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August Wilson performing
How I Learned What I Learned, 2003. Photo credit: Chris Bennion

Often called the “American Shakespeare,” playwright August Wilson is recognized as one of the most influential American playwrights. Wilson is perhaps best known for writing the Century Cycle, a collection of ten plays chronicling the African American experience.

August Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was the son of Daisy Wilson, an African American woman, and Frederick August Kittel, a white German baker who left the family when Wilson was young. Wilson adopted his mother’s last name and culture when denied support from his biological father. Wilson is known for being a self-made man. As a ninth grader Wilson dropped out of high school when he was falsely accused of plagiarizing a paper on Napoleon. From that day on, he went to the library daily and hung out in the Hill District. Wilson took in the culture and language around him that would later inspire his plays.

Wilson always knew that he wanted to be a writer. He began his writing career as a poet. Wilson discovered playwriting through politics. In 1968 he and his friend, Rob Penny, co-founded the Black Horizons Theatre, an African American activist theatre company. Black Horizons was an opportunity for Wilson to produce plays by African American writers who inspired him to try playwriting himself.

In 1978 Wilson moved to Saint Paul, Minnesota for a job at a science museum to write educational scripts for dioramas. A fellowship at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis helped him grow as a playwright. The play that brought Wilson national attention was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which was accepted for the 1982 O’Neill Conference. Ma Rainey went to Broadway in 1984 followed by Fences in 1988. Fences won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, four Tony Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

As Wilson continued to write plays about the African American experience, he realized that he had written them in different decades of the 20th century. This prompted Wilson to take on the challenge of writing the Century Cycle, ten plays for ten decades representing the African American experience. It took Wilson almost twenty years to complete the cycle.

Wilson moved to Seattle in 1990 and formed a relationship with Seattle Repertory Theatre. Seattle Rep is the only theatre in the country to produce all of the works in the Century Cycle, as well as his one-man show How I Learned What I Learned. Wilson was diagnosed with liver cancer in June 2005 and died only four months later on October 2, 2005.