PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Aug. 20-26: Wilson's Cycle

ICYMI   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Aug. 20-26: Wilson's Cycle A generally sleepy August came to a shocking end this week as the theatre community learned that August Wilson, long accepted as one of America's most talented and most singular playwrights, has been diagnosed with advanced liver cancer and might not live out the year.
August Wilson in rehearsal for the original production of Fences
August Wilson in rehearsal for the original production of Fences

His condition was discovered on June 14 by doctors at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle—the city where Wilson lives. They recommended chemoembolization, which the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described as "cancer-fighting drugs injected directly into the tumor," and a liver transplant. However, it turned out that the disease was at too advanced a stage for treatment. Doctors have given him three to five months to live, it was reported. Wilson is 60.

The Center Theatre Group's Mark Taper Forum learned the news at the halfway point in a production of Wilson's Golf Radio, the final installment in Wilson's 10-play cycle chronicling the African-American experience during the 20th century decade by decade. It is an epic effort that Wilson has been toiling over for better than two decades. The new work only had its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre in April, rendering strikingly eerie the timing of Wilson's illness. New York learned the news only two months after Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre—which devotes each season to the work of a single playwright—announced it had decided to push back an August Wilson line-up previously announced for 2005-06 to the 2006-07 season. The Wilson season is set to begin in fall 2006 with a new production of Two Trains Running. The season was also to feature Wilson's one-man show How I Learned What I Learned, which he performs himself.

Perhaps no American playwright has been so steady, so dependable and so serious a presence on U.S. stages over the past quarter century. Like trains running on a schedule, a new Wilson drama would chug through the regional network every few years, inevitably pulling into Broadway. So acclimated were critics to the regular arrival of high-level Wilson theatre, that they perhaps took the writer's soaring language and sense of purpose for granted in recent years. Few seemed to consider how much barer the landscape of recent American drama would look if Wilson's efforts were removed.

As striking as Wilson's accomplishment is, it towers higher still when ranked as the achievement of an African-American playwright. The history of black writers in U.S. theatre is one of stunted careers—talents who, for one reason or another, faded after one or two successes. Wilson proved that, with talent and faithful backing, a sustained life in the theatre was possible for the black dramatist.

He also proved that there was still room in our theatre for that antiquated figure of decades past: the serious writer. Wilson kept himself above and apart from the more commercial, vulgar aspects of the profession. He concentrated on the writing, not the business. He did not court the press. He ate at the Edison Cafe, not Joe Allen's. He wrote for the theatre, but seemingly was not of it. (He, in fact, lived as far away from the heart of it—New York—as he could: Seattle.) His eye was on the canon, not the season. He offered authenticity, and demanded respect. He got it.