Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel, Jr. in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the fourth of six children to German immigrant baker, Frederick August Kittel, Sr. and Daisy Wilson, an African American cleaning woman, from North Carolina. Earlier, Wilson's maternal grandmother walked from North Carolina to Pennsylvania in search of a better life. His mother raised the children alone by the time he was five in a two-room apartment above a grocery store at 1727 Bedford Avenue.
August Kittel changed his name to August Wilson to honor his mother after his father's death in 1965.
In 1968, Wilson co-founded the Black Horizon Theater in the Hill District of Pittsburgh along with his friend Rob Penny. His first play, Recycling, was performed for audiences in small theaters and public housing community centers. Among these early efforts was Jitney ,which he revised more than two decades later as part of his 10-play cycle on 20th century Pittsburgh.
In 1976 Vernell Lillie, founder of the Kuntu Repertory Theatre at the University of Pittsburgh two years earlier, directed Wilson's The Homecoming.Wilsonalso co-founded the Kuntu Writers Workshop to bring African-American writers together and to assist them in publication and production. Both organizations are still active.
In 1978 Wilson moved to Saint Paul, Minnesota at the suggestion of his friend director Claude Purdy, who helped him secure a job writing educational scripts for the Science Museum of Minnesota. In 1980, he received a fellowship for The Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis. Wilson had a long association with the Penumbra Theatre Company of St Paul, which gave the premieres of some Wilson plays.
Wilson received many honorary degrees, including an honorary Doctor of Humanities from the University of Pittsburgh, where he served as a member of the University's Board of Trustees from 1992 until 1995.
Wilson's best known plays are Fences (1985) which won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award), The Piano Lesson (1990) (a Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award), Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone.
In 1994 Wilson left St Paul for Seattle, where he would develop a relationship with Seattle Repertory Theatre. Seattle Rep would ultimately be the only theater in the country to produce all of the works in his ten-play cycle and his one-man show How I Learned What I Learned.
Wilson was married three times. His first marriage was to Brenda Burton from 1969 to 1972. They had one daughter, Sakina Ansari, born 1970. In 1981 he was married to Judy Oliver, a social worker, and divorced in 1990. Wilson's third marriage was in 1994 to costume designer, Constanza Romero, with whom he had his second daughter, Azula Carmen.
In 2005, August Wilson received the Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award.
Wilson reported that he had been diagnosed with liver cancer in June 2005 and been given three to five months to live. He died on October 2, 2005 at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, and was interred at Greenwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh on October 8, 2005.
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