Light in August 

The late August Wilson distilled a century into 10 plays

I don't recall that playwright August Wilson ever used the death of Moses as an allegory in one of his plays, but it's the kind of tale the playwright likes to evoke. Moses led the people of Israel to the borders of the Promised Land, but God denied him entry following a prideful episode in the desert. Writing about America's formerly enslaved black population across the 20th century, Wilson frequently traded in Old Testament imagery, tragic twists of fate and the internal challenges of a newly liberated people.

Moses' fate finds an eerie echo in Wilson's own experience -- almost. For the past 25 years, the playwright crafted an enormously ambitious cycle of plays, nearly all set in his native Pittsburgh. Each represents a different decade of the 20th century, and eight have been produced at the Alliance Theatre and other Atlanta playhouses.

In August, during rewrites of the final installment, Radio Golf, Wilson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he was suffering from terminal liver cancer. The 60-year-old playwright died of the disease Oct. 2.

In a sense, Wilson has already seen the completion of his life's work. Radio Golf had its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre in spring 2005, and last month the play completed a run, directed by Atlanta's Kenny Leon, at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum.

Wilson usually didn't consider his plays finished until they'd undergone extensive rewrite during the out-of-town runs that preceded their premieres. Leon says that the playwright, well aware of his failing health, put the writing of Radio Golf "into quicker gear."

Unfortunately, Wilson was too ill to travel to rehearsals at the Mark Taper Forum. Instead, Leon frequently commuted between Los Angeles and Seattle, where Wilson lived, to discuss changes. Leon incorporated some of Wilson's rewrites into Radio Golf's final week of production.

"The center of my professional life" is how the former artistic director of the Alliance Theatre describes Wilson. Leon directed Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone for his first show as an Alliance staffer, and the playwright granted the Alliance rights to his plays while they were still running on Broadway.

Wilson productions were cornerstones of Leon's tenure at the Alliance and significant cultural events in the city, drawing crossover audiences while raising the profile of theater for, by and about African-Americans. It was no surprise that Leon picked Wilson's first Pulitzer Prize-winner, Fences, as the inaugural play of his True Colors Theatre Company.

Acting in the Chicago production of the cycle's ninth play, The Gem of the Ocean, and then directing the play's Broadway debut brought Leon closer to Wilson's creative inner circle. Leon will shepherd Radio Golf for its next productions, still being finalized, at Seattle Repertory in early 2006, then Baltimore, Chicago and eventually Broadway. Now Wilson's epitaph, Radio Golf concludes the 10-play cycle with a question mark: How much might have Wilson changed the play had he lived longer?

Leon hopes True Colors will stage The Gem of the Ocean in Atlanta in 2006. He also has ambitions to remount Wilson's 10-play cycle in New York. He points to the sheer scope of Wilson's cycle as unique in American theater. "No one has come close to achieving what he's done in his cycle of plays except Shakespeare. Eugene O'Neill didn't do it. Arthur Miller didn't do it."

Wilson's most lasting achievement may be the musicality of his language: Whenever his characters open their mouths, they celebrate the African-American vernacular, from earthy humor to biblical spirituality. Perhaps it's more useful to compare Wilson to the genius practitioners of Delta blues or bebop jazz than O'Neill or Miller.

Individually, Wilson's plays invite some criticism. His rambling stories and typically large casts can fall into repetitive patterns, and he too often fell back on awkward infusions of magic realism and holy fool characters, some of whom are nonetheless quite memorable. My favorite is Hambone from Two Trains Running. His only, oft-repeated line, "I want my ham," perfectly conveys the writer's trademark comedy and pathos.

If Wilson's plays aren't as uniformly superb as, say, his second Pulitzer-winner, The Piano Lesson, they comprise an already timeless piece of Americana. Not long after Wilson acknowledged his illness, New York's Jujamcyn Theatres announced that it would change the name of its Virginia Theater on 52nd Street to the August Wilson Theatre, making him the first African-American to have a Broadway playhouse named after him.

Just as a rising tide raises all boats, so did Wilson's achievements uplift others. His popularity at regional theaters opened the door for the next generation of African-American playwrights, including Atlanta's Pearl Cleage. Having accomplished so much, August Wilson more than earned his passage to the Promised Land. Which might look just a little bit like Pittsburgh.

Off Script is an occasional column on the Atlanta theater scene.


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