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Remembering August Wilson

October 10, 2005 Issue

By Bruce Steele

August Wilson (right) with then-Pitt Provost Donald M. Henderson prior to the University’s 1992 Honors Convocation.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, who on Oct. 2 succumbed to liver cancer at age 60, grew up virtually in the shadow of the University of Pittsburgh—in the city’s Hill District, which he would immortalize in his 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle” celebrating the richness of African American life throughout the 20th century.

Initially channeling his writing ambitions into poetry, Wilson turned to theater in the late 1960s. He and his late friend Rob Penny—a poet, playwright, historian, and social activist who later joined the faculty of Pitt’s Department of Black Studies (later renamed Africana Studies) and would go on to chair the department—cofounded the Black Horizons on the Hill Theater in 1968. Eight years later, Wilson and Penny created the Kuntu Writers Workshop, which still thrives at Pitt, bringing writers together for discussions of their work and assistance with getting published.

One of Wilson’s earliest plays, the one-act Homecoming, was staged by the University’s Kuntu Repertory Theatre in the late 1970s. Other Wilson plays performed by Kuntu Rep have included Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Seven Guitars. (Kuntu Rep also performed Seven Guitars last May at the August Wilson Play Festival at Penn State and will stage the play again in a production set to run May 18-June 3 in the 7th-Floor Auditorium of Alumni Hall. For information, call 412-624-7298 or visit

Born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945, of an African American mother named Daisy Wilson and a German father, Frederick Kittel, Wilson rarely saw his father and would later say he “grew up in my mother’s household in a cultural environment which was Black”—hence his later adoption of his mother’s surname.

August Wilson dropped out of school at age 15, insulted and furious that a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a term paper on Napoleon. Wilson proceeded to educate himself by reading voraciously in Oakland’s Carnegie Library. Despite his lack of formal schooling, his contributions to American theater earned Wilson a slew of honorary degrees, including an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from Pitt in 1992. From June 1992 to June 1995, Wilson served as a member of the University’s Board of Trustees.

Characteristically, Wilson’s address at the University’s 1992 Honors Convocation (during which his degree was conferred) was anything but a litany of platitudes: Wilson blasted what he called the “old school politics” of right-wing conservatism for widening the socioeconomic gap between races in the United States, and he cited attacks against Blacks in Howard Beach and New York City as indications of growing racism. He pointed out America’s glaring contradictions—that it is the world’s richest nation, yet some of its people live on the streets; that it is a well-educated country full of unused libraries; that it was founded on equality and justice, but also on slavery and genocide.

In keeping with the spirit of his plays, however, Wilson did not preach despair: He urged the Pitt audience to help the United States live up to its promises of freedom and equality. America is still the greatest country in the world, Wilson said, but it is up to future generations to make it a great country for all of its citizens.

Last week, the Pitt Chronicle invited University community members who knew Wilson and his work to comment on his life and legacy. Their responses follow.

Jack L. Daniel, Pitt vice provost for undergraduate studies and professor of communication:

“August Wilson captured critically important aspects of the African American expression. For students, scholars, and others, Wilson has preserved 10 decades of African American folk life. Most importantly, for me, he did it while keeping the common touch. He was a living legend and now has joined the pantheon of all great spirits.”

Larry Davis, Donald M. Henderson Professor and dean of Pitt’s School of Social Work and director of the University’s Center on Race and Social Problems:

“His work served to humanize America’s image of interpersonal relationships within the African American family in particular. He showed the lives of Black people not to be one-dimensional stereotypes. He helped to dismiss the caricature of promiscuous Black women and lazy Black men. Instead, he showed Blacks as complex individuals who, like others, cared about themselves, each other, their culture, and their communities.”

Attilio “Buck” Favorini, professor and founding chair of Pitt’s Department of Theatre Arts:

“I saw Wilson’s [one-act play] Homecoming, a very early effort, performed by the Kuntu Rep in the late 1970s. Wilson’s play was on the bill with Alice Childress’ Wine in the Wilderness and Rob Penny’s A Question Mark on Your Face. I wish I could say I identified Wilson as a budding genius, but I did not. I thought the piece was highly conventionalized, though I appreciated that it had the structure of a fable. The play had elements of what would later become Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, as it involved White record company executives and the exploitation of a blues singer.

“I also saw the first production of Jitney in 1982 by the Allegheny Repertory Theatre [in Oakland]. Something had clearly happened to Wilson in the interim. Jitney created a world, whereas the earlier play was merely based on a situation. Wilson’s talent for dialogue was now in evidence, and the excellent cast was comfortable with their characterizations. I remember thinking that here was a talented playwright!”

Laurence Glasco, Pitt associate professor of history and director of the Program for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in World Perspective. (Glasco assigns students in his “History of Black Pittsburgh” course to read at least one of Wilson’s plays and relate it to Black Pittsburgh history.):

“I met August Wilson only a few times, but I had the good fortune of knowing his sister, Linda Jean. She took me to the family homestead on Bedford Avenue and shared memories of growing up there in the 1940s.

“She described a multiethnic neighborhood that included Syrians, Lebanese, Jews, Italians, and Blacks. Nearby was a Syrian Orthodox Church, and across the street lived ‘Doc’ Goldblum (a leading Jewish physician) and, next door to the Goldblums, resided Charlie Burley, the noted African American prizefighter and inspiration for the character Troy Maxim in Wilson’s play Fences. Only a block or two away were a combination candy store and “numbers” outlet owned by an Arab family (Abraham), Sarasky’s saloon, and a kosher butcher shop. The Wilsons lived in the rear of a three-apartment building that also housed Siger’s market (Jewish) and Butera’s watch repair shop (Italian). Students in my course, ‘History of Black Pittsburgh,’ were welcomed each year by Johnny Butera—lifelong resident of that building since 1915—who spoke fondly of ‘Little Freddie Kittel,’ whose birthname, Frederick August Kittel, reflected his father’s German heritage. Johnny was fond of the Kittel/Wilson family and described them as part of a friendly neighborhood where people of different races and nationalities got along and cared for one another.

“Wilson’s multiracial neighborhood and family are not reflected in his plays, which are set in a world almost devoid of Whites. To be sure, Wilson’s theatrical Hill District reflects the profound reality that the neighborhood of his youth was being reshaped by out-migration, urban renewal, the riots of 1968, and increasing crime. The Sigers left, as did the Goldblums. The Syrian church moved to Oakland. Johnny himself was murdered a few years ago. By the time he reached adolescence, August’s neighborhood had become very different from that of his youthful, formative years. His plays reflect the Hill of his adolescence more than that of his youth. I wish he had lived long enough to write about that earlier neighborhood. Its multiracial, multiethnic nature characterized the much longer history of the Hill, whose twilight years Wilson experienced as a youth. It is a world that has receded so far from our memories that it seems improbable, if not impossible, that it ever existed. It would have made for fascinating theater.”

Vernell A. Lillie, founder and artistic director of Pitt’s Kuntu Repertory Theatre and associate professor of theatre arts:

“Something that is extraordinarily important to know about August—which has not been part of the public dialogue about him since his death—is that not only was he a great playwright, he was also a gifted director. August directed plays by Rob Penny for the Black Horizon Theatre, and in the 1970s, he assisted me in the direction of Homecoming, which was the first play of August’s that was produced by Kuntu Repertory Theatre. It was also among the first plays of his that were produced for the public.

“August’s work is well known and highly respected, without a doubt. On a personal level, one of his finer qualities was that he was always accessible to young playwrights and other young people in the theater.”

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