August Wilson, the late great African-American playwright best known for his 1987 masterpiece “Fences,” has long been a revered figure of the American arts scene. Among his many accomplishments, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—twice—and, in his afterlife, has had two of his plays adapted into Academy Award-winning films.
His plays, in book form, are read in classrooms across the nation and regarded as American classics despite their relatively recent introduction to the world. Wilson was, in a word, a force.
Sunday, October 2, marked the 17th anniversary of his death, which occasions a moment to remember that, underneath all of his accolades and fanfare, Wilson was also baptized a Catholic.
More popularly known as a critic of Christianity—or at the very least artistically agnostic, refusing to associate many of his unapologetically Black main characters with a strong attachment to the Black Church—Wilson indeed had a complicated relationship with religion.
Born Frederick August Kittel Jr., his background as a mixed-race man raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania does not in itself suggest anything about his faith, but the record is clear that his mother, Daisy Wilson, more or less raised the children to be Catholics despite her own tenuous practice.
Wilson would attend Catholic schools throughout his childhood, including Holy Trinity near his family home, St. Richard, and Epiphany. He also attended Central Catholic High School, before dropping out after a little over a year. (He said he was the only Black student.)
“August served as an altar boy at Holy Trinity,” noted one childhood friend in a 2005 obituary for Wilson in Pittsburgh Catholic, one of the few outlets to ever mention in detail his religious upbringing.
Wilson was also known to have attended Mass at St Bridget Catholic Church, a predominantly White congregation. The church was eventually merged with St Benedict the Moor, the Black parish near Wilson’s home in the Hill District.
Whatever religious influences he may have discarded upon reaching early adulthood, perhaps Catholic education was one that remained, as he educated himself while working odd jobs and making regular trips to the library to read the great Black luminaries.
By the late 1960s, Kittel had become August Wilson, married a Muslim, and allegedly converted to the Nation of Islam—as many a Black man did in his day. It would be the first of three marriages, the last enduring until his death. As for wedding himself to a new religion, some sources say Wilson never officially converted but maintained strong ties to the NOI throughout his life.
Ironically, Pittsburgh would play a significant role in the burgeoning Black Catholic Movement around the same time, including the founding of the National Black Sisters’ Conference in the city in 1968—the same year Bishop John Wright dedicated a monument to St. Benedict the Moor atop his namesake parish. The diocese received its first Black priest soon thereafter.
Severed in some ways from these developments, Wilson turned to Black Power in his own way, and this would characterize much of his thought for the rest of his life. He co-founded the Black Horizon Theater, also on the Hill, which was like the Free Breakfast Program but for thespians, offering pro-Black propaganda in the form of plays directed by Wilson and others.
Like many Black nationalist projects, the theater did not last and Wilson soon relocated to Saint Paul, Minnesota—an aptly-named town for its new apostle of the arts. Divorced from his first wife due to “religious differences,” Wilson continued to work in theater and wrote his most popular plays, ironically termed “The Pittsburgh Cycle.” Among these were “Fences,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Jitney” (a reworking of an earlier Horizon work), and “The Piano Lesson.”
After winning the Pulitzer for “Fences” in 1985—a first for a Minnesotan—Saint Paul’s mayor declared May 27 “August Wilson Day” two years later, though Wilson would not stay long in the city, leaving for Seattle at the turn of the decade.
He also made visits back home to Pittsburgh during the 1980s, including to St Benedict the Moor School, where he encouraged the children to persevere in their giftings and thanked his former teacher, a nun, for supporting his writing endeavors. It was also at St Benedict’s that his short-lived children’s essay contest was birthed and based.
Wilson’s theatrical output was less notable in his later life, though he wrote five more plays between his arrival to Seattle in 1990 and 2005, when his final play “Radio Golf” opened at Yale. That same year, Wilson announced his diagnosis of late-stage liver cancer. He died that October at the age of 60.
Though Pittsburgh Catholic did not mention it in their obituary, Wilson had requested that his funeral be held at St Paul’s Cathedral in Pittsburgh, according to a friend in the NOI.
“A Black funeral,” to be exact.
The requested funeral did not take place, as Wilson had also requested not to have “no Catholic Mass”—though by this one could safely assume he meant that he did not want Eurocentric ideals to guide his final rites. To the end, he was a staunch advocate for Black cultural self-sufficiency.
The funeral he did receive, held at the University of Pittsburgh, featured a Second Line parade led by the Roman-baptized Wynton Marsalis to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In”—a venerable burial tradition among Black Catholics in Marsalis’ native New Orleans and elsewhere.
Recognized in the Church or not, Wilson lives on. Last year marked the debut of his Forever Stamp from the United States Postal Service, and the Catholic-educated Denzel Washington has committed to continue producing film versions of Wilson’s Cycle, following the successes of “Fences” and “Ma Rainey.”
Washington likewise lent his support to the opening of Pittsburgh’s August Wilson House—listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013—as an arts center this summer. The project, which began in earnest following the playwright’s death, held its grand opening on August 13 with Wilson’s widow Constanza Romero in tow.
A permanent exhibit on his life at the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture also opened this year, while the August Wilson Archive at Pitt is currently under development while his papers are being processed.
And lest one think monuments to his greatness live on solely in Pennsylvania, the August Wilson Theatre in New York City is one of three (and the first of the) Broadway theaters to be named after an African-American, having been so fashioned in 2005. The other two were announced just this year, namely the James Earl Jones Theater, formerly the Cort until last month, and another to be named after Lena Horne later this year.
It seems safe to say that one thing all three figures have in common is their Catholic faith.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).