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Pain and joy are the emotions that August Wilson’s theatrical productions explored for more than two decades, providing a window to the struggles of being black in America.
The Pittsburgh native was 60 years old when he died Oct. 2 of liver cancer.
Weeks after his passing, Wilson was immortalized on Broadway as the marquee on the Virginia Theater was renamed for the famed playwright, reaffirming his status as an American legend.
His 10-part chronicle of black life — one for every decade of the 20th century — debuted on Broadway with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 1984, during a time when black culture was virtually ignored by Broadway.
“He exposed a whole history about slavery, violence, and romance,” says Leslie Uggams, the veteran actress who starred in Wilson’s King Hedley II. “It was just an extraordinary experience when you went to an August Wilson play. You left thinking.”
Wilson won two Pulitzer Prizes, a Tony Award, and seven New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards.
“He is bar none the Shakespeare of his day. What he did for American theatre period has been unequaled,” says actor Charles Dutton, who has been friends with the playwright for more than two decades. Wilson’s plays also provided a way for black talent to break into Broadway. “If you were a stage actor, the only way you got to Broadway was through an August Wilson play. His plays gave black actors dignified, honorable, human roles, and that was a rarity,” says Dutton, who credits Wilson with his success.
Wilson’s plays proved to mainstream America that black theater could not only be culturally relevant but commercially successful. Fences, starring James Earl Jones, grossed $11 million in a single year, a record for a nonmusical performance.