August Wilson, Theater’s Poet of Black America, Is Dead at 60


Published: October 3, 2005 Copyright The New York Times
August Wilson, who chronicled the African-American experience in the 20th century in a series of plays that will stand as a landmark in the history of black culture, of American literature and of Broadway theater, died yesterday at a hospital in Seattle. He was 60 and lived in Seattle.
The cause was liver cancer, said his assistant, Dena Levitin. Mr. Wilson’s cancer was diagnosed in the summer, and his illness was made public last month.
“Radio Golf,” the last of the 10 plays that constitute Mr. Wilson’s majestic theatrical cycle, opened at the Yale Repertory Theater last spring and has subsequently been produced in Los Angeles. It was the concluding chapter in a spellbinding story that began more than two decades ago, when Mr. Wilson’s play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” had its debut at the same theater, in 1984, and announced the arrival of a major talent, fully matured.
Reviewing the play’s Broadway premiere for The New York Times, Frank Rich wrote that in “Ma Rainey,” Mr. Wilson “sends the entire history of black America crashing down upon our heads.”
“This play is a searing inside account of what white racism does to its victims,” Mr. Rich continued, “and it floats on the same authentic artistry as the blues music it celebrates.”
In the years since “Ma Rainey” appeared, Mr. Wilson collected innumerable accolades for his work, including seven New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards, a Tony Award, for 1987’s “Fences,” and two Pulitzer Prizes, for “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson,” from 1990.
“He was a giant figure in American theater,” the playwright Tony Kushner said yesterday. “Heroic is not a word one uses often without embarrassment to describe a writer or playwright, but the diligence and ferocity of effort behind the creation of his body of work is really an epic story.
“The playwright’s voice in American culture is perceived as having been usurped by television and film, but he reasserted the power of drama to describe large social forces, to explore the meaning of an entire people’s experience in American history. For all the magic in his plays, he was writing in the grand tradition of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, the politically engaged, direct, social realist drama. He was reclaiming ground for the theater that most people thought had been abandoned.”
To honor his achievements, Broadway’s Virginia Theater is to be renamed the August Wilson Theater. The new marquee is to be unveiled Oct. 17.
With the exceptions of “Radio Golf” and “Jitney,” a play first produced in St. Paul in 1981 and reworked and presented Off Broadway in 2000, all of the plays in the cycle were ultimately seen on Broadway, the sometimes treacherous but all-important commercial marketplace for American theater. Although some were not financial successes there, “Fences,” which starred James Earl Jones, set a record for a nonmusical Broadway production when it grossed $11 million in a single year, and ran for 525 performances. Together, Mr. Wilson’s plays logged nearly 1,800 performances on Broadway in a little more than two decades, and they have been seen in more than 2,000 separate productions, amateur and professional.
Each of the plays in the cycle was set in a different decade of the 20th century, and all but “Ma Rainey” took place in the impoverished but vibrant African-American Hill District of Pittsburgh, where Mr. Wilson was born. In 1978, before he had become a successful writer, Mr. Wilson moved to St. Paul, and in 1994 he settled in Seattle, where he died. But his spiritual home remained the rough streets of the Hill District, where as a young man he sat in thrall to the voices of African-American working men and women. Years later, he would discern in their stories, their jokes and their squabbles the raw material for an art that would celebrate the sustaining richness of the black American experience, bruising as it often was.
In his work, Mr. Wilson depicted the struggles of black Americans with uncommon lyrical richness, theatrical density and emotional heft, in plays that gave vivid voices to people on the frayed margins of life: cabdrivers and maids, garbagemen and side men and petty criminals. In bringing to the popular American stage the gritty specifics of the lives of his poor, trouble-plagued and sometimes powerfully embittered black characters, Mr. Wilson also described universal truths about the struggle for dignity, love, security and happiness in the face of often overwhelming obstacles.
In dialogue that married the complexity of jazz to the emotional power of the blues, he also argued eloquently for the importance of black Americans’ honoring the pain and passion in their history, not burying it to smooth the road to assimilation. For Mr. Wilson, it was imperative for black Americans to draw upon the moral and spiritual nobility of their ancestors’ struggles to inspire their own ongoing fight against the legacies of white racism.
The link to the full article is located below. It’s highly recommended.

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