By Linda Armstrong
A Brilliant, Gifted Black
Playwright Is Dying
I was so shocked and upset by a recent e-mail I received from an actress friend of mine, Ms. Ebony Jo-Ann. She forwarded me an article which spoke of the forthcoming death of one of America’s and indeed this world’s most gifted, talented, prolific playwrights, African-American-Mr. August Wilson.
At age 60, Mr. Wilson has been diagnosed with liver cancer, which has gone too far to be treated. He was given three to five months to live, according to an interview he did in August with The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He is using the time he has left to put the final touches on the last of the plays in his promised 10-play series sharing the experiences of African-Americans in this country during the 20th century. That play is Radio Gulf.
Although Mr. Wilson’s work will always distinguish him in our hearts and minds, there will also be physical proof on Broadway that this man was a great playwright when he becomes the first African-American to have a Broadway Theater named after him. Before he leaves this earth, the Virginia Theatre, located at 245 W. 52nd Street, will be renamed the August Wilson Theater. The new marquee will have a neon sign with the writer’s signature on it and will be unveiled on October 17, 2005. The theater is owned by Jujamcyn Theaters. The company will also set up a fund in Mr. Wilson’s name to bring disadvantaged young people to Broadway.
Just earlier this year, theater patrons had the opportunity-though a short-lived one-to experience his brilliance with Gem of the Ocean. Gem was one of the plays in the ten play series that Wilson said he would write and did, documenting the African-American experience in this country during the 20th century. Gem of the Ocean represented the 1900’s. Among Wilson’s others plays and decades represented, there’s 1910’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, 1920’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom-which also had a stint on Broadway recently,1930’s The Piano Lesson, 1940’s Seven Guitars, 1950’s Fences, 1960’s Two Trains Running, 1970’s Jitney, 1980’s King Hedley II and 1990’s Radio Gulf. Many people remember each of these plays, especially The Piano Lesson and Fences since they were Pulitzer Prizewinners for Drama. I have seen most of the ten plays and have been in awe of Mr. Wilson’s talent. His natural gift of storytelling is phenomenal. He is someone to be treasured and cherished.
Mr. Wilson, in addition to the renaming of the theater on October 17, will be publicly “THANKED” by the Broadway and Off-Broadway community, at a free, first-come, first-serve event on October 25th at his newly named theater at 3pm. The list of attendees reads like a Who’s Who of the business and includes actresses, actors, directors, technicians, designers and educators, all types of people from the profession that Wilson’s 21 years of works have impacted on. Some of the actors who have graced the stage in August Wilson productions have included Phylicia Rashad, Keith David, Ruben Santiago Hudson, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Whoopie Goldberg, Charles Dutton and Stephen Henderson, just to name a few.
I know the immense feeling that comes over me after seeing an August Wilson play. You always feel like you have to truly take the time to mull it over several times before you understand all the depth that is in it. So imagine, if one can feel that as a member of the audience what professionals who perform his work or have a part in its mounting must feel.
Over the years, Mr. Wilson has won all the awards imaginable for his plays including New York Drama Critic’s Circle Awards, Tony Awards, Whiting Writers’ Award, Outstanding Play Award from the American Theatre Critics, Drama Desk Awards, Pulitzer Prizes and Outer Critics Circle Awards. He has been named Artist of the Year by the Chicago Tribune, the paper of his hometown and received a Literary Lion Award from the New York Public Library. He has been given the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Award, the Clarence Muse Award and the Bush and Guggenheim Foundation fellowships.
Radio Gulf had its premiere in May at the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, Connecticut and has played in Los Angeles. It is scheduled to debut next year at the August Wilson Theater.
Hearing the news of Mr. Wilson’s impeding passing just cuts one to the heart and makes you wonder-why? But, thank God people know early enough to make sure that he is acknowledged and getting to realize how much he is worth while he is still here.
Two Big Shows Playing This Month
There are two productions currently playing. The Classical Theater of Harlem, located at The HSA Theater, 645 St. Nicholas Avenue near 141st Street, is presenting the Greek tragedy Medea, which will feature veteran actor Earle Hyman, April Thompson and Lawrence Winslow. The play is being brought back after playing in 2002. The all-Black cast will use original music, chant, dance and contemporary speech to deliver a 70- minute production. The show will run through October 23.
A Soldier’s Play by Charles Fuller is being performed Off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre. Presently in previews, it opens October 17 and stars Taye Diggs, Anthony Mackie and James McDaniel.