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Playwright of a lifetime

Playwright of a lifetime

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When August Wilson was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, the playwright had just celebrated a creative milestone. Radio Golf, the final work in his 10-play cycle tracing the experiences of black Americans through the 20th century, completed its world-premiere run at the Yale Repertory Theatre in May, leaving Wilson, 60, free to channel his seemingly boundless energy and talent in new directions.

Surely the irony of what followed was not lost on Wilson, who died Sunday, surrounded by his family, at a Seattle hospital. His plays, which earned two Pulitzer Prizes and the affection and admiration of theater fans around the world, dealt unflinchingly with suffering and injustice in all forms.

But part of what made Wilson one of the past century's greatest writers was his refusal to be limited, or let the vibrancy of his characters and stories be limited, by circumstance. In dramas that were at once spiritually searching and stringently unsentimental, he crafted a world in which struggling, sometimes deeply flawed people could have dignity, and the most profound despair never precluded the possibility of hope and joy. Wilson may have been skeptical of social forces, but his faith in human potential for goodness was as unshakable as it was infectious.

There also was the beauty of his language. Having started as a poet, Wilson developed a style of dialogue that was at once grittily realistic and poetic and richly musical. Some likened it to jazz or blues, genres that informed the style and content of his plays.

Each of Wilson's works focuses on a particular decade, and most are set in his native Pittsburgh. They also include Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Fences, Two Trains Running, Jitney and King Hedley II.

They are linked by a sense of tension between past and present, cultural pride and assimilation faced by black Americans. In Radio Golf, set in 1997, two upwardly mobile black men involved in an urban-redevelopment campaign are forced to confront their roots.

"To my observation, the black middle class has failed to return the expertise and sophistication and resources that they've gained in American society over the past 50 years back to the community," Wilson told USA TODAY shortly before Golf opened last April.

The child of a mixed marriage -- his mother was black, his father white -- Wilson was proud of his black heritage and developed his plays at regional theaters that encouraged diversity, such as Yale, the O'Neill in Waterford, Conn., and the Goodman in Chicago. All except Jitney made it to Broadway, where each earned him a Tony nomination for best play, which Fences won in 1987.

Shortly after his illness was made public, it was announced he would become the first African-American to have a Broadway theater named for him.

Wilson's work also attracted and nourished many top black actors, for whom meaty roles, particularly on Broadway, were scarce. James Earl Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, Leslie Uggams and Phylicia Rashad all won acclaim in productions of his plays, which also helped launch the careers of such respected stage and screen actors as Charles S. Dutton and S. Epatha Merkerson.

But Wilson's work transcended racial boundaries and acknowledged the possibility of honor in all people. "He has a heart for the man on the corner," his widow, costume designer Constanza Romero, said during an interview with the Boston Globe in April. "He understands their wisdom through their hardships."

That understanding will be duly celebrated in the months and years to come. New York's Signature Theatre Company will dedicate its 2006-07 season to the playwright's work. And Golf is expected to arrive on Broadway in the future.

While discussing Golf with USA TODAY last spring, Wilson spoke excitedly of various projects he was working on or considering. There was a musical he and jazz icon Wynton Marsalis had been talking about and a film version of Fences. Wilson said he had started work on a novel as well and what he described as his first comic play.

"I feel free, man," Wilson said, with the exuberance that characterized his life and work. That exuberance, and freedom, won't be forgotten.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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