By Barbara S. Miller
An official state plaque marks August Wilson’s boyhood home, and a nearby community park and downtown African American cultural center both bear the name of the most famous playwright from Pittsburgh since George S. Kaufman.
Each won two Pulitzer Prizes for drama: Kaufman for “Of Thee I Sing” in 1932 and “You Can’t Take It With You” in 1937. Wilson matched those accolades in 1985 with “Fences” and in 1990 with “The Piano Lesson.”
New York lays claim Kaufman, who was born in East Liberty and graduated from Peabody High School.
St. Paul, Minn., and Seattle, where Wilson died in 2005 at age 60, were also places the Hill District native called home, although his final resting place is in Greenwood Cemetery, O’Hara Township, Allegheny County.
Perhaps those Midwest and West Coast locations were kinder to Wilson. While enrolled at Gladstone High School in the steel-making Hazelwood neighborhood, young Frederick August Kittel Jr., as Wilson was then known, submitted a high-quality history paper to a teacher who grilled him about plagiarism.
The youth was so angry, he dropped out of school, instead studying voraciously on his own at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s primary location in Oakland. The library awarded him its first diploma in 1989. He later changed his name in honor of his mother, the former Daisy Wilson.
The Hill District neighborhood and race relations loom large in the work of Wilson, author of what’s known as the Century Cycle, also called the Pittsburgh Cycle. The headline of a 2002 article by John O’Mahony in Britain’s “The Guardian” dubbed him “American Centurion.”
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is the sole work in the cycle not set in the city that molded Wilson, but in Chicago.
Denzel Washington, who both starred in and produced the 2016 film version of “Fences,” is producing “Ma Rainey” for Netflix. The Black Bottom is a dance popularized in the 1920s, the decade in which the work takes place. Period locations in Pittsburgh will substitute for the Second City in filming that began in July.
The first of Wilson’s 10-play series, “Gem of the Ocean” will be staged outdoors by Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. Previews begin Aug. 16 and will run subsequent weekends and Mondays through Labor Day at a lot at 1839 Wylie Ave., the address of a home mentioned in the text.
With his extensive body of work, can Wilson be regarded as the American Shakespeare?
“Pretty close to it,” said Dr. Carolyn Kyler, a professor in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College.
“I think he’s one of the best American playwrights ever.”
Depending on the source, William Shakespeare is credited with 37 or 38 plays.
Kyler said of Wilson’s cycle of 10 plays, set in each decade of the 20th Century, “I don’t think anybody has done anything like this in American theater.”
Like Shakespeare, the Pittsburgh Cycle spans tragedy and comedy, and because the dramaturgy looks back at American history, it encompasses more than 100 years.
At W&J, Kyler teaches a whole range of American literature and African-American literature.
As part of her introduction to literature course in the 1990s, she began pairing “The Piano Lesson” with Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” both of which “deal with family, with history, with relationships,” she said.
“And in both plays, there’s a ghost who appears in the aftermath of violence.”
Kyler’s personal favorite Wilson play is “The Piano Lesson.”
“It reads really well,” she said. “Not all plays do. But it also stages amazingly well.”
Not only did Wilson delve into literature thanks to his passion for scholarship, but he also schooled himself in how to direct, Kyler continued.
“August Wilson is becoming an author who is sometimes taught in high school,” Kyler said. “The first time I saw ‘Fences’ live was a Wash High production.
“Wilson’s connection to Pittsburgh is also an amazing thing. Not only to have done the 10 plays but to have them so connected to the Hill District in Pittsburgh.”
“The Piano Lesson” and “Gem of the Ocean” “share a real insight into realistic human relationships while at the same time having a grand magical sweep to them,” Kyler said.
“Students relate to Wilson in that they learn about the past, and (the plays) still resonate.
“Unresolved, to some extent, are the issues that August Wilson was writing about – unresolved issues for the community and for the whole country.”