Playwright August Wilson, Who Chronicled African-American Experience, Is Dead at 60

Obituaries   Playwright August Wilson, Who Chronicled African-American Experience, Is Dead at 60
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, died Sunday, Oct. 2, the AP reported, citing a family spokesperson. He was 60.
August Wilson
August Wilson Photo by Aubrey Reuben

He died at Swedish Hospital in Seattle, surrounded by his family, said Dena Levitin, Wilson's personal assistant. Wilson had revealed in late August that he was suffering from inoperable liver cancer and had been told he had only months to live.

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

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 have featured Wilson's one-man show How I Learned What I Learned, which he performs himself.

Since then, Jujamcyn Theatre announced it would rename the Virginia Theatre after Wilson. Jujamcyn had produced many of the Broadway productions of Wilson's epic dramas, albeit typically at the Walter Kerr Theatre. The new marquee will make its debut on Oct. 17.

With Radio Golf, 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. (Jitney was actually the first play of the series that he created. He said he wrote it in ten days in 1979, at an Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips in St. Paul.)

All of the Broadway productions were nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. Fences won the prize. Wilson won two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, for Fences and The Piano Lesson.

His plays were usually set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the place of his birth. Filled with vibrant characters, and soaring language, they filled American stages with a kind of dramatic poetry and sure-footed storytelling not seen since the heyday of Tennessee Williams, while at the same time posing the sort of towering moral questions associated with Arthur Miller.

Many a stage actor benefited from the juicy and loquacious roles he created; Mary Alice, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Angela Bassett, Delroy Lindo, Charles S. Dutton, L. Scott Caldwell, Courtney B. Vance, Viola Davis and S. Epatha Merkerson all found career-altering parts in his dramas. They were rewarded in other ways as well: Alice, Santiago-Hudson, Caldwell and Davis all won Tony Awards for their work, as did James Earl Jones and Laurence Fishburne, the stars of Fences and Two Trains Running, respectively.

The works were seasoned and refined through a then-unique, and now quite common, passage through a series of regional houses. During these stops, Wilson would trim and revise his scripts. Sometimes, key roles would be recast. The journey almost always ended on Broadway. The behind-the-scenes personnel rarely changed. Benjamin Mordecai, who died earlier this year, was his most frequent producer. Lloyd Richards directed every play from Ma Rainey's Black Bottom—which the director plucked out of a pile of plays at the Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference in the early '80s—to 1996's Seven Guitars. On his last few plays, he worked with Marion McClinton. Kenny Leon directed Gem of the Ocean in 2004 when McClinton fell ill. The latter works were rated less highly that his earlier triumphs. Nonetheless, critics routinely treated the arrival of a new Wilson play with a sense of occasion, anticipating the chance for a rare glimmer of dramatic greatness of the commerical Broadway strip.

He was born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945, to Frederick Kittel, a white baker who had emigrated from Germany—a man whom he rarely discussed—and the black Daisy Wilson. He was one of six children. When his father died in 1965, he changed his name to August Wilson.

He didn't finish high school, and helped educate himself at the public library. He started writing in 1965, according to the AP, when he acquired a used typewriter. He won the money to buy it by writing a term paper on Robert Frost and Carl Sandberg for his sister, a Fordham student. "I took the $20, and I went down to Kern Typewriter Store and spent it all in one place," he told Playbill's Harry Haun. "I bought this typewriter for $20. It was $20 plus tax, and I didn't have the tax, and the guy told me, 'That's okay.' I didn't even have bus fare home so I had to walk home with this typewriter. It weighed about 30 pounds. When I got home, I plopped it down on the kitchen table and said, 'I am a writer.' It was then I realized I didn't know how to type."

At first, he tried his hand at poetry, not attempting plays until some years later. He said in interviews that he would wait for his characters to speak to him before his began writing a new play. Many figures would appear in more than one play in his cycle. Music also informed his writing.

"I chose the blues as my aesthetic," Wilson told Playbill in 1996. "I don't do any research other than listen to the blues. That tells me everything I need to know, and I go from there. I create worlds out of the ideas and the attitudes and the material in the blues. I think the blues are the best literature that blacks have. It is an expression of our people and our response to the world. I don't write about the blues; I'm not influenced by the blues. I am the blues."

Talking of acting in a Wilson play, Phylicia Rashad said, "He conveys the poetry, the natural rhythms, of his characters' speech. Everything — emotion, movement, thought, intention — is inherent in that rhythm. Actors sometimes like to dissect, to analyze, to do all those things actors are taught to do. But those things don't put me closer to this work's heart. I have to surrender all that. It's like going to a lake or a swimming pool. You just have to dive in, to immerse yourself. Working in his plays requires a different kind of skill. It's as if you would become a talking drum."

August Wilson was often outspoken and his willingness to speak his mind sometimes bred controversy—no time more so than when, at the June 1996 national conference of the Theatre Communications Group, he used the keynote address to assail what he perceived as a racist imbalance in non-profit theatre. He noting that only one of 66 theatres in the League of Resident Theatres was black, called for a new black theatre and also criticized non-traditional casting. Critic Robert Brustein published a retort, saying Wilson's ideas were a step backward from the sweeping social integration that occured in the '60s and '70s. The war of words culminated in the two men debating on Jan. 27, 1998, before an SRO crowd at New York's Town Hall, a meeting moderated by Anna Deavere Smith.

On another occasion, he insisted the movie version of his most popular play, Fences, be directed by a black director, arguing his case in Spin magazine. The movie was not made. He himself wrote the teleplay for a TV version of The Piano Lesson, which was directed by his longtime collaborator, Richards.

In other ways, Wilson did not court the spotlight. He seemed to fit the description of that antiquated figure of decades past: the serious writer. He habitually dressed in a suit and tie, topped off by his trademark short-brimmed cap. He kept himself above and apart from the more commercial, vulgar aspects of the profession and concentrated on the writing, not the business. He ate at the Edison Cafe, not Joe Allen's, and lived as far away from the heart of the American theatre—New York—as he could: Seattle.

However, he never forgot the city he came from. In an interview with Playbill, he told of his early years, when he trying to become a poet. "I was a poor man, and I bought a record player at a thrift shop for three dollars," he says. "It only played 78s. The thrift shop also had 78 [rpm] records for a nickel apiece. I would go there every day and buy maybe ten records. I did this for months and had about 2,000 records. They were a virtual history of thirties and forties popular music.

"One day in my stack of records I saw this odd-looking, typewritten yellow label. I put on this song called 'Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine,' by Bessie Smith. And I heard this woman's voice that was so strikingly different than anything I'd ever heard. I was stunned, and I listened to it again. And I listened to it again. I listened to it 22 straight times. And I said, 'This is mine.' I knew that all the other music I'd listened to wasn't mine. But this was the lady downstairs in my boarding house she could sing this song. And I began to look at the people in the house in which I lived in a new way, to connect them to the record, to connect that to some history. I claimed that music, and I've never looked back."

Phylicia Rashad (left) and LisaGay Hamilton in <i>Gem of the Ocean</i>
Phylicia Rashad and Lisa Gay Hamilton in Gem of the Ocean Carol Rosegg
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