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Playwright August Wilson dies at 60
Seattle Times theater critic
August Wilson, one of contemporary American theater's finest playwrights and chronicler of a century of African-American experience, has died.
The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Seattle resident succumbed to liver cancer yesterday morning at Swedish Hospital. Mr. Wilson, 60, was surrounded by his family, said Dena Levitin, Mr. 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.
Mr. Wilson's monumental achievement was his decade-by-decade, 10-play cycle portraying the African-American experience in the 20th century. He inspired a generation of black theater artists. And he will be greatly missed by many who knew him, in Seattle and beyond, as a generous friend and remarkable storyteller.
Sitting over coffee at one of the Seattle cafes where he often wrote his scripts, Mr. Wilson (often garbed in tweed jacket and wool cap) would spin riveting stories about himself and his extraordinary characters — people inspired by the street-corner philosophers he grew up with in the Hill District, a black section of Pittsburgh.
"Every time I listened to him speak, or saw a play of his, I would have more to go to the well with," noted local black director Jacqueline Moscou.
"One of the thrills of my career was sitting at the Mecca Cafe, hearing August talk through a story that would become part of his play 'King Hedley II,' " recalled Sharon Ott, former Seattle Repertory Theatre artistic director, who produced five works by Mr. Wilson during her tenure at the Rep. "I've been fortunate in my life to be around a few real geniuses, and there is no doubt August was one of them."
Ron Sims, King County executive and theatergoer, recalled an offstage encounter with Mr. Wilson, when he brought a group of Rainier Valley teens to the Rep to see his Civil Rights-era play "Two Trains Running."
"August gave a little talk before the show about how he dropped out of school, regretted it and spent hours in the library educating himself," Sims said. "He talked about developing your intellect, being open to the world and life through books. It was one of the most brilliant speeches I've ever heard on that subject, and it really moved those kids."
As a critic I followed his work, from his first Broadway hit "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," to his recent, cycle-closing scripts "Radio Golf" (which plays at the Seattle Rep in January) and "Gem of the Ocean."
I, too, am thankful to have heard Mr. Wilson riff, in person, on many subjects. At the Mecca on Queen Anne, and the Victrola coffee house on Capitol Hill (near the home he shared with his third wife, Constanza Romero, and their daughter, Azula), and once against a spectacular vista in Alaska, where he was being honored at a playwrights festival in Valdez, I always found Mr. Wilson a gracious, joyful spellbinder.
But the playwright didn't just funnel memories from his native Pittsburgh into his scripts. His greatness as a writer led him to embroider and expound, to conjure a poetic yet streetwise vernacular all his own, to confront racism and celebrate the imagination, and to vault humble, flawed but searching characters to near-mythic status.
A few examples include Troy Maxson, the embittered sanitation worker and former baseball player felled by racism, who is at the heart of Mr. Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-honored play "Fences." And the indefatigable Aunt Ester (enacted on Broadway last year by Phylicia Rashad), a guardian of the African-American past in "Gem of the Ocean."And Levee, an explosive '20s trumpeter, in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."
The history of music and the black experience were profound influences on Mr. Wilson, who was born Frederick August Kittel in 1945 to a black mother and a white German father. Mr. Wilson first discovered the potency of blues singers like Bessie Smith in the mid-1960s.
"The blues is the best literature black Americans have," Mr. Wilson told me. "It's our cultural response to the world, an emotional reference point. Five million years from now if people have those records, they'll be able to piece together a lot about us."
Mr. Wilson dropped out of high school in the mid-'60s, served a stint in the Army, and took the surname of his mother Daisy Wilson after the death of his father Frederick Kittel, who had abandoned Daisy and their six children in August's youth.
In the late 1960s, Mr. Wilson became active in Pittsburgh drama, and co-founded the Black Horizon Theater there. He moved to St. Paul, Minn., in 1978, and began crafting plays in earnest while holding down a day job as a writer in a science museum.
His big break did not come until 1982, when, after many rejections, the National Playwrights Conference at Connecticut's O'Neill Theater Center accepted "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Lloyd Richards, the head of the center, not only believed in Mr. Wilson's talent but went on to direct six of his plays on Broadway.
"Ma Rainey" earned Mr. Wilson his first New York Drama Critics award. And from then on, important plays flowed from the writer, and were snatched up by regional theaters across the country, including Seattle Rep. Along with a second Pulitzer for "The Piano Lesson," Mr. Wilson was honored with many other theatrical and other honors, including a 1999 National Humanities Medal and a $250,000 Heinz Award for Arts and Humanities. Mr. Wilson received the best-play Tony Award for "Fences," plus best-play Tony nominations for six of his other plays.
Later this month, the Virginia Theater on Broadway 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 Hirschfeld. It will be the first on Broadway named after an African American.
His plays gave steady employment to black actors, not only in New York but in regional theaters, where most of his works tried out before going to Broadway. Such well-known actors as James Earl Jones, Laurence Fishburne, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Charles S. Dutton, Brian Stokes Mitchell, S. Epatha Merkerson, Roscoe Lee Browne and Leslie Uggams appeared in Mr. Wilson's plays on Broadway.
Mr. Wilson settled in Seattle in 1990, after his second divorce. As his artistic reputation continued to soar, he was able to sidestep the traps of celebrity and stay focused on his writing.
He also, on occasion, was a provocateur. At a speech during a national theater conference in 1996, he bemoaned the fact that many black theaters had failed, due to insufficient funding.
And he proclaimed that black actors should only appear in African-American roles, not in Shakespeare works and other classics written initially for white actors. The position, considered extreme by some, was discussed further in a nationally broadcast debate between Mr. Wilson and nationally known drama critic Robert Brustein.
But much more often, Mr. Wilson was an inspiring force rather than a divisive one. At that same 1996 conference he said, "We who are capable of those noble pursuits should challenge the melancholy and barbaric, to bring the light of angelic grace, peace, prosperity and the unencumbered pursuit of happiness to the ground on which we stand."
Wilson is survived by his wife, costumer Constanza Romero, their daughter Azula Carmen and his elder daughter, Sakina Ansari.
Burial and funeral plans will be announced by the family.
Misha Berson: email@example.com. The Associated Press and Seattle Times reporter Cara Solomon contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company