Dramatic recollections of a playwright

The Department of Theatre Arts and Dance reflects on local (and national) talent August Wilson during his time of illness

Tatum Fjerstad

When May Mahala acted as a chauffer for award-winning playwright August Wilson during his visit to the University three years ago, the two talked.

He told her stories about race, about people, about life.

Now Wilson has inoperable cancer and doctors say he has less than five months to live.

Despite this, Mahala trusts that he remains the lively storyteller he was during his visit.

“He’s a very vivacious person, very energetic. And I imagine he still is,” said Mahala, 27, a theater graduate student.

Wilson, 60, is known for his contributions to African-American drama. He was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer in June, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Weeks after hearing this news, members of the University’s theater community are reflecting on the playwright’s impact and his time on campus.

Wilson visited the University in 2002. Here, he was awarded an honorary doctorate and led a symposium, meeting with English and theater students in small groups throughout the day.

As he received the honorary doctorate at the Rarig Center, Wilson spoke to 300 people from the University and the community.

“He used no notes and yet his speech was passionate and moving. It was very impressive,” said David Bernstein, coordinator of development and community relations of the department of theatre arts and dance.

After his speech, the audience shared thoughts and comments with Wilson. Students asked questions and old friends reminisced about good times at coffee shops when Wilson lived in St. Paul, attendees said.

“He’s a really kind and warm person and just by the way he speaks you can tell he’s a real openhearted storyteller,” said Mahala, a recipient of the August Wilson Fellowship.

The University has produced all but two of Wilson’s plays, said Lou Bellamy, who uses Wilson’s works to teach theater and directing classes at the University.

Bellamy, who is on sabbatical from teaching, is also the founder and artistic director of Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul.

Bellamy became fast friends with Wilson when the playwright lived in St. Paul from 1978 to 1990.

“When (Wilson) first got off the plane when he moved here in 1978, he came straight from the airport to Penumbra, sat in the audience and wondered if he would be good enough to write something to be performed on that stage,” Bellamy said.

He was. The Penumbra soon produced Wilson’s first play, “Black Bart and the Sacred Hills.”

Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for his plays “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson.” Like much of his work, these plays document the afflictions and ambitions of blacks in Pittsburgh’s Hill District where Wilson grew up.

Despite his illness, Wilson has continued writing. He is working on “Radio Golf,” the last of his epic set of 10 plays spanning the 20th century, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“It’s not like poker; you can’t throw your hand in,” Wilson told the newspaper by phone from Seattle. “I’ve lived a blessed life. I’m ready.”

Bellamy doesn’t want to talk about Wilson as though he’s already dead, he said.

“Even in the last act of his life, which I refuse to believe it’s so until it is, he has had a degree of dignity,” he said. When Wilson dies, Bellamy said, he “will have lost a friend. No one can predict the loss of a genius. But no one should be quick to count him out.”