Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel, Jr. in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the fourth of six children. His father, Frederick August Kittel, Sr., was a Sudeten German immigrant, who was a baker/pastry cook. His mother, Daisy Wilson, was an African-American cleaning woman, from North Carolina. Wilson's anectodal history reports that his maternal grandmother walked from North Carolina to Pennsylvania in search of a better life. Wilson's mother raised the children alone until he was five in a two-room apartment above a grocery store at 1727 Bedford Avenue; his father was mostly absent from his childhood. Wilson later wrote under his mother's surname. The economically depressed neighborhood where he was raised was inhabited predominantly by black Americans and Jewish and Italian immigrants. Wilson's mother divorced his father and married David Bedford in the 1950s, and the family moved from the Hill District to the then predominantly white working-class neighborhood of Hazelwood, where they encountered racial hostility; bricks were thrown through a window at their new home. They were soon forced out of their house and on to their next home.
In 1959, Wilson was one of fourteen African-American students at the Central Catholic High School, from which he dropped out after one year. He then attended Connelley Vocational High School, but found the curriculum unchallenging. He dropped out of Gladstone High School in the 10th grade in 1960 after his teacher accused him of plagiarizing a 20-page paper he wrote on Napoleon I of France. Wilson hid his decision from his mother because he did not want to disappoint her. At the age of 16 he began working menial jobs, where he met a wide variety of people on whom some of his later characters were based, such as Sam in The Janitor (1985)
Wilson's extensive use of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh resulted in its later "awarding" him an honorary high school diploma. Wilson, who said he had learned to read at the age of 4, began reading black writers at the library when he was 12 and spent the remainder of his teen years educating himself through the books of Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, and others.
Wilson knew that he wanted to be a writer, but this created tension with his mother, who wanted him to become a lawyer. She forced him to leave the family home and he enlisted in the United States Army for a three-year stint in 1962, but left after one year and went back to working various odd jobs as a porter, short-order cook, gardener, and dishwasher.
Frederick August Kittel, Jr. changed his name to August Wilson to honor his mother after his father's death in 1965. That same year, he discovered the blues as sung by Bessie Smith, and he bought a stolen typewriter for $10, which he often pawned when money was tight. At 20, he decided he was a poet and submitted work to such magazines as Harper's. He began to write in bars, the local cigar store, and cafes—longhand on table napkins and on yellow notepads, absorbing the voices and characters around him. He liked to write on cafe napkins because, he said, it freed him up and made him less self-conscious as a writer. He would then gather the notes and type them up at home. Gifted with a talent for catching dialect and accents, Wilson had an "astonishing memory", which he put to full use during his career. He slowly learned not to censor the language he heard when incorporating it into his work.
Malcolm X's voice influenced Wilson's life and work (such as The Ground on Which I Stand, 1996). Both the Nation of Islam and the Black Power spoke to him regarding self-sufficiency, self-defense, and self-determination, and he appreciated the origin myths that Elijah Muhammad supported, evidently ignoring or dismissing the anti-white, anti-Semitic aspects of inherent in them. In 1969 Wilson married Brenda Burton, a Muslim, and converted to Islam. He and Brenda had one daughter, Sakina Ansari-Wilson, and divorced in 1972.
In 1968, he co-founded the Black Horizon Theater in the Hill District of Pittsburgh along with his friend Rob Penny. Wilson's first play, Recycling, was performed for audiences in small theaters, schools and public housing community centers for 50 cents a ticket. Among these early efforts was Jitney, which he revised more than two decades later as part of his 10-play cycle on 20th-century Pittsburgh. He had no directing experience. He recalled: "Someone had looked around and said, 'Who’s going to be the director?' I said, 'I will.' I said that because I knew my way around the library. So I went to look for a book on how to direct a play. I found one called The Fundamentals of Play Directing and checked it out."
In 1976 Vernell Lillie, who had founded the Kuntu Repertory Theatre at the University of Pittsburgh two years earlier, directed Wilson's The Homecoming. That same year Wilson saw Sizwe Banzi is Dead at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, his first professional play. Wilson, Penny, and poet Maisha Baton also started the Kuntu Writers Workshop to bring African-American writers together and to assist them in publication and production. Both organizations are still active.
In 1978 Wilson moved to Saint Paul, Minnesota, at the suggestion of his friend, director Claude Purdy, who helped him secure a job writing educational scripts for the Science Museum of Minnesota. In 1980 he received a fellowship for The Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis. He quit the Museum in 1981, but continued writing plays. For three years, he was a part-time cook for the Little Brothers of the Poor. Wilson had a long association with the Penumbra Theatre Company of St. Paul, which premiered some of his plays. He wrote Fullerton Street, which has been unproduced and unpublished, in 1980. It follows the Joe Louis/Billy Conn fight in 1940 and the loss of values attendant on the Great Migration to the urban North.
