A Look at the Life of Playwright August Wilson

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson died Sunday, less than two months after he announced he had inoperable liver cancer. He leaves behind an astonishing body of work, plays that chronicled the black American experience in the 20th century.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson died yesterday less than two months after he announced he had inoperable liver cancer. He leaves behind a body of work that chronicles the black American experience in the 20th century. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this appreciation.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

Many ordinary black Americans tend not to go to the theater in droves. That's at least the conventional wisdom. It's said they often complain that the plays they're passing up have little relation to real life. But August Wilson's work was different. His people, residents of the black neighborhood in Pittsburgh where he grew up, speak in real cadence and connect the past to the present in ways that are immediate and real.

In an earlier interview with "Morning Edition," Wilson says his characters come to him unbidden. His job is to find out why and decide what to do with them.

Mr. AUGUST WILSON (Playwright): Characters start talking. You get them talking and then you sort of find out who they are, and you begin to construct scenes from--you know, from the dialogue. And the idea is that everything counts. Everything is there. Everything the character says is there for a reason, and I just have to find out why and find a place to put it, and, you know, how to use the thing that they said.

BATES: How and what they said reflected the idiom of the black working-class community, people often ignored by mainstream culture but who often yearned for things the middle class takes for granted. In this excerpt from "King Hedley IV," Wilson's character, Mister, describes how longing for a very mundane part of the middle-class life got him in deep trouble during a run-in with the police.

(Soundbite of "King Hedley II")

Unidentified Man: (As Mister) I always wanted to have my picture taken. I thought that'd make you somebody. I posed for the police. They told me I wasn't nothing but a sorry-ass from the--I said, `OK, just take my picture.' I asked the man could I order some for my family. That was the beginning of all the trouble. They put me in the hole for trying to be smart. He don't know I was serious.

BATES: Marion McClinton, who directed "King Hedley," says Wilson's characters, while largely invisible to larger white society, hold many of their same values.

Mr. MARION McCLINTON (Director, "King Hedley II"): The people that August writes about, the people that are in his plays, they don't have time to think about stuff like that. They try to get through from the beginning of the day to the end of the day, keep their integrity intact, keep their dignity intact, and to take care of their loved ones, which is basically what everybody in this country is trying to do.

BATES: Wilson's plays often start out as the theatrical equivalent of a doodle. He'd often sketch out preliminary ideas on throwaway pieces of paper--a napkin, for instance--and refine the idea over and over before he actually formalized the process by going to the next step.

Mr. WILSON: If you take and open your tablet, now you're officially writing and then, you know, you've got to write something important. So a lot of ideas on a lot of stuff I've written on the napkins have been the freer, looser stuff that I was just writing on a napkin and, you know, some of that--not all of it, of course, but some of it is really the gem of the play, the writing that took place when you weren't really writing.

BATES: From those napkins eventually sprang a cycle of 10 plays that traced the effects of slavery on the descendents of slaves. The biggest successes in the cycle were the Tony-winning "Fences," "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and "The Piano Lesson." His final play, "Radio Golf," just finished a run at the Mark Taper Forum here in Los Angeles. Next year it will go on to Seattle, Baltimore and other cities.

Wilson announced that he'd been given only months to live as "Radio Golf" was coming to the stage. Theatergoers were keenly aware that this 10th play represented not only the end of a theatrical cycle but the imminent end of Wilson's life. And, as usual, to the end he was refining his work.

Mr. WILSON: I don't write with a hammer and chisel, so I don't have any problem with cutting it, you know?

BATES: August Wilson died Sunday in Seattle. He was 60 years old. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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