Pulitzer-winning scribe has liver cancer

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The theater community reacted with shock and sadness to the news that two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, 60, has liver cancer. According to Wilson in a story published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Friday, doctors told him he had three to five months to live.

“It’s not like poker; you can’t throw your hand in,” he told the Pittsburgh daily. “I’ve lived a blessed life. I’m ready.”

Wilson’s longtime producer and friend Ben Mordecai died of cancer in May. Mordecai’s death came soon after the world preem of Wilson’s “Radio Golf” at Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, Conn.

The play was the final work in Wilson’s 10-play decade-by-decade chronicle of the African-American experience in the 20th century. It has since opened at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, where it runs through Sept. 18, and is next scheduled to play Baltimore’s CenterStage in March.

A tribute to Mordecai is set for Sept. 19 at Yale; Wilson was expected to attend.

Wilson spent the two months after learning of his illness working on a major rewrite of the last piece in his play cycle, although his health prevented him from going to Los Angeles for rehearsals of “Radio Golf.” It was the first time he did not physically participate in the rehearsal period for one of his plays, which traditionally have been developed and reshaped during regional productions before arriving on Broadway.

However, Gordon Davidson, founding artistic director of L.A.’s Center Theater Group, which is producing “Radio Golf,” said even while absent, Wilson was very much involved in the staging, directed by Kenny Leon. “He knew exactly what was going on and he has a clear idea about how he wanted to work on it following the Yale production,” Davidson said.

The spring production in Baltimore is to be followed by two additional regional theater productions — details of which will be announced shortly — before “Radio Golf” goes to New York, Davidson said.

Doctors at the U. of Washington Medical Center in Seattle discovered Wilson’s condition in June and recommended immediate chemoembolization — cancer-fighting drugs injected directly into the tumor — followed by a liver transplant, according to the Pittsburgh paper. But the disease proved too advanced for treatment.

Off Broadway’s Signature Theater, which selects a playwright to honor in a seasonlong series, is scheduled to focus on Wilson for the 2006-07 season.

“Without question, we’ll have to work with August to craft a new season plan that we all feel best honors his work,” Signature a.d. James Houghton said.

As it stands, the theater’s slate includes “How I Learned What I Learned” in late 2006 and the world premiere of a still-untitled work in spring 2007.

“One of the things I’m proudest of in my career is producing so much of August’s work here,” Seattle Repertory Theater managing director Benjamin Moore told the Seattle Times. “I’m going to believe that since August is such a feisty guy, he’ll meet this health challenge like he’s met the challenge of writing an extraordinary cultural history.”

(Gordon Cox and David Rooney in New York contributed to this report.)

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