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Staff Report

NEW YORK, 9 October 2005 —Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright August Wilson, whose epic 10-play cycle chronicling the black experience in 20th-century America died on 2 October of liver cancer at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, the Associate Press reported. He was 60.

On 26 August 2005, he told his hometown newspaper, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that he had been diagnosed with liver cancer in June of 2005 and given 3 to 5 months to live because his illness was inoperable. Wilson's plays each set in a different decade, depicted the comedy and tragedy of the effects of slavery on succeeding generations of black Americans.

Wilson's most famous plays are Fences (1985) (which won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award), The Piano Lesson (1990) (a Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award), Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Wilson put Pittsburgh and its Hill District on the map in that nine of the ten-play cycle are set in Pittsburgh where he was born (1945) and raised,  the son of a German immigrant and an African American woman from North Carolina. 

In an appreciation published on 4 October, New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley wrote:

People talk about an artist having an eye. But with playwrights, it's the ear that counts. Mr. Wilson had a peerless pair. His writing comes closer to the sweep of Shakespearean music than that of any of his contemporaries. Edward Albee creates intense and elegant chamber pieces; David Mamet, machine-gun jazz; Sam Shepard, rhapsodic plainsong; Harold Pinter, monastic chants; and Tom Stoppard, jaunty concertos. But these days only Mr. Wilson has written plays that sound like grand opera - and it is no contradiction to say that it is opera rooted in the blues.

Mr. Wilson's majestic cycle of 10 plays of the African-American journey through the 20th century, each set in a different decade, doesn't just sound operatic. Even though his characters are almost all poor and socially powerless, their stories bring to minds the gods of Wagner and the doomed royalty of Verdi.

RecommendedPittsburgh Post-Gazette Obituary and articles from the Post-Gazette archives in seven categories, covering Wilson and his career.

Photo: August Wilson in 2001
Courtesy of Associated Press

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