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Cycle of Life: August Wilson: playwright April 27, 1945-October 2, 2005.

THE UNTIMELY DEATH OF AUGUST Wilson, at the age of 60, is a tragic loss to the American theater. While no one can fully share his family's sorrow, August Wilson, born Frederick August Kittel, will be sorely missed by black artists everywhere. There should be, however, some measure of consolation to the family as well as to the theater community in knowing that he met death pridefully and manfully.

August Wilson's tenure as a national figure in the American theater began in 1984 with his brilliant play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Immediately after its New York premiere, his conceit, announced without fanfare, was to write 10 plays about the black experience, one play for each decade of the 20th century.

A lot of us blacks who work in the theater had heard of Wilson's talent long before the American theater at large was introduced to him. His work with the late poet/playwright Rob Penny (who introduced Wilson to theater) was well known in Pittsburgh. Both men ran the Black Horizon Theatre and Pittsburgh's Kuntu Writers Workshop.

After Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, his plays, especially Fences (1985), Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1986) and The Piano Lesson (1987), exhibited language that is like a series of tropes, consistently rooted in the black aesthetic; moving each play to the beginning of the 21st century.

Some years ago, I remember reading Sterling Stuckey's tribute to the novelist Frank London Brown. The loss of Wilson brought that accolade to mind. Both Brown and Wilson worked at a feverish pitch until the day they died or could no longer work due to illness. In Wilson's case, it was his work on Radio Golf, the final installment in his l0-play cycle, that occupied him in his final days.

Radio Golf premiered in May 2005 at the Yale Repertory Theatre (directed by Timothy Douglas) and again with substantial rewrites in August 2005 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles (directed by Kenny Leon). Wilson, who had appeared at every rehearsal of all nine of his premieres, showed up infrequently at Yale and not at all at the Mark Taper Forum. Something had to be said.

On August 26, 2005, Wilson revealed to a reporter friend, Christopher Rawson of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that he was dying of liver cancer. "It's not like poker, you can't throw your hand in" he said. "I've lived a blessed life. I'm ready."

For the Race

The other plays in the cycle include Jitney (1982), Two Trains Running (1990), Seven Guitars (1995), King Hedley II (1999) and Gem of the Ocean (2003). Wilson also won numerous awards for his plays, including a Tony Award, an Olivier Award, two Pulitzer Prizes and seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards. All these awards were bestowed on a man who dropped out of high school in disgust after being accused of plagiarism. He educated himself in his local library.

Wilson, an outspoken proponent of the Black Arts Movement and a race man, gave a blistering speech in 1996 at the 11th Biennial Theatre Communications Group (TCG) Conference at Princeton University titled "The Ground on Which I Stand." He said: "There are and have always been two distinct and parallel traditions in black art: that is, art that is conceived and designed to entertain white society, and art that feeds the spirit and celebrates the life of black America by designing its strategies for survival and prosperity."

In January 1997, Robert Brustein, founding director of the Yale Repertory and American Repertory Theatres, challenged Wilson over his speech at the TCG Conference. The two men "debated" in a face-off at New York's Town Hall.

In March 1998, the National Black Theatre Summit "On Golden Pond" convened for six days at Dartmouth College. Goals were put in place to empower black arts organizations and to form the African Grove Institute for the Arts.

August Wilson leaves us with an array of captivating black characters from Pittsburgh's Hill District: Elder Joseph Barlow, Hammond Wilks, Roosevelt, Becker, Tumbo, Fielding, Rena, Levee, Toledo, Cutler, Sterling, Wolf, Hambone, Gabe, Holloway, Aunt Ester, Loomis, Bynum, Rutherford B. Selig, Martha Penecost, Rose, Troy, Boy Willie, Winning Boy, Bernice, Avery, Lymon, Tonya, Ruby, Elmore, Stool Pidgeon, King Hedley, Canewell, Vera, Floyd Barton, Solly-Two-Kings, Citizen Barlow and Caesar. All are flamed within a context deeply rooted in the blues, in jazz, and in the history of black people, which includes the slave ships, the Middle Passage and the last century.

At the Edward Albee Last Frontier Theatre Conference in 2002 in Valdez, Alaska, Wilson talked about the characters he created. He often let them speak through him. Since there are no nights in Valdez, I listened and laughed from what he and I would call midnight until 7 A.M. Wilson was excited about finally being able to proceed with a film version of Fences, which would be produced by Scott Rudin and directed by Marion McClinton. At 7 A.M., we decided to meet for breakfast. Again, Wilson, the storyteller, told hilarious tales about experiences with Lou Bellamy (Penumbra Company Theatre); Ron Himes (St. Louis Black Repertory); Samuel French, Inc.; Sageworks and the new artistic director of Yale Repertory--(he took all August Wilson posters off the wall).

In a fitting coda, Jujamcyn recently renamed its Virginia Theatre the August Wilson Theatre. In a star-studded dedication on October 16, 2005, the beautiful marquee was unveiled. One week later, on October 23, 2005, the August Wilson Theatre was packed with people, who over the past 25 years became an integral part of Wilson's work. They came together and paid tribute by saying:

"August Wilson, we actors, actresses, directors, designers, technicians, publishers, critics, educators are a small percentage of the 20,000 or more who benefited from your 25 years of work and the completion of the cycle with Radio Golf. We thank you!"

The tribute was planned after the announcement of his illness. It was videotaped as a testament for his wife, Constanza Romero, their daughter, Azula Carmen Wilson, and his eldest daughter, Sakina Ansari.

Woodie King Jr. is producing director of New Federal Theatre in New York City, which produced the New York staging of Joe Turner's Come and Gone.


August Wilson: A Literary Companion by Mary Ellen Snodgrass McFarland & Company, June 2004 $35, ISBN 0-786-41903-2

August Wilson and Black Aesthetics by Dana Williams Palgrave Macmillan, August 2004 $59.95, ISBN 1-403-96406-8

Conversations With August Wilson Edited by Jackson R. Bryer and Mary C. Hartig University Press of Mississippi, March 2006 $50, ISBN 1-578-06830-4

I Ain't Sorry for Nothin' I Done: August Wilson's Process of Playwriting by Joan Herrington Limelight Editions, July 2004 $15, ISBN 0-879-10270-5

The Past As Present in the Drama of August Wilson by Harry Justin Elam University of Michigan Press, January 2004 $60, ISBN 0-472-11368-2

For a listing of additional books about August Wilson, please visit out Web site,
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Author:King, Woodie, Jr.
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Obituary
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2006
Previous Article:Hung: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America.
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