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August Wilson Obituary

NEW YORK (AP) - August Wilson was a master storyteller, a playwright who fashioned his tales of the black struggle in 20th-century America into a monumental 10-play cycle, one of the most ambitious in modern drama.

"He was a poet and a musician with words," said Gordon Davidson, who, as artistic director of the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, produced eight of the 10 plays. "He knew the rhythms of speech and how you tell a story. He was especially interested in what you owe to history, and how it's in your bones."

Wilson died Sunday at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, less than two months after he announced he had inoperable liver cancer. He was 60.

Among his plays were "Fences," the writer's biggest Broadway hit, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and "The Piano Lesson." At the time of his death, Wilson was still working on the last play in the cycle, "Radio Golf," which recently closed in Los Angeles and will have productions next year in Seattle, Baltimore and several other cities.

Wilson thought big. His plays were often epic, filled with rich, idiosyncratic language and memorable characters, steeped in the past, trying to survive in the present and wondering about the future.

It took Wilson more than two decades to complete his cycle, one play for each decade. He grapples with major themes - from the effects of slavery on those who could still remember the Civil War to a burgeoning middle-class on the cusp of the 21st century.

"The goal was to get them down on paper," he told The Associated Press during an interview in April 2005 as he was completing "Radio Golf."

"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."

Those plays, "Gem of the Ocean" and "Radio Golf," took place at the beginning and end of the century. Both were directed by Kenny Leon.

"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 Leon, adding that 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."

Actors, too, found extraordinary satisfaction in Wilson's plays - diverse, fully developed characters who attracted such accomplished performers as James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Brian Stokes Mitchell, S. Epatha Merkerson and Leslie Uggams.

"Acting in his plays was for me like wearing a crown - to feel royal, to feel special, to feel whole," said Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who won a Tony Award in 1996 for his performance in Wilson's "Seven Guitars."

"He always tried to empower us with a freedom of expression, a freedom of manhood. He was all the time loosening the chains on you, breaking the chains. Being around him was like a liberation of sorts."

Wilson received the best-play Tony 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.

Pittsburgh, Wilson's birthplace, is the setting for nine of his cycle plays - "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is set in a Chicago recording studio. Although he lived in Seattle, the playwright had a great deal of affection for his hometown, especially "the Hill," a dilapidated area of Pittsburgh where he spent much of his youth.

Born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945, he was one of six children of Frederick Kittel, a baker who had emigrated from Germany at the age of 10, and Daisy Wilson. A high school dropout, Wilson enlisted in the Army but left after a year, finding employment as a porter, short-order cook and dishwasher, among other jobs. When his father died in 1965, he changed his name to August Wilson.

Wilson was largely self-educated. The public library was his university and the recordings of such iconic singers and musicians as Bessie Smith and Jelly Roll Morton, and the paintings of such artists as Romare Bearden his inspiration.

He started writing in 1965, when he acquired a used typewriter. His initial works were poems, but in 1968, Wilson co-founded Pittsburgh's Black Horizon Theater. Among those early efforts was a play called "Jitney," which he revised more than two decades later as part of his 10-play cycle.

In 1978, he moved to Minnesota, writing for the Science Museum in St. Paul and later landing a fellowship at the Minneapolis Playwrights Center.

In 1982, his play, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," was accepted by the National Playwrights Conference at the O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. It was there that Wilson met Lloyd Richards, who also ran the Yale School of Drama. Their relationship proved fruitful, and Richards directed six of Wilson's plays on Broadway.

The first was "Ma Rainey," which opened on Broadway in 1984. Wilson's reputation was cemented in 1987 by the father-son drama "Fences." The play, which featured a Tony-winning performance by Jones, ran for more than a year.

It was followed in New York by "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" (1988), "The Piano Lesson" (1990), "Two Trains Running" (1992), "Seven Guitars" (1996), "Jitney" (2000), "King Hedley II" (2001) and "Gem of the Ocean" (2004).

Later this month, a Broadway theater, the Virginia, will be renamed for Wilson, a rare honor. Wilson, who was married three times, is survived by his wife, costume designer Constanza Romero; their daughter Azula Carmen, and another daughter, Sakina Ansari, from his first marriage.

Copyright © 2005 The Associated Press

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Published in The New York Times on October 4, 2005
WILSON-August. The Board and Staff of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York mourns the loss of August Wilson. We take comfort in the knowledge that his work will continue to enthrall and inspire... Read Obituary