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Artists We Love: August Wilson

For many, the only relationship they have with August Wilson is through movies based on his plays: The Piano Lesson, Oscar®-winning Fences and most recently Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, starring Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman, both nominated for Academy Awards® in their roles.

Those movies are just a slice of the breadth of work the playwright produced before he died of liver cancer at age 60 in October 2005.

Photo: The Estate of August Wilson

Behind those representative films, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner wrote a legacy of works — the Century Cycle — a 10-play series, spanning decades of African American life in the United States, largely in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he was born. Those plays are: Jitney, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, King Hedley II, Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf.

His work, which includes a variety of themes that touch on all lives — honor, duty and love — still has impact and continues to prompt conversations, even though he didn’t intend his work to be political.

“I don’t write particularly to effect social change,”, he said. “I believe writing can do that, but that’s not why I write. I work as an artist. All art is political in the sense that it serves someone’s politics.”

His works also draw top-notch talent that want to speak his lyrical language: Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, Charles S. Dutton, Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Courtney Vance, Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson and many others.

Here are some tidbits about and quotes from Wilson that peel back the layers of one of the most influential playwrights of the last 100 years:

Wilson’s childhood home in Pittsburgh.
Fourteen days after Wilson’s death, the Broadway theatre located at 245 West 52nd Street in midtown Manhattan was renamed in his honor. (Photo: Jackie Cotton)
James Earl Jones and Mary Alice in the original Yale Repertory Theatre production of Fences. (Photo: Yale Repertory Theatre)
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