Playwright August Wilson receives the Heinz Award in the category of the Arts and Humanities for a body of dramatic work that poignantly and honestly captures the 20th-century African-American experience.
A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Wilson's sharply hewn characters and lyrical voice embody a century-long struggle against racism and injustice. He was born and reared in Pittsburgh where, as an African-American, he was confronted with the reality of prejudice and bigotry that would become a constant and powerful theme of his work.
Growing up in the Hill District of the city, Mr. Wilson dropped out of school at age 15, turning instead to the local library and its shelves. He consumed books of literature, sociology, theology and philosophy, and by the late 1960s, discovered cultural nationalism. He was intent on using his plays to increase self-awareness and self-determination among African-Americans, and soon the first seeds of his dramatic expression began to spring forth. He and friend Rob Penny founded Black Horizons Theater, a local community theater aimed at raising social consciousness within the black community.
In 1978, he moved to St. Paul, Minn., and wrote and produced his first production, the musical satire, Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, based on a series of his poems. Six years later, his critically acclaimed play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, announced his arrival as a major new voice in American theater. He since has become one of this country's most produced playwrights, and at one time, thrilled audiences with two of his works on Broadway simultaneously.
Mr. Wilson's plays explore the heritage and experience of African-Americans throughout the 20th century. All but one of the plays are set in Pittsburgh and are marked by true-to-life dialogue. Each of his plays represents a decade within that 100-year time frame, chronicling his characters' confrontations with racism within the context of the era. Collectively, they form a timeline that traces the development of modern-day African-American culture, a dramatic recounting of the nation's racial history. His plays are populated with complex characters, the most noble of which are often the poor.
Mr. Wilson has written two Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas, The Piano Lesson (1990) and Fences (1987). His eighth installment in the series, King Hedley II, premiered in 1999 to critical acclaim. Taking place in the 1980s, it examined the breakdown of an African-American family. The play garnered several Tony nominations. In fact, he has won every major award the theater has to offer.
His newest play, Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904, premiered this past year and is making its way to Broadway. During 2003, Wilson took the stage himself for the first time. He performed his autobiographical one-man show, How I Learned What I Learned, at the Seattle Repertory Theatre to sold-out audiences, a performance he has been invited to reprise by theaters across the country.
August Wilson is among the most widely produced and critically acclaimed playwrights of his generation. Through hundreds of professional productions of his plays, black artists have been able to develop their talents. His body of work has found a home in America's theaters and in America's heart, stirring us with passion and challenging us to recognize the truths about ourselves.
Note: This profile is excerpted from the commemorative brochure published at the time of the awards' presentation.
August Wilson passed away on October 2, 2005.
Teresa Heinz Reflects on the Life of August Wilson
HONORS SINCE HIS DEATH
January 2006 - Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre selects Wilson and his work as its playwright to honor by producing his play for an entire season. - Hartford Courant
February 2006 - Pittsburgh's African American Cultural Center is to be renamed the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, as a tribute to Wilson who loved his native Pittsburgh. - The Los Angeles Times
October 2005 - Wilson is honored and remembered by 450 guests at Soldier's and Sailors National Military Museum Memorial in his hometown of Pittsburgh. - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
October 2005 - Broadway's Virginia Theater is renamed the August Wilson Theater in a dedication ceremony two weeks after Wilson's death. - Chicago Tribune
UPDATES SINCE RECEIVING THE HEINZ AWARD
April 2005 - Wilson's play, Radio Golf, the final installment in his 10-play series depicting African-American experience in the 20th century, premieres at the Yale Repertory Theatre to strong reviews. - The Associated Press
November 2004 - Wilson's ninth play, Gem of the Ocean, opens on Broadway. The play is about a 200-year-old soothsayer, set in 1904 Pittsburgh. - The Baltimore Sun
June 2003 - Wilson is honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the New Dramatists 54th Annual Benefit Luncheon in New York City. The New Dramatists is a non-profit organization "dedicated to the development of new playwrights." - Jet
Speech12/4/2003 - Acceptance Speech
Thank you. I would like to first publicly acknowledge and thank my wife, Constanza Romero, without whom my life would not be the occasion of poetry that her presence demands. Unfortunately, she cannot be here tonight. She is at home in Seattle taking care of our six-year-old daughter, Azula Carmen. But I am fortunate to have members of my family here and friends - all of whom have supported me throughout my life and my career. My sister, Freda Ellis who gave me the money to buy my first typewriter, my sister, Linda Jean, who typed my early poems and manuscripts, my brother, Richard, who was my first critic. A lot of the suggestions he's made about the plays in their early incarnations or added got on stage in the later productions and I thank him for his insights. My nephew, Paul Ellis, my niece, Kim Ellis, my adopted niece, Nikki Porter, my mother's best friend and the woman who can remember me when I was in diapers, Julia Burly, wife of the great Pittsburgh prize fighter, Charlie Burly, I thank you all for your support.
This platform is but a few steps from the Carnegie Library where as a 15-year-old high school dropout, I sought refuge from the school system which had failed me. I dropped out of school, but I didn-t drop out of life. And when I left the library at 20, I went out into the streets of the Hill District of Pittsburgh, and there I met lifelong friends who have nurtured me, who sanctioned my life and who ultimately provided it with meaning. It would be remiss of me to stand here among this cascade of coin and blessing and not acknowledge them.
There comes a moment in a man's life where he has to ask himself, the question, how did I get here? If he looks up to find himself thrashing about in the fires of hell's damnation, he must ask the question, how did I get here? Or if, like myself, he looks up and finds himself by God's grace in a landscape rich with welcome, bright beckoning, temperate climate, sweet water and all the possibilities of life exalted, he must ask the question, how did I get here?
To arrive at this moment in my life, I have traveled many roads, some circuitous, some brambled and rough, some sharp and straight, and all of them have led as if by some grand design to the one that burnished with art and small irrevocable tragedies. I've carried in my pocket, to bargain my passage, memory and a wild heart that plies its trade with considerate and sometimes alarming passion.
Some roads have opened to me. Other roads have bred landscapes of severe wolves to blunt and discourage my advance. Still, others closed for repair shall remain closed in one thing forever. In my 35th year, I came to a road marked theater, a road which has welcomed me with fresh endearments and sprouted yams and bolls of cotton at my footfall. And it is that road which I have taken to be here with you this evening.
Now, these many years later, I am older, wiser, back in the saddle, riding an old warhorse, searching for the fuel for all the howls and whispers and songs that I might uncover while storming the barricade. This adds to that fuel. It empowers me in my search for the limitations of my art. And for that most precious of gifts, I thank you.
And now as I did my introductions, I remember the director Lloyd Richards told me that when you start naming someone you are going to forget someone. I realize that I forgot what is for me actually the most important acknowledgment and that is my daughter, Sakina Ansari, who 33 years ago burst upon the world clothed in the light of angelic grace. She has been my first inspiration, and that is the inspiration to live a full and productive life as gift and example to her and Sakina - I love you, I thank you for your love and your understanding.
Thank you all.