In 1987, St. Paul's mayor George Latimer named May 27 "August Wilson Day". He was honored because he is the only person from Minnesota to win a Pulitzer Prize.
In 1990 Wilson left St. Paul after getting divorced and moved to Seattle. There he developed a relationship with Seattle Repertory Theatre, which became the only theater in the country to produce his entire 10-play cycle and his one-man show How I Learned What I Learned.
Though he was a writer dedicated to writing for theater, a Hollywood studio proposed filming Wilson's play Fences. He insisted that a black director be hired for the film, saying: "I declined a white director not on the basis of race but on the basis of culture. White directors are not qualified for the job. The job requires someone who shares the specifics of the culture of black Americans." The film remained unmade until 2016, when Denzel Washington directed the film Fences, It starred Washington and Viola Davis. It earned Wilson a posthumous Oscar nomination.
Wilson received many honorary degrees, including an honorary Doctor of Humanities from the University of Pittsburgh, where he served as a member of the University's Board of Trustees from 1992 until 1995.
Wilson maintained a strong voice in the progress and development of the (then) contemporary black theater, undoubtedly taking influences from the examples of his youth, such as those displayed during the Black Arts Movement. One of the most notable examples of Wilson’s strong opinions and critiques of what was black theater’s state in the '90s, was the "On Cultural Power: The August Wilson/Robert Brustein Discussion" where Wilson argued for a completely black theater with all positions filled by blacks. Conversely, he argued that black actors should not play roles not specifically black ( e.g. No black Hamlet). Brustein heatedly took an opposing view.
Wilson's best known plays are Fences (1985) (which won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award), The Piano Lesson (1990) (a Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award), Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone.
Wilson stated that he was most influenced by "the four Bs": blues music, the Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges, the playwright Amiri Baraka and the painter Romare Bearden. He went on to add writers Ed Bullins and James Baldwin to the list. He noted:
From Borges, those wonderful gaucho stories from which I learned that you can be specific as to a time and place and culture and still have the work resonate with the universal themes of love, honor, duty, betrayal, etc. From Amiri Baraka, I learned that all art is political, although I don't write political plays. From Romare Bearden I learned that the fullness and richness of everyday life can be rendered without compromise or sentimentality.
He valued Bullins and Baldwin for their honest representations of everyday life. Like Bearden, Wilson worked with collage techniques in writing: "I try to make my plays the equal of his canvases. In creating plays I often use the image of a stewing pot in which I toss various things that I'm going to make use of—a black cat, a garden, a bicycle, a man with a scar on his face, a pregnant woman, a man with a gun." On the meaning of his work Wilson stated
I once wrote this short story called "The Best Blues Singer in the World", and it went like this—"The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean, and Balboa was drowning." End of story. That says it all. Nothing else to say. I've been rewriting that same story over and over again. All my plays are rewriting that same story.
Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle, also often referred to as his Century Cycle, consists of ten plays—nine of which are set in Pittsburgh's Hill District (the other being set in Chicago), an African-American neighborhood that takes on a mythic literary significance like Thomas Hardy's Wessex, William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, or Irish playwright Brian Friel's Ballybeg. The plays are each set in a different decade and aim to sketch the Black experience in the 20th century and "raise consciousness through theater” and echo "the poetry in the everyday language of black America". He was fascinated by the power of theater as a medium where a community at large could come together to bear witness to events and currents unfolding.
I think my plays offer (white Americans) a different way to look at black Americans," he told The Paris Review. "For instance, in Fences they see a garbageman, a person they don't really look at, although they see a garbageman every day. By looking at Troy's life, white people find out that the content of this black garbageman's life is affected by the same things – love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.
Although the plays of the cycle are not strictly connected to the degree of a serial story, some characters appear (at various ages) in more than one of the cycle's plays. Children of characters in earlier plays may appear in later plays. The character most frequently mentioned in the cycle is Aunt Ester, a "washer of souls". She is reported to be 285 years old in Gem of the Ocean, which takes place in her home at 1839 Wylie Avenue, and 322 in Two Trains Running. She dies in 1985, during the events of King Hedley II. Much of the action of Radio Golf revolves around the plan to demolish and redevelop that house, some years after her death. The plays often include an apparently mentally impaired oracular character (different in each play)—for example, Hedley Sr. in Seven Guitars, Gabriel in Fences, Stool Pigeon in King Hedley II, or Hambone in Two Trains Running.
