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Bard of Pittsburgh

7 things to know about August Wilson

Playwright August Wilson is the subject of this year’s Black Heritage stamp. Image: David Cooper (Courtesy of August Wilson Archive, University of Pittsburgh Library System)

The stamp honoring playwright August Wilson — the 44th entry in the Black Heritage series — was released last week. Here are seven facts about the acclaimed playwright and his work:

1. Wilson changed his surname to honor his mother. Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel Jr. in 1945, one of seven children to Daisy Wilson, a housecleaner, and Frederick August Kittel Sr., a baker who was only sporadically present during his childhood. After the death of his father in 1965, he adopted his mother’s surname. “Before I am anything, a man or a playwright, I am an African American,” he once said.

2. He was a high school dropout — for good reason. Wilson experienced racism in schools from a young age. He quit high school after a teacher accused him of plagiarism and became a voracious reader at the local library. He later served in the Army for a year and worked a variety of jobs.

3. Music was one of his influences. In 1965, Wilson discovered the blues, which inspired a lifelong fascination with the importance of music and oral tradition in African American culture. Energized by the Black Power movement, he helped found a theater company in 1968 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, his childhood neighborhood. In the late 1970s, Wilson moved to St. Paul, MN, where he worked for a science museum, honing his scriptwriting skills by adapting Native American stories into plays for children.

4. He didn’t intend to create a multipart masterpiece. Wilson’s tour de force, “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” comprises 10 plays, one for each decade of the 20th century. (All but one — “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” — take place in his native city.) It was only after writing the third play in the series that he saw what was possible.

5. Denzel is a devotee. Denzel Washington has committed to bringing each play in the cycle to film. So far, he’s produced two: “Fences” (which he also directed and starred in) and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” both critical successes. In 2018, Washington led an effort to raise $5 million toward the restoration of the August Wilson House, where Wilson spent his childhood.

6. The University of Pittsburgh is preserving his legacy, too. Last year, the university acquired Wilson’s archive, a trove of materials that includes audio recordings, correspondence, writing tablets, photographs, posters, production designs, props and scripts. The August Wilson Archive will reside in a state-of-the-art home in the university’s Hillman Library.

7. Wilson is still close to his mother. In 2005, Wilson died in Seattle, where he had been living since 1990. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in O’Hara Township, PA, a suburb of Pittsburgh, where his mother and grandmother are buried.

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