Come and gone

October 04, 2005

AUGUST WILSON once said that jazz and blues music were an affirmation and celebration of the value and worth of the African-American spirit. Let us add a coda to that thought: So are the plays of August Wilson. The playwright's death Sunday is a tremendous loss to the American cultural repertory. He ranks among our greatest writers, his prize-winning plays offering a unique, vivid and powerful insight into the contemporary black experience.

Mr. Wilson often described himself as a poet who turned into a playwright. Born in Pittsburgh's Hill District, Mr. Wilson grew up poor and dropped out of high school. At age 16, he worked menial jobs and educated himself at the public library before becoming involved in a local theater. Along the way, he developed an uncanny ear for the vernacular and a gift for storytelling. He saw theater as a chance to raise consciousness and effect social change.

And so he did. Racism and the legacy of slavery haunt Mr. Wilson's dramas like Banquo's ghost. For his characters, life is usually defined by struggle and there are no easy resolutions. But his plays also capture the richness of the culture, the humor and music and its connection to the past. Mr. Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize twice, for Fences in 1986 and four years later for The Piano Lesson. But the greater accomplishment may be the sum of the parts - the two plays are part of a 10-play cycle tracing the black experience decade-by-decade through the 20th century.

We grieve the loss of Mr. Wilson, who was only 60 years old when he died of liver cancer at a Seattle hospital. But we take comfort in knowing that his brilliant plays will continue to be heard on stages, small and large, for generations to come.

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