. Swept up in the Black Nationalist Movement, they aimed to change the world with poetry and plays, by giving the people a voice.

And that is what brought Wilson, now an acclaimed playwright, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, a Tony Award, and numerous honorary degrees, to the steps of this church, not far from where he had grown up the son of a single mother in a two-room flat with no indoor plumbing. He was back home to bury Rob Penny. A small, wiry man with an infectious grin, Penny had preceded Wilson at Central Catholic High School, the elite exam school in Oakland, a neighborhood that is a stone’s throw from Carnegie Mellon University and miles away in mindset from the Hill District. Despite rampant racism at the school, Penny had been able to succeed because he was the fastest runner on the track team—and whip-smart, too. Wilson was accepted two years after Penny’s graduation; he withdrew after barely a year, tired of the racist notes that were left on his desk and the jokes played at his expense. Penny graduated and was a celebrated star athlete. Years later, Wilson saw him take a dare from a group of teenagers hanging out in a park. The upstarts thought they could beat the old man with the graying dreadlocks in a hundred-yard dash. Penny won. He always won.

The two former Central Catholic students had been brothers back when they were aspiring young artists. They had bonds. They had a past together. Back in the 1960s, Penny called himself Brother Oba, which means “king” in the Yoruba and Bini languages of West Africa. Wilson took the name Mbulu, the name of a town in Tanzania. Together in 1968, the two men launched Black Horizons Theatre, creating art from the ashes of the fiery demonstrations that rocked Pittsburgh after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. They were poets and dreamers who subscribed to the principles of Amiri Baraka’s Black Arts Movement, which espoused that theater and art could empower the Black community.

Penny was able to turn his poetry acumen and community activism into a teaching slot at the University of Pittsburgh’s newly formed Department of Africana Studies in 1969. There was no place for Wilson in the department, but he didn’t begrudge his friend his good fortune. Penny, at least, had graduated from high school. Wilson continued to struggle as a penniless poet and playwright for many years, while Penny enjoyed the perks and acclaim of academe. Penny went on to become chairman of Africana Studies in 1978, serving until 1984 and remaining an esteemed professor until his death of a heart attack on March 16, 2003. Wilson, on the other hand, worked every odd job from dishwasher to short-order cook. His first nibble at theatrical success came in 1982, when his play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was accepted to be developed at the prestigious Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. He included his Pittsburgh friends in that small moment of triumph: Penny and another Pitt professor, Curtiss Porter, traveled to Waterford to see the play. Wilson continued to invite his Pittsburgh brothers to his Broadway openings, and he also celebrated their achievements over the years.

Back in the day, Penny had taken to wearing dashikis, while Wilson wore musty tweed sports coats he bought at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop; a coat went for thirty-five cents and a tie cost a nickel. Now his tweed had a better pedigree, but Wilson still related to the young man who shopped the bargain stores.

Before Wilson set foot in the church, Penny’s family sent a message to him. All the mourners were invited to say a few words about the departed. Except August Wilson. Wilson believed in speaking well of the dead. He spoke at funerals of folks he barely knew, impoverished street characters he gave a few bucks to when they were down on their luck. Not speak at Rob’s funeral? He told his younger brother Richard Kittel that he was crushed.

Many of his contemporaries saw him during the services and noticed that his legs buckled, ever so slightly. His lips sank downward, making his mustache seem like a deep frown. Sala Udin, an actor from the old days who had gone on to a career in local politics and activism, saw the normally self-restrained Wilson weep openly over the coffin. Mark Clayton Southers, an aspiring playwright, noted that Wilson was inconsolable. He didn’t know that his idol August Wilson had been silenced—because of his own success. Wilson was aware that the people who had been his dearest friends in the old days resented his acclaim. Some of them had suggested to one another, privately, that he had somehow “sold out” because of his commercial success on Broadway. When he gave his controversial speech “The Ground on Which I Stand,” in 1996, he was shattered that many of his friends from the theater failed to support him publicly. The fiery speech called for the creation of more Black theaters and denounced “color-blind casting” as demeaning to Blacks. Many of the “Wilson Warriors,” the actors who made their livings performing in his plays, were silent. That stung more.

Wilson had noticed over the years that the more successful he became, the more distant his former brothers grew. Poet Nick Flournoy, however, had remained true to their friendship, even as he continued to work primarily as a community activist. But Wilson knew others questioned his loyalties. He knew they envied his success. But he also knew that he was still the guy who wrote in basements and restaurants, even if he could afford the penthouse suite. His reception at the funeral accentuated the conflicting emotions about the city he celebrated in his plays. “I have this sort of love-hate relationship with Pittsburgh,” he once said. “This is my home and at times I miss it and find it tremendously exciting, and other times I want to catch the first thing out that has wheels.”

