A recent press release from Dr. Maulana Karenga reminded me of the great playwright August Wilson. Karenga, as timely and prescient as ever, will be paying homage to Wilson and his remarkable odyssey and the Classroom follows suit. It was my pleasure to be in his company on several occasions and to interview him once for publication. He was as generous with his time as he was honest and forthcoming in his responses.

There’s a good chance, given Wilson’s productive career, if you are an ardent theatergoer, that you’ve seen at least one of his plays chronicling a century of African-American history and culture. Wilson’s legacy was given a fresh turn with a film version of “Fences,” his play that invokes the 1950s, directed by and starring Denzel Washington and also starring Viola Davis.

A required stop during a visit to Pittsburgh, Wilson’s hometown and where most of his plays take place, was to the museum named after him, although there was not enough time to visit the house where he lived, which is now a landmark location.

It was here that the playwright was born Frederick August Kittel Jr., April 27, 1945. He was the fourth child of his father, who was a German immigrant and a baker, and his mother, Daisy Wilson, an African-American domestic servant. He and his siblings were raised alone by his mother, and they moved from the Hill District to Hazelwood, where they encountered racial hostility in the predominantly white working-class neighborhood.

At 14, Wilson (he would later adopt August Wilson in honor of his mother after his father’s death in 1965) was one of a few Black students at Central Catholic High School. He dropped out after a year and then attended Connelley Vocational High School, but this change was a brief interlude before arriving at Gladstone High School, where in 1960, after being accused of plagiarizing a term paper, he quit.

He held a succession of menial jobs, but all the while he was a regular at the Carnegie Library, immersing himself in Black history and culture. Most rewarding was his reading the works of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes. Later, because of this devotion, the library awarded him an honorary high school diploma, the only one it has ever bestowed.

In 1962, he joined the U.S. Army, but like his stints in the high schools of Pittsburgh, his enlistment lasted only a year and he was back to being employed in a variety of low-skilled jobs. When he wasn’t working, he was writing, and a Bessie Smith blues song inspired him to purchase a typewriter and earnestly pursue a writing career.

When not at his typewriter, Wilson was jotting down his ideas, wherever he was, even in bars on napkins, which he would later rewrite. Always a keen observer of people and language, he began compiling by memory the dialect and jargon of the characters who would later appear in his plays. He was deeply impressed by the sound and cadence of Malcolm X and his speeches, and by 1969 he married Brenda Burton, a Muslim, and he converted to Islam. They divorced in 1972.

By this time, Wilson had co-founded the Black Horizon Theater in the Hill District with his good friend, Rob Penny. It was here that his first play, “Recycling,” was performed. It was also during this period that “Jitney” was conceived, although it would be revised over the years. Having no one available to direct the plays, Wilson acquired a book on directing and began directing his own plays. In 1976, his play “The Homecoming” was performed at the Kuntu Repertory Theatre at the University of Pittsburgh. Two years later, he moved to St. Paul, Minn., where he wrote educational scripts for the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Wilson was awarded a fellowship at the Minneapolis Playwrights’ Center in 1980, but the fellowship, as well as his relationship with the museum, was terminated and he found a job as a part-time cook for the Little Brothers of the Poor. Meanwhile, he began a long association with the Penumbra Theater Company of St. Paul, where several of his plays premiered.

To follow his plays in their chronological order, although they were not written that way, you begin with “Gem of the Ocean,” which depicts the 1900s. The next decade, 1910, is “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is about the 1920s, and as with the previous play, Wilson received the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and also the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes.

In the succeeding decades there would be “The Piano Lesson” (1930s), “Seven Guitars” (1940s), “Fences” (1950s), “Two Trains Running” (1960s), the revised “Jitney” (1970s), “King Hedley II” (1980s) and “Radio Golf” (1990s). Those who have seen the plays and paid close attention will notice that some characters reappear, such as Aunt Ester, and Wilson had a predilection for mentally disturbed characters, such as Gabriel in “Fences” and Hambone in “Two Trains Running,” for comic relief or deeper insight into Black culture and behavior.

As Karenga notes in his release, quoting Wilson’s comments about style and intentions: “What I tried to do … in all my works is to reveal the richness of the lives of the people who show that the largest ideas are contained in their lives and that there is a nobility to their lives.”

That nobility is vividly portrayed in “Fences” by Viola Davis as Rose, and she was so powerful in her performance that she won an Academy Award for her supporting role. Washington received an Oscar nomination for his leading role in the play as well as a nomination for directing. Washington more than fulfilled Wilson’s requirement that a Black director be chosen for “Fences.”

“I declined a white director not on the basis of race,” Wilson said, “but on the basis of culture. White directors are not qualified for the job. The job requires someone who shares the specifics of the culture of Black Americans.”

When I interviewed Wilson in the Hotel Edison near Town Hall Theater in 2000, he told me how important music was in his creative process, particularly jazz and the blues. And the title of his plays and at least one character who’s a musician are his ways of invoking the power and prominence of Black music.

Wilson had just completed “Radio Golf” when he was diagnosed with liver cancer and, according to his wife, the costume designer Constanza Romero, was unable to attend any of the early performances of the play directed by Kenny Leon.

Predicted to live only a few months after the diagnosis, Wilson’s resolve and the prospect of death might have been captured by Boy Willie in “The Piano Lesson.” After he discovered the power of death, Boy Willie said, “See, a nigger that ain’t afraid to die is the worst kind of nigger for the white man. He can’t hold that power over you. That’s what I learned when I killed the cat. I got the power of death, too. I can command him. I can call him up. The white man don’t like to see that. He don’t like for you to stand up and look him square in the eye and say, ‘I got it, too.’ Then he got to deal with you square up.”

Wilson died Oct. 2, 2005. He was 60.