August Wilson, Great Playwright, Dies
The great playwright, August Wilson, died over the weekend at the age of 60. He will be missed as a tremendous representative of black history and literature, but his talent was universal. A New York Times headline today said he "revealed lives as sagas of nobility." That was no exaggeration..
I was fortunate last month to see Wilson's play, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. It was the strongest play at Ashland this year, and played time after time to sellout crowds in The New Theatre, getting many standing ovations.
By September, word had spread that Wilson was dying of liver cancer. One afternoon, after the play, I ran into one of the actors walking outside.
"We're all doing our best, every performance," he remarked to me. "We're trying to honor the old man. We're honored to be acting in one of his plays."
"Ma Rainey" was Wilson's first prominently-produced play in a series of 10 examining life in black America and it was a masterful depiction of talent prevailing over white racism. It had an edge of anger that marked Wilson's work, yet it had a blues background that was classic and brought tears to the eyes of many in his audiences.
The New York Times obituary by Charles Isherwood said that when "Ma Rainey" debuted in 1984, it "announced the arrival of a major talent, fully arrived."
"Reviewing the play's Broadway premiere for The New York Times, Frank Rich wrote that in 'Ma Rainey,' Mr. Wilson 'sends the entire history of black America crashing down upon our heads.
"This play is a searing inside account of what white racism does to its victims," Mr. Rich continued, "and it floats on the same authentic artistry as the blues music it celebrates."
In an appreciation today by Ben Brantley in the New York Times, the critic states of Wilson, "His writing comes closer to the sweep of Shakespearian music than that of any of his contemporaries...These days only Mr. Wilson has written plays that sound like grand opera amd it is no contradiction to say that it is opera rooted in the blues."
Yale's Repertory Theatre performed many of Wilson's plays, but they also had many productions on Broadway, off-Broadway and in America's great regional theatres which recognized talent when they saw it.
Wilson won seven New York Drama Critics' Circle awards, a Tony Award for 1987's "Fences" and two Pulitzer Prizes for "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson," from 1990.
All but one of his plays were centered in Pittsburgh's black community. His second play, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," dated there in 1911, may have been his masterpiece.
The nation was honored to have a playwright as great as August Wilson. He was one of a kind.