Monday, October 03, 2005

Playwright August Wilson Dies of Cancer

We have indeed lost a national treasure. I did see a few of his plays including "Jitney". R.I.P. August Wilson.

Written by MICHAEL KUCHWARA, AP Drama writer

NEW YORK - Playwright August Wilson, whose epic 10-play cycle
chronicling the black experience in 20th-century America included
such landmark dramas as "Fences" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,"
died Sunday of liver cancer, a family spokeswoman said. He was 60.

Wilson died at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, surrounded by his
family, said Dena Levitin, Wilson's personal assistant. The
playwright had disclosed in late August that his illness was
inoperable and he had only a few months to live.

"We've lost a great writer, I think the greatest writer that our
generation has seen and I've lost a dear, dear friend and
collaborator," said Kenny Leon, who directed the Broadway production
of "Gem of the Ocean" as well as Wilson's most recent play, "Radio
Golf," which just concluded a run in Los Angeles.

Leon said Wilson's work, "encompasses all the strength and power
that theater has to offer." "I feel an incredible sense of
responsibility on walking how he would want us to walk and
delivering his work."

Wilson's plays were big, often sprawling and poetic, dealing
primarily with the effects of slavery on succeeding generations of
black Americans: from turn-of-century characters who could remember
the Civil War to a prosperous middle class at the end of the century
who had forgotten the past.

The playwright's astonishing creation, which took more than 20 years
to complete, was remarkable not only for his commitment to a certain
structure — one play for each decade — but for the quality of
writing. It was a unique achievement in American drama. Not even
Eugene O'Neill, who authored the masterpiece "Long Day's Journey
Into Night," accomplished such a monumental effort.

During that time, Wilson received the best-play Tony Award
for "Fences," plus best-play Tony nominations for six of his other
plays, the Pulitzer Prize for both "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson,"
and a record seven New York Drama Critics' Circle prizes.

"The goal was to get them down on paper," he told The Associated
Press during an April 2005 interview as he was completing "Radio
Golf," the last play in the cycle. "It was fortunate when I looked
up and found I had the two bookends to go. I didn't plan it that
way. I was able to connect the two plays."

Wilson was referring to "Gem of the Ocean," chronologically the
first play in the cycle, although the ninth to be written. It takes
place in 1904 and is set in Pittsburgh's Hill District at 1839 Wylie
Ave., a specific address that figures prominently, nearly 100 years
later, in the last work, "Radio Golf," which premiered in April at
the Yale Repertory Theatre.

Pittsburgh, Wilson's birthplace, is the setting for nine of the 10
plays in the cycle ("Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is set in a Chicago
recording studio). Although he lived in Seattle, the playwright had
a great deal of affection for his hometown, especially "the Hill," a
dilapidated area of the city where he spent much of his youth.

Wilson, a bulky, affable man who always had a story to tell, usually
returned to Pittsburgh once a year to visit his mother's grave, but
he said he couldn't live there: "Too many ghosts. But I love it.
That's what gave birth to me."

Born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945, he was one of six
children of Frederick Kittel, a baker who had emigrated from Germany
at the age of 10, and Daisy Wilson. A high school dropout, Wilson
enlisted in the Army but left after a year, finding employment as a
porter, short-order cook and dishwasher, among other jobs. When his
father died in 1965, he changed his name to August Wilson.

Wilson was largely self-educated. The public library was his
university and the recordings of such iconic singers and musicians
as Bessie Smith and Jelly Roll Morton, and the paintings of such
artists as Romare Bearden his inspiration.

He started writing in 1965, when he acquired a used typewriter. His
initial works were poems, but in 1968, Wilson co-founded
Pittsburgh's Black Horizon Theater. Among those early efforts was a
play called "Jitney," which he revised more than two decades later
as part of his 10-play cycle.

In 1978, he moved to Minnesota, writing for the Science Museum in
St. Paul and later landing a fellowship at the Minneapolis
Playwrights Center.

In 1982, his play, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," was accepted by the
National Playwrights Conference at the O'Neill Theater Center in
Connecticut. It was there that Wilson met Lloyd Richards, who also
ran the Yale School of Drama. Their relationship proved fruitful,
and Richards directed six of Wilson's plays on Broadway.

The first was "Ma Rainey," which opened on Broadway in 1984.
Wilson's reputation was cemented in 1987 by the father-son
drama "Fences," his biggest commercial success. The play, which
featured a Tony-winning performance by James Earl Jones, ran for
more than a year.

It was followed in New York by "Joe Turner's Come and Gone"
(1988), "The Piano Lesson" (1990), "Two Trains Running"
(1992), "Seven Guitars" (1996), "Jitney" (2000), "King Hedley II"
(2001) and "Gem of the Ocean" (2004).

Wilson's plays gave steady employment to black actors, not only in
New York but in regional theaters, where most of his plays tried out
before coming to Broadway. Besides Jones, such well-known actors
as Laurence Fishburne, Phylicia Rashad, Angela
Bassett, Charles S. Dutton, Brian Stokes Mitchell, S.
Epatha Merkerson, Roscoe Lee Browne and Leslie Uggams appeared
in his plays on Broadway.

"August's work is like reading a rich novel," says Anthony Chisholm,
a veteran Wilson performer in such plays as "Gem of the Ocean"
and "Radio Golf."

"It conjures up vivid images in the mind, and it makes the actor's
job easier because you have something to draw upon to build your

Later this month, a Broadway theater, the Virginia, will be renamed
for Wilson, a rare honor also bestowed on such theater greats as
Eugene O'Neill, Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, Helen Hayes and Al

Wilson, who was married three times, is survived by his wife,
costume designer Constanza Romero; their daughter Azula Carmen, and
another daughter, Sakina Ansari, from his first marriage.


O said...

I saw Two Trains Running with Laurence Fishburne in NY when it played, I've always loved his work.

*Madosi said...

man ... i am still sad at the loss of august!

he is such a great playwright. i have seen two of his plays and read two as well!

it was amazing to me to know that so many people did not know him though and had never experienced his talent.

how unfortunate!