August Wilson Biography

August Wilson was named Frederick August Kittel Jr. when he was born to a German father and an African American mother in 1945. Wilson was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father drifted in and out of his family. His mother and a stepfather, David Bedford, mostly raised Wilson. When Wilson was sixteen, he was accused of plagiarism at school when he wrote a sophisticated paper that the administration did not believe he could write. When Wilson's principal would not recognize the validity of Wilson's work, she suspended him and later ignored his attempts to come back to school. Wilson soon dropped out and educated himself at the local library, reading everything he could find.

While working a variety of jobs, Wilson began to write, eventually founding, in 1968, the Black Horizon on the Hill theater company. It was not until 1978, however, when he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, that Wilson began to produce mature dramas. His first piece, Jitney, a tale of a group of workers and travelers in a taxi station, was well-received locally and praised especially for its experiments in black urban speech. Fullerton Street, however, Wilson's subsequent play, brought no comparable success. Wilson turned to an unfinished project that would prove to be his breakthrough.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which concerns a Black blues singer who takes advantage of a group of musician in a recording studio and their various experiences with racism, eventually brought Wilson to the Yale Reparatory Theater and then to Broadway in 1984. Ma Rainey also enabled Wilson to make contact with Yale Reparatory director Lloyd Richards, who has continued to collaborate with Wilson on his productions. Wilson then wrote his Pulitizer-winning Fences, in which a former star athlete forbids his son from following his path and accepting an athletic scholarship, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone, which tells of an ex-convict's search for his wife upon his release from prison. In 1990, Wilson won his second Pulitzer with The Piano Lesson. His more recent work includes Two Trains Running (1992), which concerns a diner on the verge of being torn down, and Seven Guitars (1995), Wilson's homage to Blues guitarist Floyd Barton.

August Wilson died at the age of 60 in Seattle in 2005, and was buried in his native Pittsburgh.

Background on Fences

In Fences as in Wilson's other plays, a tragic character helps pave the way for other Black Americans to have opportunities under conditions they were never free to experience, but never reap from their own sacrifice and talents themselves. This is Troy Maxson's situation. Troy's last name, “Maxson,” is a compressed reference to the Mason-Dixon line, considered as the symbolic line originally conceived of in 1820 to define the separation between the slave states and the free states. Maxson represents an amalgamation of Troy's history in the south and present life in the North that are inextricably linked.

Wilson purposefully sets the play during the season Henry Aaron led the Milwaukee Braves to baseball's World Series title, beating the New York Yankees. When Fences takes place, Black ballplayers like Aaron proved they could not only compete with white players, but that they would be leaders in the professional league. Since we can look back on history with 20/20 hindsight, Wilson asks his audience to put together what they know of American history with the way his various characters experience and perceive history through their own, often conflicted eyes.

Like all of Wilson's plays, Fences takes place in his hometown of Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh of the Maxson family is a town where Troy and other men of his generation fled from the savage conditions of sharecropping in the South. After Reconstruction failed, many Black Americans in the South walked north as far as they could go to become urban citizens. Having no resources or infrastructure to depend on, men like Bono and Troy found their way in the world by spending years living in shacks, stealing, and in jail.

Wilson clearly draws a linear link between the release of the enslaved people to the disproportionate number of Black men in our jails and in low-income occupations by arguing that the majority of a homeless, resource-less group let loose into a competitive and financed society will have a hard time surviving lawfully. Wilson's characters testify to the fact that the United States failed Black Americans after the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and that the government's failure, made effective legally through racist Jim Crow laws and other lawful measures to ensure inequality, continues to effect many Black American lives. Wilson portrays the 1950s as a time when a new world of opportunity for Black Americans began to open up, leaving those like Troy, who grew up in the first half of the century, to feel like strangers in their own land.