Wilson’s plays deal primarily with the effects of slavery on successive generations of black Americans. Among his major works, Fences won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize, The Piano Lesson won another Pulitzer, and in the UK, Jitney won the 2002 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play. Wilson garnered Tony nominations for six other plays and a record seven New York Drama Critics’ Circle prizes.
Nine of the ten plays in his epic cycle are set in Pittsburgh, where the playwright, one of six children, was born Frederick August Kittel on 27 April 1945. He dropped out of school and enlisted in the Army but left after a year and worked as a porter and a cook. Largely self-educated, he started writing poetry at the age of 20 when he acquired a used typewriter.
In 1968 Wilson co-founded the Black Horizon Theatre in Pittsburgh. Ten years later, he moved to Minnesota where he got a job writing for the Science Museum. His major break came in 1982 when his play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was accepted by the National Playwrights Conference at O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. The play opened on Broadway in 1984, and three years later, his biggest hit, father son drama Fences, ran for a year in New York, featuring a Tony Award-winning performance by James Earl Jones.
Seven further Broadway plays followed: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, Jitney, King Hedley II and Gem of the Ocean. To honour Wilson’s achievements, the Virginia Theater will be renamed the Wilson later this month.
In London, several of Wilson’s plays have been produced at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, The Piano Lesson in 1993, Two Trains Running in 1996, and King Hedley II in 2002, directed by Paulette Randall. In the new year, Randall will direct the ninth play in Wilson’s cycle, Gem of the Ocean, running from 6 January to 4 February 2006 as part of the Tricycle’s new season of African-American plays (See News, 29 Jul 2005). The National Theatre has staged Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 1989, and more recently, Jitney in 2001.
Wilson, who died after a battle with liver cancer, is survived by his wife, costume designer Constanza Romero, their daughter Azula Carmen, and another daughter, Sakina Ansari, from his first of his three marriages.
- by Caroline Ansdell