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Esteemed playwright diagnosed with cancer

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August Wilson, one of the great playwrights of our time and the author of an unprecedented 10-play cycle about African-American life in the 20th century, is suffering from inoperable liver cancer and says he has just months to live.

The news was reported Friday by papers in Pittsburgh, his birthplace, and Seattle, where the 60-year-old writer lives with his wife and 8-year-old daughter.

Atlanta's theater community responded Friday with sadness and concern. Wilson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson," has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with the Alliance Theatre and True Colors Theatre artistic director Kenny Leon, who directed Wilson's Tony-nominated "Gem of the Ocean" this year and recently returned from staging Wilson's "Radio Golf" at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

"I think August is a soldier and a fighter," Leon said. "I'm hoping he gets through all this."

But by all accounts, Wilson seems resigned to the inevitable.

"It's not like poker. You can't throw your hand in," the playwright told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I've lived a blessed life. I'm ready."

Wilson remains at his Seattle home, where he's working on several writing projects.

Doctors made the diagnosis in June and suggested radical treatment, followed by a liver transplant. Later, they determined the disease was too advanced for the procedures. Leon said he had to fly back and forth between Los Angeles and Seattle during "Radio Golf" rehearsals, so that he and Wilson could iron out rewrites. ("Radio Golf," the final play of the cycle, continues at the Taper through Sept. 18.)

The Alliance has produced eight parts of Wilson's decade-by-decade opus, and all but two were directed by Leon, who was artistic director of the city's largest theater from 1990 to 2001. When Leon inaugurated True Colors in 2003 with "Fences," the Alliance was doing "King Hedley II." Wilson came to Atlanta to support both shows.

"August has been a personal friend for a number of years and has been a profound presence and influence at this theater for a decade and a half now," said Alliance artistic director Susan V. Booth. "We collectively send him our hearts and our prayers. He has gifted us all, and we owe him an enormous debt."

Leon says he will direct "Radio Golf" when it moves to Broadway, but the timing is uncertain. "It's headed to Broadway, and that's all I can say on that now."

Leon also said True Colors will produce "Gem of the Ocean" in fall 2006, and he wants Phylicia Rashad to reprise the role of the 287-year-old Aunt Ester. "I'm hoping that August will be sitting on the front row."

Copyright 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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