In Praise of August Wilson, America's Playwright

Commentator Betty Baye offers an appreciation of playwright August Wilson, who's recently revealed he has terminal liver cancer. Baye is a columnist with The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.

ED GORDON, host:

This week, the Los Angeles run of August Wilson's "Radio Gulf" comes to an end. It's a bittersweet moment, not only because this drama is the final installment in the Pulitzer Prize winner's 10-play cycle on the African-American experience, but because Wilson may be reaching his final act. Commentator Betty Baye offers this appreciation.


Ordinarily, it might be in bad form to eulogize someone while they're still alive, but August Wilson is a special case. Anyone who has ever sat in a darkened theater and not watched, but experienced, the cycles of black American life that this prolific playwright has breathed his life into--such feted works as "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "The Piano Lesson," "Jitney" and "Fences"--surely will understand why so many are taking the news of August Wilson's imminent demise so hard.

Wilson recently revealed that he's suffering from an inoperable form of liver cancer and has been given but a few scant months to live. I'm praying for a miracle. But the reality is that August Wilson is the miracle. He's a miracle of creativity, a man so unabashedly in love with black people and so keenly insightful about the complexities of being an African-American that he took upon himself the awesome challenge of writing 10 plays about the black experience, one for each decade of the 20th century. After seeing four of August Wilson's plays, one critic audaciously asked the playwright what else he intended to write about. `What else?' Wilson questioned, as if with four plays the subject of black American life had been exhausted. Some say that August Wilson is one of America's greatest playwrights. For me and many others, no caveat is needed. He's simply the best.

Like most people, August Wilson probably would wish to live a longer and even more productive life. But at 60 years old, like many of the characters in his plays, August Wilson is dealing with the hand that he's been dealt. `I've lived a blessed life. I'm ready,' August Wilson told the theater critic of his hometown paper, the Post-Gazette, in Pittsburgh. And if a dying August Wilson says that he's ready to let go, we also must be ready to let him go, but not without telling him while he still can hear it: Black America loves you, August Wilson. And we thank God for gifting you to tell our stories.

Wilson will leave, to celebrate his living, his wife, Constanza Romero, two daughters--Sakina Ansari and Azula--and a legion of friends and fans like me, who've been blessed beyond joy that August Wilson passed this way.

GORDON: Betty Baye is a columnist for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky.

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