Playwright August Wilson Is Diagnosed With Liver Cancer

By Robert Simonson
August 26, 2005

August Wilson, one of America's greatest playwrights and the author of an epic cycle of dramas about the African-American experience in the 20th century, is dying of liver cancer.

The news was reported simultaneously on Aug. 26 in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Pittsburgh is the writer's birthplace, and Seattle is his adoptive home.

John Breglio, Wilson's longtime legal representative, confirmed the diagnosis.

His condition was discovered on June 14 by doctors at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. They recommended chemoembolization, which the 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, the paper reported. Wilson is 60.

The shocking news comes just 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 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.

“Signature Theatre Company is deeply saddened to hear about August Wilson’s illness and our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family,” said James Houghton, founding artistic director of the Signature in a prepared statement.  “We remain fully committed to working with August on crafting a season plan that will celebrate his extraordinary contribution to the American theatre.”

With Radio Golf, now playing at the Center Theatre Group's Mark Taper Forum through Sept. 18, Wilson completed his ten-play cycle, which chronicles the African-American experience in the past century decade by decade. The 1990s-set work involves real estate developers who look to tear down the home of recurring Wilson character Aunt Esther.

The other plays in Wilson's grand undertaking (in order of decade which the drama is set) include Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Fences, Two Trains Running, Jitney and King Hedley II. All have played Broadway, except for Jitney, which was an Off-Broadway hit. All of the Broadway productions were nominated for a Tony Award for Best Plays. Fences won the prize.

Wilson has won two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, for Fences and The Piano Lesson.

"I'm glad I finished the cycle," Wilson told the Pittsburgh paper.

Wilson's wife, Constanza Romero, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that Wilson plans to fight the disease and hopes for recovery. "He's taking it very well, with a lot of strength and determination," she said. The playwright told the Pittsburgh paper, "I've had a blessed life. I'm ready."