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Playwright August Wilson, a Master Storyteller, Dies at Age 60


     August Wilson, a master storyteller and playwright who fashioned his tales of the Black struggle in 20th-century America into a monumental 10-play cycle, died October 2 at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, less than two months after he announced he had inoperable liver cancer. He was 60.

      “He was a poet and a musician with words,” said Gordon Davidson, who 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.”

      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 grappled 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.”

      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. 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.

Associated Press

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