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AUGUST WILSON | 1945-2005

Playwright Distilled Black America

'Magisterial' cycle of 10 works about ordinary lives in poor neighborhood earned him two Pulitzer Prizes.

October 03, 2005|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

August Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who sought to distill virtually the entire African American experience in a cycle of 10 earthy, poetic and spiritually questing dramas, died Sunday. He was 60.

Wilson died at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle surrounded by his family, Dena Levitin, his personal assistant, said.

Doctors at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle diagnosed Wilson's liver cancer in June, but the disease was too advanced for treatment. Wilson announced in late August that 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," Kenny Leon, who directed Wilson's most recent play, "Radio Golf," which just concluded a run in Los Angeles, told the Associated Press.

Leon, who also directed the Broadway production of Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean," said the playwright's work "encompasses all the strength and power that theater has to offer."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 05, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Wilson obituary -- The obituary of playwright August Wilson in Monday's A Section said Charles Fuller was the first African American playwright to receive the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Charles Gordone received the Pulitzer in 1970, 12 years before Fuller, for his play "No Place to Be Somebody." The obituary also said Wilson had five siblings. He had six.

"I feel an incredible sense of responsibility on walking how he would want us to walk and delivering his work," he said.

Tributes to the playwright began even before his death. On Sept. 1, Rocco Landesman, president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns five houses on New York City's Broadway, announced that the Virginia Theater would be renamed this month the August Wilson Theater, the first on Broadway named after an African American.

Wilson grew up sharing a two-room apartment with his mother and five siblings in Pittsburgh's Hill District, a poor black neighborhood that became the location for all but one play in his cycle, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

A Play for Each Decade

From 1979, when he wrote his first version of "Jitney," through rewrites after "Radio Golf" premiered last April, Wilson worked indefatigably on the cycle. The project -- a play for each decade of the 20th century -- did not become clear to him until the mid-1980s, when he realized that he had set each of several early plays in a different decade.

"I thought ... 'Why don't I just continue to do that?' " he told Howard University professor Sandra G. Shannon in 1991, in an interview later published in African American Review.

Wilson won acclaim in 1984 for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," his first play to be prominently produced. Set in a 1920s Chicago recording studio, it explores the strife between blues singer Rainey and her band as they face exploitation by the white-run music industry.

With his career established after long years in which he supported himself with assorted jobs, including stock clerk, gardener, dishwasher and short-order cook, Wilson rapidly earned two Pulitzer Prizes -- for "Fences" in 1987 (it also took the Tony Award for best play) and for "The Piano Lesson" in 1990.

His remarkably fertile period of the mid- to late 1980s also included his favorite, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" (1986), in which a man who had been hauled off for years of involuntary servitude in the Jim Crow South comes north in 1911, trying to find his long-lost wife. Wilson was also a Pulitzer finalist with all three of his plays that premiered during the 1990s: "Two Trains Running" (1990), "Seven Guitars" (1995) and "King Hedley II" (1999).

The cycle does not tell a continuous saga, but it is unified by setting, theme and style. Some characters pop up in two or more plays, either in person or in tales told by others -- notably Aunt Ester, a kindly prophetess who is the central character of "Gem of the Ocean," set in 1904. Most denizens of the Hill District take it on faith that she was born at the dawn of African slavery, and Wilson gives her the power to "wash" supplicants' souls in racial memories that help them take sustenance from the past, rather than being overwhelmed by it. We learn of her death, at age 366, in "King Hedley II," set in 1985.

Reviewing the concluding work of the cycle, "Radio Golf," for the New Yorker in 2005, critic John Lahr marveled at the "unprecedented, magisterial" oeuvre created by this self-taught writer.

After premiering in April at the Yale Repertory Theatre -- where six of Wilson's plays were launched -- "Radio Golf," an account of black businessmen trying to pull off a redevelopment scheme in the Hill District in 1997, moved to the Mark Taper Forum for an August to mid-September run.

Gordon Davidson's last production, capping 38 years as the Taper's artistic director, was "Radio Golf." He said the dying Wilson was able to muster enough strength and focus to do some rewriting even after the show opened at the Taper. The changes, including a honing of a central husband-wife relationship, were implemented for the last two weeks of the run, Davidson said.

With "Radio Golf," L.A. is believed to be the first city in which the entire Wilson cycle has been staged, starting in 1987 with the Los Angeles Theatre Center's production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." In all, his plays have been produced more than 2,000 times in the United States.

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