Akron Black Artist Guild, Revisiting August Wilson

Tyron Hoisten, Pieces of August, digital image

It’s that time of year again. No, not the snowy, freezing cold part—but rather the moment when I’m irresistibly drawn back to my bookshelf to revisit one of August Wilson’s hauntingly poetic plays.

Wilson, who succumbed to liver cancer in 2005, is celebrated for his American Century Cycle, a monumental series of ten plays chronicling the twentieth century. These works poignantly illuminate the varied experiences of Black Americans. My first encounter with his work was with Two Trains Running, the seventh play in the Cycle, set in 1968. This play masterfully blends incisive social commentary, historical depth, and complex characters, all underpinned by a genuine authenticity.

Wilson’s journey began uniquely. Accused of plagiarizing a twenty-page paper on Napoleon Bonaparte, he left high school at sixteen and chose to self-educate at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. His extensive reading fostered a deep historical and cultural understanding. Despite his mother’s disapproval, this knowledge and inspiration fueled his writing ambitions.

Wilson’s initial theatrical breakthrough came with Jitney, earning him a fellowship at the Minneapolis Playwrights’ Center and catapulting him to fame. This was the start of an illustrious career, including a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for Fences, the sixth piece in his Century Cycle, debuting on Broadway in 1987. He won another Pulitzer in 1990 for The Piano Lesson and posthumously, a second Tony for Jitney in 2017. Impressively, all of his Broadway productions received Tony nominations.

Wilson’s plays explored the lives of marginalized African Americans, from factory workers to garbage collectors, vividly portraying their navigation through a landscape stunted by racial discrimination while celebrating their resilience and achievements. His work has been a catalyst for many Black theater artists as well, giving them the opportunity to be human rather than caricatures.

Wilson’s legacy reminds me of the unforeseen impact our work can have. His legacy is not just in the plays he wrote, but in the fearless pursuit of truth and authenticity he demonstrated. He saw beauty and depth in the everyday struggles and triumphs of African Americans, a perspective that reshaped American theater.

So, why do I revisit his work every year? To remind myself of the power of art—and to remind myself that, as an artist, I wield power as well. Like Wilson, I choose to use my art to explore, question, and celebrate the human condition.

I encourage you to read (or re-read) some of Wilson’s work and then create your own truth-filled, powerful works through whichever medium you choose.


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