How Playwright August Wilson Captured the Highs and Lows of Black America

An immersive exhibition in Pittsburgh explores the award-winning dramatist’s life and legacy

August Wilson with arms folded
Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson depicted the experiences of Black Americans through often-overlooked, working-class characters. The Huntington via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, playwright August Wilson spent much of his time in diners and coffee shops in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, scrawling notes on napkins about the sights, sounds and working-class people of the historically Black neighborhood.

Pittsburgh was Wilson’s muse for his American Century Cycle, a landmark collection of 10 plays that span the decades of the 20th century and shine a light on the experiences—both good and bad—of Black Americans. Now, the city is paying homage to the influential late playwright with a permanent immersive exhibition called “August Wilson: The Writer's Landscape” at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, reports Joshua Axelrod for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Divided into 13 separate walk-through installations—10 of which focus on the plays in the Century Cycle—the 1,800-square-foot exhibition includes props, costumes and set pieces from Wilson’s productions, along with many of his personal items. Visitors can wander through Wilson’s home office or imagine him sipping a cup of coffee at Eddie’s, a diner he frequented.

Interactive video displays and audio clips also help tell the story of Wilson’s life and work. As Janis Burley Wilson, the center’s president and CEO with no relation to the playwright, tells the Post-Gazette, the playwright explored universal feelings and ideas through the lens of Black characters.

“The themes that he explores in his plays are love, betrayal, trust, hopes, dreams,” she says. “That’s really applicable to everyone. He’s an African American playwright who wrote about the African American experience, but it’s really the human experience.”

Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel in 1945—the son of Frederick Kittel, a white German immigrant whom he never had much of a relationship with, and Daisy Wilson, a Black woman who cleaned homes and cared for him and his five siblings. After a teacher accused him of plagiarism when he was a teenager, the youth dropped out of school and began spending much of his time reading at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. (Later in his life, the library awarded him the only high school diploma it ever issued in recognition of his contributions to literature.)

At age 20, he adopted his mother’s maiden name as his own and became August Wilson. He tried unsuccessfully to make a living as a poet before he moved to Minnesota and began writing plays in the late 1970s.

Black actors on stage
Bill Nunn (Gabriel) and Crystal Fox (Rose Maxson) perform in the August Wilson play Fences at The Huntington Theatre in Boston.  The Huntington via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

One of Wilson’s first plays, Jitney, landed him a fellowship at the Minneapolis Playwrights’ Center. His career took off from there. Wilson won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for Fences, the sixth play of the Century Cycle, which premiered on Broadway in 1987. He won a second Pulitzer for The Piano Lesson in 1990 and, in 2017, posthumously earned his second Tony Award, this time for Jitney. In total, he was nominated for Tony Awards for all nine of his plays that were produced on Broadway.

His work gave a voice to often-overlooked Black Americans, including mill workers, unlicensed cab drivers and trash collectors. Through these and other characters, Wilson adeptly explored the effects of decades of racism, but also the joys and triumphs of Black Americans.

Thanks in large part to Wilson, Black theater artists “didn’t need permission to be a part of America,” Ruben Santiago-Hudson, an actor who has performed in and directed several of Wilson’s plays, tells NPR’s Bill O’Driscoll.

“With August Wilson, we are America," Santiago-Hudson says. “Instead of Black life being in the periphery, he put Black people's lives in ... the center of what is Americana."

Until now, Wilson’s namesake center, which opened in 2009, had no exhibition or display dedicated to the decorated playwright. It tapped Wilson’s wife Constanza Romero, an accomplished costume designer and artist in her own right, to curate the exhibition. On top of reviewing the many requests from producers who want to put on Wilson’s plays, Romero is also leading the charge to turn Wilson’s childhood home in Pittsburgh into an arts center.

August Wilson's childhood home in Pittsburgh
August Wilson was born and raised in Pittsburgh, where he took inspiration for many of his award-winning plays. Joseph via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

Wilson died of liver cancer in 2005, but his work remains timely and popular. In the last six years, Romero has helped produce award-winning film adaptations of her late husband’s plays Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. (Viola Davis won the Academy Award for best supporting actress in Fences in 2017, while Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom won two Academy Awards in 2021: one for best costume design and another for best makeup and hairstyling.) Denzel Washington, who produced both films and directed and starred in Fences, has pledged to produce all 10 of the plays in the Century Cycle for HBO.

By exploring the country’s history through Black stories, Wilson’s plays have the power to help combat “the ongoing forces of systemic racism” that persist today, Romero told UC Santa Cruz Magazines Peggy Townsend in August 2021.

“What drives me right now is keeping his legacy alive and making sure his stories are still relevant and speak to the political climate of our time,” Romero told the magazine.

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