August Wilson, 60, whose plays about 20th-century black life were among the most celebrated of modern dramas, died yesterday at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, his city of residence. He disclosed in August that he had inoperable liver cancer.
Starting with “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom” (1984), a story of perseverance among exploited black jazz musicians in the 1920s, Wilson gained attention as one of the most vital and provocative literary voices of his generation.
He received two Pulitzer Prizes: for “Fences” (1987), about a ballplayer-turned-trash-collector who comes into conflict with his family; and “The Piano Lesson” (1990), about a struggle over the fate of a symbolic heirloom. “Fences” also won a Tony Award for Best Play.
On stage, Wilson created a succession of characters — musicians, aging athletes from the Negro Leagues, cabdrivers, ex-cons, matriarchs and spirits — who were proud yet angry about their circumstances. With poignant soliloquies that were his hallmark, he brought their oversized passions to often sad, rage-filled climaxes that were commentaries on their life choices and the legacy of slavery.
Wilson set each of the 10 plays, which formed a cycle, in a different decade of the 20th century, illuminating what he saw as a perpetual struggle for virtually all African Americans.
Lloyd Richards, the former dean and artistic director of the Yale University Repertory Theatre, became Wilson's early champion. “He has created a body of material for black actors and black theater people to look to,” Richards told an interviewer. “There has been a lack of material on the library shelves on black theater and a lack of theater by blacks. . . . Having August's body of work in there leads people to an examination of theater and an examination of themselves in theater.”
Neither Wilson nor his work was universally beloved. Some critics were repelled by what they called the monotony of his themes and the plays' unrestrained dialogue. He replied: “My plays are talky; I say shut up and listen. They are about black men talking, and in American society you don't too often have that because the feeling is: 'What do black men have to say?' "
Wilson had sharp exchanges with his detractors. The most notable was with Robert Brustein, a former drama critic and director of the Yale Repertory and American Repertory theaters.
After a year of jousting in print, they met at New York's Town Hall in 1997 for a debate titled “On Cultural Power.” The most contentious issue was colorblind casting, which Brustein advocated on the grounds that anything else was racial separatism. Wilson disagreed.
He told the London Guardian in 2002: “Take an all-black ‘Death of a Salesman’ — that's not the way black folks deal with their problems, it's not their language, it's not their relationship from father to son. We have a different history, different necessities. A guy can't go round and be a traveling salesman in the 1940s and be black. He'd get lynched. What is the point of putting black folks on stage as if they didn't have any stories of their own to tell?”
Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945. He was the fourth of six children and was raised in the black Hill district of Pittsburgh. His father, a white German immigrant baker, was an angry and sporadic presence. His mother, who was black, supported the children with janitorial jobs and welfare. She divorced Wilson's father to marry David Bedford, who served as a template for many Wilson patriarchs: a former athlete who serves a jail sentence and becomes a community figure while working as a menial laborer.
At school, Wilson had little break from the miseries of home. Racist slurs were left on his desk at a Catholic school; he grew bored when he transferred to a vocational school; and in what he regarded as the final humiliation, a black teacher in ninth grade accused him of plagiarism for his paper about Napoleon.
“The fact that he was a self-made man, that he was a lieutenant in the army and became the emperor, I liked that,” Wilson told the New Yorker magazine in 2001.
At 15, Wilson quit high school and sought his own education at the local “Negro” section, where he devoured books by Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and Langston Hughes. Those authors and the emerging Black Power movement of the 1960s were “the kiln in which I was fired,” he later said.
After leaving school, Wilson joined the Army but left after being irritated by its regulations.
He worked as a short-order cook and dishwasher while trying to write poems, usually with little success. His first published poem, an ode to boxer Muhammad Ali, ran in Black World magazine in 1969. With friends, he started a theater group that mostly consisted of poetry readings to the beat of conga and bongo drums.
He was seen as an eccentric around the Hill, wearing a coat and tie, smoking a pipe and affecting an accent in honor of Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet he admired. He found other heroes over the years, including Bessie Smith, whose blues records he called “the best literature we have,” and painter Romare Bearden, whose work presented black life “on its own terms” and “ennobled it, affirmed its value and exalted its presence,” Wilson said.
On the page, those goals failed him at first. He tried writing a play, getting so far as the first line: “Hey man, what's happening?” The second line was, “Nothing.”
In 1978, he moved to St. Paul on the advice of a theater friend. To be away from Pittsburgh's black neighborhoods gave him the clarity of distance to hear the cadences of his home town. He wrote what would become the first play in his cycle, “Jitney,” about gypsy cabdrivers in the Hill neighborhood. The work was produced in Pittsburgh.
Seeking wider recognition, he submitted works to the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Conn. Lloyd Richards, then artistic director of the conference, singled out Wilson's draft of “Ma Rainey” in 1982 and they worked together to refine the play. Richards directed his subsequent plays at Yale and on Broadway up through “Seven Guitars” (1996), a tragedy about a dead blues guitarist and his mourning friends.
Wilson's other plays included “Joe Turner's Come and Gone” (1988), about a boardinghouse and its ghosts; “Two Trains Running” (1992), about a historic neighborhood diner that faces redevelopment; “King Hedley II” (2001), about an ex-con who tries to find work under unforgiving circumstances; and “Gem of the Ocean” (2004), set at the turn of the last century, about a mystical and ancient woman named Aunt Esther who can wash souls.
Shortly before his death, he completed a play called “Radio Golf,” set in the Hill district in 1997.
Wilson's works were popular and regularly produced in Washington. In the past five years, “Two Trains Running” and “King Hedley II” were staged at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and “Ma Rainey'' was performed at Arena Stage. Each play drew unusually high numbers of African Americans to those venues, observers said.
Regarded as the most prominent black playwright on Broadway since Lorraine Hansberry, author of “A Raisin in the Sun” (1959), Wilson was more often compared to Eugene O'Neill or Shakespeare for his scope. Later in his career, he told a reporter that his play cycle was coincidental until one day in the mid-1980s, when he asked himself, “Why don't I just continue to do that?”
His marriages to Brenda Burton and Judy Oliver ended in divorce.
Survivors include his third wife, costume designer Constanza Romero, whom he married in 1994; a daughter from his first marriage; and a daughter from his third marriage.
Wilson considered most activities other than playwriting a waste of time, including studying or watching other plays. “I haven't read many plays,” he once said. “I don't go to many plays, so I don't have all that in my head about what does or doesn't make a play. I come up with my own idea of what it is, since I'm not sure even what the definitions mean.”
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