- The Washington Times - Monday, October 3, 2005

August Wilson (1945-2005), whose majestic 10-play cycle searingly portrayed 20th-century black culture decade by decade, died Sunday of liver cancer at a hospital in Seattle, the Pittsburgh native’s home since 1990. The playwright was 60 years old and until recently was working on rewrites for the last play in the series, “Radio Golf,” which will be staged at Baltimore’s Centerstage in March.

Mr. Wilson was diagnosed with cancer in the summer, and his condition was disclosed in September, when it also was announced that New York’s Virginia Theater would be renamed the August Wilson in his honor. It is the first Broadway theater named for a black American.

“I have lived a blessed life, I’m ready,” Mr. Wilson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in August. His third wife, costume designer Constanza Romero, and two daughters, Sakina Ansari and Azula Carmen Wilson, survive him.

“Radio Golf” takes place in the go-go real estate climate of the 1990s and depicts the razing of Mr. Wilson’s beloved Hill District neighborhood in Pittsburgh to make way for upscale condos. It is the final installment in a sprawling, interwoven American “Iliad” that began at Yale Repertory Theatre more than two decades ago with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which introduced to the world a new playwright possessed of startling maturity and heroic vision.

Other plays followed in subsequent years, including “Two Trains Running,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “Seven Guitars” and “Gem of the Ocean,” which was part of the 2004-2005 Broadway season. These were lyrical, emotionally shapely plays that gave a powerful voice to marginalized people — cabdrivers and maids, garbagemen and con men, petty criminals and waitresses, blues singers with demands far exceeding their sway and the recurring character of Aunt Ester, a healer and storyteller who was as old as slavery and still alive and kicking in the 1980s.

Mr. Wilson’s 10-play theatrical series — which garnered two Pulitzer Prizes (for “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson”) and innumerable awards — is an unprecedented achievement in theater. Eugene O’Neill tried a projected 11-play series but died after completing just two works.

The playwright’s passionate and poetic dedication to the social panorama earned him comparisons to Mr. O’Neill and the French writer Honore de Balzac, while his long-winded eloquence put other critics in mind of William Faulkner’s novels set in Mississippi’s mythical Yoknapatawpha County.

Mr. Wilson would have none of that, often citing as his main influence the collage artist Romare Bearden, and blues and jazz music — of which he was an ardent collector.

“I’m a playwright who doesn’t go to the theater — it’s mostly thought of as something for white audiences,” he said in a 1994 interview with this reporter. “When I am in New York, I rarely check out the competition. I’d rather go to a music store and hunt down some old 78s.”

The blues and jazz run like a darkly stained thread through Mr. Wilson’s plays, and he used songs from such artists as Big Mama Thornton, Buddy Bolden and Memphis Minnie as a jumping-off point when starting a new work. His life changed when he discovered the Bessie Smith recording “Nobody Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine” in 1965 — the same year he bought his first typewriter for $20, started writing poetry and changed his named to August Wilson.

Born Freddy Kittel to a black mother and a white German immigrant father, Mr. Wilson dropped out of school in the ninth grade after a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a paper on Napoleon. His deepest learning would come from the streets — and from the library, where his mother got him his first library card at the age of 6. “It was the best day of my life,” he remembered.

His vagabond education — and jobs as a porter, dishwasher, gardener and short-order cook — introduced him to the singular characters and the everyday grind of racism that would inform his writing. Hanging out on the stoops and shops of the Hill District, Mr. Wilson absorbed the free-wheeling patois of the old men and dudes-on-the-make in the neighborhood, much of which emerged intact in his plays.

During the Hill District years and his subsequent move to St. Paul, Minn., in 1978, Mr. Wilson also acquired the habit of writing in bars and cafes.

“I jot things down on cocktail napkins,” he said while writing “Seven Guitars” in 1994. “A waitress once asked me, ‘Do you write on napkins because it don’t count?’ and I thought, ‘Exactly.’ Writing on napkins frees you up; you can play around.”

His writing may have been done on throwaway napery, but his intentions were epic and uncompromising. He was a strong proponent of black culture free of middle-class assimilation.

“I would love to see blacks living in the North pull off a reverse migration,” Mr. Wilson said in a 1994 interview with this reporter. “We need to go back to the American South. I don’t see anything fruitful in the next 50 years coming out of blacks living in the North.”

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