Chicago’s Goodman Theatre was the first theater in the world to produce the entire 10-play cycle, spanning from 1986 to 2007. Two of the Goodman’s productions—Seven Guitars and Gem of the Ocean—were world premieres. Israel Hicks produced the entire 10-play cycle from 1990 to 2009 for the Denver Center Theatre Company. Geva Theatre Center produced all 10 plays in decade order from 2007 to 2011 as August Wilson's American Century. The Huntington Theatre Company of Boston has produced all 10 plays, finishing in 2012. During Wilson's life he worked closely with The Huntington to produce the later plays. Pittsburgh Public Theater was the first theater company in Pittsburgh to produce the entire Century Cycle, including the world premiere of King Hedley II to open the O'Reilly Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh.
TAG - The Actors' Group, in Honolulu, Hawaii, produced all 10 plays in the cycle starting in 2004 with Two Trains Running and culminating in 2015 with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. All shows were Hawaii premieres, all were extremely successful at the box office and garnered many local theatre awards for the actors and the organization.
In the years after Wilson's death the 10-play cycle has been referred to as The August Wilson Century Cycle and as The American Century Cycle.
Two years before his death in 2005, August Wilson wrote and performed an unpublished one-man play entitled How I Learned What I Learned about the power of art and the power of possibility. This was produced at New York's Signature Theatre and directed by Todd Kreidler, Wilson's friend and protégé. How I Learned explores his days as a struggling young writer in Pittsburgh's Hill District and how the neighborhood and its people inspired his cycle of plays about the African-American experience.
Wilson was married three times. His first marriage was to Brenda Burton from 1969 to 1972. They had one daughter, Sakina Ansari, born 1970. In 1981 he married Judy Oliver, a social worker; they divorced in 1990. He married again in 1994 and was survived by his third wife, costume designer, Constanza Romero, whom he met on the set of The Piano Lesson. They had a daughter, Azula Carmen Wilson. Wilson was also survived by siblings Freda Ellis, Linda Jean Kittel, Donna Conley, Barbara Jean Wilson, Edwin Kittel and Richard Kittel.
Wilson reported that he had been diagnosed with liver cancer in June 2005 and been given three to five months to live. He died on October 2, 2005, at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, and was interred at Greenwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, on October 8, 2005, aged 60.
The childhood home of Wilson and his six siblings, at 1727 Bedford Avenue in Pittsburgh was declared a historic landmark by the State of Pennsylvania on May 30, 2007. On February 26, 2008, Pittsburgh City Council placed the house on the List of City of Pittsburgh historic designations. On April 30, 2013, the August Wilson House was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
In Pittsburgh, there is an August Wilson Center for African American Culture.
On October 16, 2005, fourteen days after Wilson's death, the Virginia Theatre in New York City's Broadway Theater District was renamed the August Wilson Theatre. It is the first Broadway theatre to bear the name of an African-American.
In Seattle, WA along the south side of the Seattle Repertory Theatre, the vacated Republican Street between Warren Avenue N. and 2nd Avenue N. on the Seattle Center grounds has been renamed August Wilson Way.
In September 2016, an existing community park near his childhood home was renovated and renamed August Wilson Park.1985: New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
1986: Whiting Award for Drama
1987: Pulitzer Prize for Drama – Fences
1987: Tony Award for Best Play – Fences
1987: Outer Critics Circle Award – Fences
1987: Artist of the Year by Chicago Tribune
1988: Literary Lion Award from the New York Public Library
1988: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play – Joe Turner's Come and Gone
1990: Governor's Awards for Excellence in the Arts and Distinguished Pennsylvania Artists
1990: Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play – The Piano Lesson
1990: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play – The Piano Lesson
1990: Pulitzer Prize for Drama – The Piano Lesson
1991: Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame award
1991: St. Louis Literary Award from the Saint Louis University Library Associates
1992: American Theatre Critics' Association Award – Two Trains Running
1992: New York Drama Critics Circle Citation for Best American Play – Two Trains Running
1992: Clarence Muse Award
1996: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play – Seven Guitars
1999: National Humanities Medal
2000: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play – Jitney
2000: Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play – Jitney
2002: Olivier Award for Best new Play – Jitney
2004: The 10th Annual Heinz Award in Arts and Humanities
2004: The U.S. Comedy Arts Festival Freedom of Speech Award
2005: Make Shift Award at the U.S. Confederation of Play Writers
2006: American Theatre Hall of Fame.
2017: Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play – Jitney
Black Bart and the Sacred Hills (1977)
Fullerton Street (1980)
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984)
Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1984)
The Homecoming (1989)
The Coldest Day of the Year (1989)
The Piano Lesson (1990)
Two Trains Running (1991)
Seven Guitars (1995)
King Hedley II (1999)
How I Learned What I Learned (2002)
Gem of the Ocean (2003)
Radio Golf (2005)