An emerging star finds his voice in Minnesota
Born in Pittsburgh, August Wilson had published a few poems and had begun writing some plays in 1977 when he came to St. Paul to rewrite a play a friend was directing at the newly founded Penumbra Theatre. The next year, Wilson settled in St. Paul, where he stayed until moving to Seattle in 1990. During his years in St. Paul, especially through his association with Penumbra and with Minneapolis's Playwrights' Center, Wilson wrote an exceptional number of groundbreaking plays that illuminated African American culture, including Pulitzer Prize winners Fences and The Piano Lesson. He later told the New York Times, "Having moved from Pittsburgh to St. Paul, I felt I could hear voices for the first time accurately."
The pivotal moment in Wilson's career came in 1980, when he was awarded a $2,400 grant for a year's "membership" in the Playwrights' Center, funded by the Jerome Foundation. At the time, there were few organizations like the Playwrights' Center in the country, where emerging talents could hone their skills and have their works produced and critiqued by peers and mentors. Wilson used his time at the Playwrights' Center wisely, drafting and rewriting two plays: Fullerton Street and Jitney. John Fenn, who moderated a reading of Jitney, later recalled, "There was a general agreement that this was something pretty hefty. . . . We knew it was bound for glory." For his part, Wilson said, "The workshop I had with John Richardson on Fullerton Street opened up the world of playwriting as nothing had before, and armed with that glimpse of its possibilities and the confidence gained from my acceptance as a Jerome Fellow, I sat down and wrote Ma Rainey."
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was the first of Wilson's plays to gain national recognition; it debuted on Broadway in 1984. After its success, Wilson remained active in the Twin Cities theatrical community and a regular at several St. Paul bars and restaurants, where he wrote many of his plays. August Wilson moved to Seattle in 1990 but kept close ties to his adopted midwestern home. St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre regularly produced his work, dedicating a whole season to his plays in 2002-2003. Before he died, in 2005, he chose the Playwrights' Center as one of four national institutions to receive donations in his name.
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