August Wilson

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Winning Nomination

Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright August Wilson died at age 60 on October 2, 2005. The Pittsburgh native lived in St. Paul from 1978 to 1990, where his meteoric rise to fame began. Before his untimely death, Wilson accomplished his immense life's goal, to create one play for each decade of the twentieth century chronicling the black experience in America. With the premiere of Radio Golf in 2005, the last of the ten-play cycle which Wilson started in 1984 with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was complete. A self-educated man, the high school dropout credited the Pittsburgh Public Library for opening the door to a vast and varied world of ideas. Wilson often remarked that his public library card was his most prized possession during his youth.

August was a familiar face along east Lake Street and Selby Avenue in the early 1980s where he frequented many coffee shops, bars, and cafes to write and rewrite the poetry and plays that the voices he carried around compelled him to put to napkins, scraps of paper, and eventually yellow notepads.

Drawing inspiration from St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre, Wilson won a Jerome Fellowship to the Playwrights Center. There he learned to hone his incomparable skill. After his acceptance to the National Playwrights Conference at the O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, nearly all of Wilson's works went on Broadway. Many awards and honors were bestowed on Wilson including Pulitzer Prizes for Fences and The Piano Lesson. He was most proud of the fact that through his work he created opportunities for black performers on Broadway, in television, and most importantly to Wilson, at black and regional theaters across America.

After the recent death of his friend and colleague Benjamin Mordecai, August wrote this tribute, "There is a grace beyond matter. It is our way of knowing, and accepting, the splendor of death with its voluminous atlas. We find it when we must." I knew August when he worked at Little Brothers- Friends of the Elderly.
~Melinda Ludwiczak, Minneapolis, MN




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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