October 03, 2005

August Wilson Dies of Cancer at 60

Snapshots In My Time...
Of My Time.....Hauntings.

NEW YORK Oct 2, 2005 — 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 Hospital 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.

The playwright'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."


Born on April 27, 1945, August Wilson grew up in the Hill district of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His childhood experiences in this black slum community would later inform his dramatic writings, including his first produced play, Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, which was staged in 1981.

Then, in 1984, August Wilson was catapulted to the forefront of the American theatre scene with the success of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, produced at Yale and later in New York in 1984. The play was voted Best Play of the Year (1984-85) by the New York Drama Critics' Circle.

Wilson continued to work in close collaboration with Lloyd Richards of the Yale School of Drama, and by early 1990's, had established himself as the best known and most popular African-American playwright. Wilson also set for himself a daunting task--to write a ten play cycle that chronicles each decade of the black experience in the 20th century. Each of Wilson's plays is a chapter in this remarkable cycle of plays and focuses on what Wilson perceives as the largest issue to confront African-Americans in that decade.

His second play, Fences--set in the 1950's--tells the story of Troy Maxon, an illiterate garbage collector who has become embittered by a white-controlled system that has denied him the baseball stardom he feels he deserves. Fences opened on Broadway in the spring of 1987 to enormous critical acclaim and earned Wilson his first Pulitzer Prize.

In April of 1988, Joe Turner's Come and Gone opened on Broadway, again to enormous critical acclaim. This play--which documents the 1910's--tells the story of Harold Loomis, a black man cruelly imprisoned for seven years by the white authorities for an unknown offense. Finally free, Loomis sets out in search of his wife Martha who he hasn't seen in ten years. Joe Turner's Come and Gone was voted Best New Play of the Year by the New York Drama Critics' Circle.

The Piano Lesson--set in 1930's--opens with the arrival of Boy Willie at his sister Berniece's house. Willie dreams of buying the same Mississippi land that his ancestors once worked as slaves, but in order to raise the capital for this purchase, he must convince his sister to part with a family heirloom, a piano that is both a reminder of the family's enslaved past and a tribute to their survival. The Piano Lesson was named Best Play of the Year by the New York Drama Critics' Circle. It also earned Wilson his 2nd Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as a Drama Desk Award.

Wilson's other awards include the New York Drama Critics Circle Award (1985, 1987, 1988), the Whiting Foundation Award (1986), the American Theatre Critics Award (1986, 1989, 1991), the Outer Circle Award (1987), the Drama Desk Award (1987), the John Gassner Award (1987), the Tony Award (1987), the Helen Hayer Award (1988), and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1987, 1990).


April 27, 1945:

Born Frederick August Kittel to Daisy Wilson and Frederick Kittel, a red-haired baker who emigrated from Germany at 10. The fourth child of six, his siblings are: Freda Ellis (the Hill), Linda Jean Denoya (Swissvale), Edwin Kittel (Dormont), Donna Conley (Erie), Richard Kittel.Family later moves to Hazelwood then back to the Hill.


Only black student in Central Catholic High School; threats and abuse drive him away. Connelley Vocational proves unchallenging.


Drops out of Gladstone High School 10th grade when a teacher accuses him of plagiarizing a 20-page paper on Napoleon. Gets his own education at the library and on the street.


Enlists in U.S. Army for three years, leaves after one.


Varied jobs - porter, short-order cook, gardener, dishwasher.


Discovers the blues - Bessie Smith's "Nobody Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine."

Death of biological father, Frederick Kittel; changes name to August Wilson.

Buys his first typewriter ($20); writes poetry.

Moves into rooming house on Bedford Avenue.


Co-founds Black Horizon Theater with Rob Penny.


Death of stepfather, David Bedford.

Marries Brenda Burton.


Daughter Sakina Ansari Wilson born (Jan. 22).


Marriage ends.


Vernell Lillie directs his "The Homecoming" for Kuntu Theater.

Sees "Sizwe Bansi Is Dead" at Public Theater, his first professional play.


Writes "Black Bart and the Sacred Hills."


Moves to St. Paul, Minn., with advice of friend Claude Purdy; lands job writing for Science Museum.


Fellowship at Minneapolis Playwrights Center.


Marries Judy Oliver, social worker.


National Playwrights Conference at O' Neill Theater Center accepts "Ma Rainey"; meets O' Neill chief Lloyd Richards, who goes on to direct his six plays on Broadway.

"Jitney" staged by Allegheny Repertory Theatre in Pittsburgh.


Death of Daisy Wilson.


"Ma Rainey" opens on Broadway.


"Ma Rainey" wins his first New York Drama Critics award.


Reunion of Centre Avenue Poets Theater Workshop with Maisha Baton, Rob Penny, etc.


"Fences" opens on Broadway, wins Pulitzer, grosses $11 million in its first year (Broadway record for a non-musical).

Kuntu stages Pittsburgh premiere of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.


"Joe Turner" opens on Broadway.

Lectures at The Carnegie's Man and Ideas series on "Blacks, Blues and Cultural Imperialism."

Appears on Bill Moyers' "World of Ideas" (PBS).


"Fences" first Wilson play staged by Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Named 1990 Pittsburgher of the Year by Pittsburgh Magazine.


Speech at 1990 Pittsburgher of Year award.

"Piano Lesson" opens on Broadway, wins Pulitzer Prize.

Marriage ends; moves to Seattle.


"Three Plays by August Wilson," University of Pittsburgh Press.


Receives honorary degree from Pitt, speaks at Honors Convocation.

"Two Trains Running" opens on Broadway.

Tour of "Piano Lesson" plays Fulton Theater.


Marries Constanza Romero, costume designer.

"Piano Lesson" filmed in Pittsburgh.


"Piano Lesson" broadcast on Hallmark Hall of Fame.


"Seven Guitars" hits Broadway.

Revises "Jitney" for professional premiere at Pittsburgh Public Theater.


Public debate in New York City with critic Robert Brustein on status of black theater.

Azula Carmen Wilson born, Aug. 27.


Convenes Dartmouth conference on African American Theater that establishes African Grove Institute of the Arts; major "gathering of the tribes" planned for 2002.


Honored at 100th anniversary of Hill District Branch Library (March 18).

Round-table discussion with three other black playwrights at Public Theater. Marion McClinton says, "August is Michael Jackson at this table."

Named by Post-Gazette as top Pittsburgh cultural power broker.

"King Hedley II" premieres.


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