RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
August Wilson died yesterday in Seattle. At 60 years old, he was one of America's foremost playwrights with a particular mission: to chronicle African-American life. Writing one play for each decade of the 20th century, August Wilson had just finished "Radio Golf," his 10th and final play, when he announced last summer that he would soon die from liver cancer. Marcie Sillman of member station KUOW has this remembrance.
MARCIE SILLMAN reporting:
Some people ease into their artistic careers, but August Wilson could pinpoint the exact moment he decided to become a writer.
Mr. AUGUST WILSON (Playwright): I started my career April 1st, 1965. I was, like, 20 years old and I wrote a paper for my sister on Robert Frost called "Sandberg(ph)." And she sent me $20. I went down to the Curran typewriter store(ph) on Ebony Avenue(ph) and bought this old Royal typewriter and brought it home and plunked it on the kitchen table and said, `I'm a writer.'
SILLMAN: Not too many years before, Wilson had dropped out of his Pittsburgh high school after a white teacher accused him of plagiarism. Wilson said it only made him more determined. He spent his days in the public library where he fell in love with poetry. After co-founding Pittsburgh's Black Horizon Theater, he wrote his first plays. He said they weren't great.
Mr. WILSON: For a long while, I didn't value the way in which black people talked. I thought in order to make art out of it you had to change it and so I was--in some of the earlier one-acts, it was a heightened sense of poetic language like, `Terror hangs over the night like a hawk,' you know? Well, you won't find that in my plays today.
SILLMAN: Wilson credited singer Bessie Smith and the blues with turning his attention to the lives and language of the people around him. He wrote "Jitney," a story of Gypsy cab drivers in Pittsburgh, in 1982. He called it his first realistic play.
(Soundbite from "Jitney")
(Soundbite of laughing; phone ringing)
Unidentified Man: Posum(ph). East Lebanon. Where about in East Lebanon? That'll be $4. Lady, I don't care what nobody else charges. That's a $4--all right.
SILLMAN: "Jitney" was rejected twice by the O'Neil playwrights festival. So Wilson wrote "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." It went to Broadway and won him his first Pulitzer Prize. Wilson won his second Pulitzer for "Fences," the playwright's biggest commercial success. Each of his plays covered a different decade of the 20th century. August Wilson lived long enough to see his last "Radio Golf" reach the stage. It was directed in Los Angeles by Kenny Leon. The director says future generations will understand the importance of August Wilson's artistic contributions.
Mr. KENNY LEON (Director): And they'll know that he was self-taught and that he won two Pulitzer Prizes and that he wrote about the people who had no voice and he wrote about bringing all Americans closer together if we would just listen and try to understand each other and he made a difference and he leaves huge footprints.
SILLMAN: August Wilson moved to Seattle in 1990. Two years ago, he created a one-man show for Seattle Repertory Theatre based on recollections from his youth. He remembered challenging a bartender to a duel after the man insulted Wilson's girlfriend. The bartender pulled his shotgun and Wilson headed for the door vowing, like MacArthur, to return.
Mr. WILSON: Thirty years later, they're doing "Piano Lesson" in Pittsburgh and the same guys, like, working there. And I go in the workshop and I'll see someone, `Oh, Mr. Wilson, would you sign my poster for me?' you know? Boy, life's come a long way.
SILLMAN: Later this month, a Broadway theater will be renamed for August Wilson. The late playwright shares that honor with such theatrical giants as Eugene O'Neill, Richard Rodgers and Helen Hayes.
For NPR News, I'm Marcie Sillman in Seattle.