Today among the most produced playwrights in this country, August Wilson left high school for the reading room of Pittsburgh's Carnegie Library. He held assorted odd jobs and wrote at night: poetry, short stories, and, finally, plays. When his play, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," was accepted for the prestigious Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference in 1982, then developed in regional theater en route to Broadway, black America acquired a powerful and poetic dramatic voice.
The St. Paul-based storyteller, whose own grandmother walked from North Carolina to Pittsburgh, weaves together the contemporary black experience and its historical precedents. Turning out a play a year, the 44-year-old poet is chronicling black America decade by decade through this century.
"Ma Rainey" was set in a Chicago recording studio in the '20s, "Fences" in black domestic life of the '50s, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911. All three won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, while "Fences" also won the 1987 Pulitzer and four Tony awards. This season, there are 16 regional theaters presenting "Fences," making it the second most produced play on U.S. professional stages (after Dickens' "A Christmas Carol.")
His newest play, "The Piano Lesson," is due at the Doolittle Theater here in mid-January. The Taste Makers project was edited by David Fox, assistant Sunday Calendar editor.