When he exited the church with his fellow mourners, he had trouble containing the deep lump in his throat and the steady flow from his watery eyes. A crowd had gathered at Freedom Corner, directly across the street from the church. Wilson was just a boy in the 1950s when developers encroached on the lower part of the Hill District, threatening to destroy the bustling multiethnic enclave where he grew up. The developers razed the Lower Hill to put up the Civic Arena, displacing thousands of people and creating a wasteland of urban blight. In the 1960s, protesters put up signs saying “NO Redevelopment Beyond This Point,” drawing a line at the corner of Centre Avenue and Crawford Street. The spot became known as Freedom Corner, a place where protesters gathered to begin marches for social justice and racial equality. Nate Smith had launched many of his protests there. His name was inscribed along with those of other civil rights leaders in the monument that was finally built on the spot in 2001.

Wilson’s younger cousin Renee Wilson, his uncle Frank’s daughter whom he barely knew but who had grown up to be a crackerjack community activist, had called him some time earlier. She had organized a group called People Against Police Violence to protest the deaths of five Black men killed by Pittsburgh police. She had scheduled a demonstration for March 22. The victims’ stories sounded like anecdotes from a Wilson play. One of the dead was a twelve-year-old boy who was shot in the back while fleeing from police after a car robbery. Renee Wilson was dedicated to the cause of “No justice, no peace,” and she asked her famous cousin to attend the protest. He declined her request. He had planned to be in Chicago on that day, working on his play.

Renee had also called Rob Penny. She had taken a writing class with him at Pitt and he had encouraged her to keep writing poetry. She asked that he speak at the rally. He agreed to attend, but he would not speak.

As it turned out, Penny was there, but in a coffin. Renee had planned on starting the march downtown earlier in the day, but out of respect for Penny, she postponed the beginning of the demonstration until after the funeral. Wilson must have been aware of the symbolism of the moment. Like his cousin, he had harbored dreams of changing the world, but he had had to leave Pittsburgh to do it. He had walked those same streets when he was a young man, but even though he had almost accomplished what he set out to do when he started writing his cycle of ten plays, some of his former friends had branded him as the one who had turned his back on the community, just like that statue of St. Benedict the Moor.

The hearse went one way, and the protesters another. Wilson had written plays that dramatized the reasons for the protest his cousin was leading. He had done his part. He had found his song and shared it with audiences all over the world, but he hadn’t expected to pay such a high, personal price. He looked across the street at the protesters and looked at the hearse. He followed the funeral procession. It was time for another generation to take over the struggle.

About The Author

Patti Hartigan is an award-winning theater critic and arts reporter who spent many years on the staff of The Boston Globe. She divides her time between the Boston area and Charlottesville, Virginia.

Product Details

Raves and Reviews

"Masterful. . . . With painstaking research, stylistic verve, and an eye both admiring and exacting, Ms. Hartigan has pieced together the man behind the 20th Century Cycle, bringing Wilson to furious, complicated life. . . . An epic account."

– Isaac Butler, The Wall Street Journal

“An invaluable and highly absorbing new biography. . . . Wilson’s artistic story, throbbing with the ancestral memory Wilson felt in his blood, is profoundly inspiring in Hartigan’s magnificent rendering.”

– Charles McNulty, The Los Angeles Times

"No fan or scholar of August Wilson should dream of skipping this book. . . . [No one] will be able to avoid or overlook Hartigan's contribution, not just to Wilson scholarship but to American cultural history."

– Paul Devlin, The New Criterion

“[Hartigan’s] book is an achievement: It’s solid and well reported. . . . Hartigan is adept at keeping the lines straight.”

– Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Patti Hartigan’s August Wilson: A Life traces the larger context of his achievement as thoroughly as it does his distinctive vision. . . . [Her] descriptions of his idiosyncratic, youthful self-creation are a delight.”

– Imani Perry, The Atlantic

“[An] absorbing, richly detailed biography. . . . The backstage drama on Wilson’s biggest Broadway success comes to vivid life in Hartigan’s book, along with Wilson’s remarkable family history.”

– Michael Phillips, The Chicago Tribune

“Riveting. . . . Hartigan, with this first comprehensive biography, has honored Wilson in the way he deserves.”

– Nathaniel G. Nesmith, American Theatre

"August Wilson: A Life is an exquisitely researched biography fully equal to its legendary subject. With an insider's knowledge of the theater world, critic and arts reporter Patti Hartigan details on these rich, revealing pages not only the epic life of a complex, often misunderstood genius, but also the fascinating artistic, political and racial milieu in which he moved, showing us that as long as there is a truly American theater, there will be the plays and unparalleled presence of August Wilson."

– Charles Johnson, MacArthur Fellow and National Book Award-winning author of Middle Passage

"August Wilson was one of the greatest playwrights in the history of the American stage. Despite his major critical acclaim, a sophisticated biography is long overdue. Patti Hartigan has filled this void with a deeply researched, impressively insightful biography that reveals in riveting detail why Wilson will be recalled as one of the greatest dramatists of the twentieth century. A must read for students of theatre and African American literature."

– Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University 

"Inarguably August Wilson is the most important voice in the American theater in the past century, and Patti Hartigan has captured the man, the theater, and the country. Her biography of August Wilson flows from its pages like the very stories that flow from August’s masterful and beautiful ten-play cycle."

– Kenny Leon, Tony Award-winning director for A Raisin in the Sun and director of Fences, Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf

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