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.
Wilson’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 the 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.
‘Too many ghosts’
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 seven 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 character.”