Sunday, October 02, 2005

An august playwright

August Wilson - 1945-2005

Sad news tonight for anyone who loves theater, storytelling or bold, fearless artists. Playwright August Wilson died Saturday at the age of 60.

Eerily, Wilson just completed a cycle of 10 plays chronicling the African-American experience in the 20th century, with a different play set in each decade. I just saw RADIO GOLF, the final installment, set in the 1990s, at the Mark Taper Forum in August. It was an inspirational work, filled with Wilson's signature searing dialogue and soaring, poetic monologues.

In August it was announced that he had been diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer. But one always holds out hope. How sad to read the obituaries already appearing on the Web. This was a man with an incredible talent for telling stories and giving life and voice to characters not often given center stage in America.

I left the performance of RADIO GOLF feeling inspired to write again. Wilson's largely self-taught skills were considerable. He could combine the vernacular of the street with poetic examinations of life, relationships, history and politics. His characters could hold you for extended exhortations on race, responsibility and relationship, or level you with a single brutal sentence.

Aside from his legacy as a writer and chronicler of American history, Wilson was also inspiring for his devotion to the theater. This was a man who could have made a fortune writing for the screen, but he held to his belief that it was in the theater -- where actors and audience share the same space, air and DNA -- that true communion could take place.

As I left the Taper after RADIO GOLF, the final play in Wilson's monumental cycle, I overheard a patron ask Gordon Davidson, the theater's former artistic director, "What is he going to do now?" How sad that we'll never know.