skip to main content
caption: Part of a mural celebrating August Wilson's work in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Enlarge Icon
Part of a mural celebrating August Wilson's work in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Remembering August Wilson's Seattle legacy

August Wilson's "American Century Cycle," comprised of 10 plays detailing and exploring the life of African Americans throughout the 1900s, is famously set in his hometown of Pittsburgh.

But many of those plays were written during the last 15 years of his life in Seattle, where he drew inspiration from café windows and conversations at the local IHOP.

This month, the August Wilson House in Pittsburgh officially opened to the public. But while Pittsburgh lays claim to Wilson's early life, the Pulitzer, Tony, and Peabody award winner spent years living and working here in Seattle, leaving an important mark on our local theater scene.

"In speaking to the people that were close to him, one thing that definitely jumped out to me was that, unprompted, they all mentioned the fact that he was a gift giver," said Mike Davis, KUOW’s arts and culture reporter, in an interview with Soundside host Libby Denkmann. "He was really good at getting to know people, but also at making those people feel seen and feel appreciated."

Wilson and his wife, Constanza Romero, first moved to Seattle as a kind of middle ground. Wilson was living in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Constanza in New York City. In most metropolises around the country, and especially in New York, passersby would notice Wilson on the street — but not in Seattle.

It was that anonymity that helped make the decision to move first to Queen Anne, and later to Capitol Hill.

"He was able to hibernate a little bit more than in those other big cities," Romero said.

While in Seattle, Wilson began writing plays from their basement, adding onto the American Century Cycle and even writing and acting in a one-man play at the Seattle Repertory Theater.

"My first clear memory of August was meeting him in the hallway backstage at the Rep," said Benjamin Moore, who was the managing director at the Seattle Rep while Wilson was producing plays in Seattle. "He presented to me a gift for my newborn daughter, commemorating her birth."

Seattle acted as a kind of sandbox for Wilson, where he developed and premiered plays ahead of their eventual circuit to Broadway in New York. Moore said Wilson was doggedly stubborn and particular about his work.

"His characters spoke to him in a way that was kind of organic, and he was insistent on how they would be protected," Moore said.

That organic authenticity is a hallmark of Wilson's characters, from Fences to Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. His inspiration came from the restaurants and cafés of Seattle, where he would sit and observe. Moore remembers Wilson as particularly discerning, and quickly able to figure people out.

"When he took off his hat — because he wore a hat most of the time — I realized that that was a signal that something was happening that was truly intimate," Moore said.

Together, Romero and Wilson came to be "true" Seattleites, eventually raising their daughter and staying here until Wilson's death in 2005. While he loved cafés, Wilson was an all-around foodie, which at the time came into conflict with Seattle's dreary winters. Romero remembers learning to barbeque in the rain.

"By the fourth day or so we basically said, heck, it's always going to be raining in Seattle, so we're going to barbeque now," Romero said.

Longtime UW professor, Charles Johnson was good friends with August Wilson, and together they'd spend hours talking at the local IHOP on Madison Street, and at the Broadway Bar and Grill on Capitol Hill.

"It was at that IHOP one night when the police were called twice," Davis explained. "In one instance, it was fresh after an impromptu rap battle turned into a fistfight — where someone got beaten bloody — and Dr. Johnson remembers standing there like a deer in headlights."

Johnson, a writer and scholar whose novel "Middle Passage" was awarded the National Book Award for Fiction in 1990, detailed a night with Wilson in one of the stories in "Night Hawks," a book of short stories published in 2018.

"He is the most celebrated Black American playwright, period, of all time," Johnson said.

Listen to Libby Denkmann's full conversation with Mike Davis on his reporting by clicking the audio above.