STARRED REVIEW
August 11, 2023

August Wilson

By Patti Hartigan
August Wilson: A Life is an even-handed and absorbing exploration of a sui generis artist who followed his own rules both in the theater and in his personal life.
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Patti Hartigan’s August Wilson: A Life is the first comprehensive biography of the great American playwright, who died 18 years ago at the age of 60. Hartigan, a theater critic and arts reporter who knew Wilson professionally, has done her homework in parsing Wilson’s complicated story from many layers of half-truths and myths, some of which were propagated by the legendary raconteur himself during his lifetime. The result is an even-handed and absorbing exploration of a sui generis artist who followed his own rules both in the theater and in his personal life.

An autodidact who learned to read by age 4, Wilson was born Freddy Kittel and grew up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the largely Black neighborhood that he would immortalize in his plays. Wilson’s father was white—and for complex psychological reasons still left largely unexplored in this book, Wilson spent his life convinced he had a different white father than his siblings. However, Wilson identified exclusively as Black. His mother arranged the best education she could for her brilliant son, but he repeatedly faced skepticism and racism, and he never finished high school. Aspiring to be a poet, Wilson dove into the nascent Black arts scene in Pittsburgh, where his writing talents were put to use in local theater productions. Confident in his abilities and focused on his ambitions, he began sending unwieldy scripts to the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference.

When he was finally accepted with what was at the time a four-and-a-half-hour version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Wilson quickly took the theater world by storm. Just a few years later, he was on Broadway and had won the first of two Pulitzer Prizes. The playwright, known for his powerful and poetic monologues, soon embarked on a daunting project: a 10-play cycle that would hold a mirror up to the experiences of Black people in 20th century America, decade by decade. He finished the last play just months before his premature death.

In her five-year-long excavation of August Wilson’s family history, Patti Hartigan found spine-tingling similarities between the stories the celebrated playwright created and the actual past he never fully knew. 

The man Hartigan profiles is a fascinating bundle of contradictions: a generous, congenial companion who could at times seethe with rage; a lover of women who often gave them short shrift in his plays; a storytelling seer who made well-drawn specifics of the Black experience speak to audiences across racial barriers. August Wilson: A Life is a worthy and overdue first biography that will trigger new conversations about a magnificent playwright and the origins of his talent.

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August Wilson

August Wilson

By Patti Hartigan
Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9781501180668

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