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Release: Immediate

Iowa Summer Rep at UI selects August Wilson as featured 1999 playwright

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Iowa Summer Rep, the professional theater company organized by the University of Iowa department of theatre arts, has selected Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson as its featured playwright for the 1999 season. Each summer the company stages a festival of plays by a single contemporary playwright.

Wilson won Pulitzer Prizes in 1987 for "Fences" and in 1990 for "The Piano Lesson." His plays, including "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," "Jitney" and "Two Trains Running," depict 20th-century African-American experience in the United States. His poetic texts are based on a keen observation of street language.

In addition to the Pulitzer Prizes, Wilson's plays have been honored with a Tony Award and two New York Drama Critics Circle Awards for Best Play.

Wilson grew up in poverty in Pittsburgh, where his mother did janitorial work to support her six children. When his family moved to a predominantly white section of the city, he was welcomed to his new school with racial taunts.

Wilson responded with academic excellence, earning all A's until 9th grade, when his education abruptly stopped. Attempting to impress the teacher, a black man, he wrote an ambitious 20-page paper on Napoleon.

"He said he was going to give me either an A+ or an E," Wilson explains. "Then he asked if I could prove I wrote it, I said I didn't feel I had to defend it, unless he was going to ask everyone in class if they wrote theirs. So he circled an E and handed it back to me. I tore it up, walked out and never went back."

But the end of school was not the end of Wilson's education. He immersed himself in the "Negro" section of the public library, and by the early 1970s he began writing poetry.

His play "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" was accepted by the O'Neill Center for Playwrights, leading to its award-winning New York production.

"We have here some of the finest dramatic writing of this century, and it's a pleasure and a privilege to begin working on it," says Eric Forsythe, the UI department of theatre arts faculty member who is the artistic director of Iowa Summer Rep. "Each play chronicles life in a different decade of the century, and each has its share of humor, music, human resilience and faith. Wilson is a powerhouse."

The schedule of plays in the August Wilson Festival at Iowa Summer Rep will be announced later this spring.