Sunday, October 2, 2005

August Wilson 1945-2005

One of America’s best playwrights has died.

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.

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His 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.

Wilson’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.

I had the honor of meeting Mr. Wilson when The William Inge Theatre Festival honored him in 1996.

We had heard rumors that it would be tough to get Mr. Wilson to come to Independence and be honored by a festival that was in the middle of one of the reddest states in the union. We were told that he was prickly and tempermental and didn’t warm up to people.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Mr. Wilson was friendly, engaging, and participated actively in all the events. He sat in the hotel lobby until one a.m. at our famous after-party after-party. He listened to readings of new works and coached young actors who were understandably petrified to be reading the words of the playwright in his presence.

In his acceptance speech at the tribute to his work, he acknowledged that the Festival and Independence had taken a step forward by honoring its first African-American playwright. “By honoring me, you honor yourselves,” he said.

I feel safe in saying that Mr. Wilson’s work will honor him and American theatre for generations to come.