Today I received several very sad e-mails about August Wilson, the acclaimed 60-year-old playwright and poet, whose 10-play "Pittsburgh Cycle" of African-American life in the 20th century represents one of the greatest achievements in American and Black American dramatic literature. Each of the messages mentioned that Wilson is dying of pancreatic cancer, and may only have a short time left.
According to Christopher Rawson's article in today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Playwright Wilson says he's dying," the author's doctors discovered his illness in June and ordered immediate intensive treatment. Unfortunately the cancer is so advanced that Wilson's doctors told him probably had only three to five months left. Just before he received his prognosis, Wilson had just completed a rewrite of his most recent play, Radio Golf. Set in 1997, Radio Golf is the last in the cycle and deals with real estate developers seeking to sell off land belonging to Aunt Esther, one of Wilson's recurring characters and cultural touchstones. The play premiered in April at the Yale Repertory Theater, and is playing now in a new production, to end in mid-September, at Los Angeles's Mark Taper Forum. Wilson is so ill, however, that he's had to miss rehearsals for the new production, the first time he's had to do so in his career.
A native of Pittsburgh, where nine of his plays are set and longtime resident of Seattle, Wilson has received the highest praise for two particularly memorable dramas: Fences, an unforgettable generational story of memory and regret that had a celebrated run on Broadway, starred actor James Earl Jones and received a raft of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and my favorite, the lyrical Depression-era drama The Piano Lesson, which received the same award three years later in 1990. Other notable plays include Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, and Jitney. Like Radio Golf, all of these dramas are part of the ten-play series that focuses collectively on African-American life in the 20th century.
Each play focuses on a different decade, and all combine historical references, heightened poetic language and vernacular speech, realistic and symbolic dramaturgy, and larger-than-life characters, to varying degrees of effectiveness. All are also grounded in the rich, material aspects of Black American experience, especially Black music. Aesthetically, the works follow in the long tradition of mainstream American dramatic literature, showing the influences of Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Lorraine Hansberry, while also incorporating supernatural elements and subcurrents of the polemical discourse of Black drama that emerged in the works of playwrights like Ed Bullins, Woodie King, and Amiri Baraka. Chicago Tribune critic Lawrence Bommer has written that Wilson has "created the most complete cultural chronicle since Balzac wrote his vast Human Comedy, an artistic whole that has grown even greater than its prize-winning parts." Wilson developed and premiered a number of his plays of the 1980s at the Yale Repertory Theater in conjunction with the outstanding director and former dean of Yale Drama School Lloyd Richards.
Wilson is the most honored living Black playwright and one of the most celebrated living American dramatists. In addition to his Pulitzer Prizes, he has received Tony Award nominations for all of his plays appearing on Broadway and the award itself for Fences, an Olivier Award, seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, Guggenheim fellowships, a National Humanities Medal, and the 2003 Heinz Award in Arts and Humanities. I'm not sure how well known he is outside the United States, though the highly lauded young Black British playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah has cited Wilson as a major influence.
Throughout his career Wilson has been a stalwart supporter of numerous arts institutions and organizations, including small, community-based programs like the Cave Canem Black poets' workshops. He's also been an outspoken critic and activist for Black theater, his aesthetic vision, more so than his aesthetic practice, drawing upon political notions of an independent and celebratory Black Art that became dominant in the late 1960s and early 1970s. More than once he has challenged the inflammatory and dismissive statements of former Harvard professor, American Repertory Theater director and New Republic critic Robert Brustein, who has repeated criticized Wilson's plays on aesthetical and ideological grounds, and characterized what he's called Wilson's position of "victimization." The two engaged in a famously contentious debate, moderated by playwright, actor and professor Anna Deveare Smith, in 1997 at New York's Town Hall.
As he works against the clock on a range of projects, Wilson told the Post-Gazette, "It's not like poker, you can't throw your hand in...I've lived a blessed life. I'm ready." I will be praying for him, and urge you to offer up good thoughts and wishes for him and his family.
At the end of my freshman year of college, a young pitcher emerged to turn the world of major league baseball upside down. His name was Dwight Gooden, he pitched for the New York Mets, and for a season, he made me forget that the National League team I followed, the St. Louis Cardinals, had stumbled to third place in their division after winning a thrilling World Series the previous year. That spring, summer and fall of 1984, the 19-year-old Gooden electrified fans like me with his dazzling arsenal, posting a 17-9 won-loss record with 276 strikeouts in 218.3 innings, 7 complete games, 3 shutouts, and a 2.60 ERA. At the end of the season, he was named National League Rookie of the Year, and it was evident that the Mets had found the successor to their first great hurler, Hall of Famer Tom Seaver. As if Gooden's gifts weren't enough, in the outfield the Mets fielded one of the league's other great young superstar, homerun hitter and 1983 NL Rookie of the Year Darryl Strawberry.
The next year, Gooden, who earned the name "Doctor K" and then just "Doc Gooden," took his talent and skills to the next level, earning the rare Triple Crown of pitching, finishing with the best record, a remarkable 24-4, the most strikeouts, 268, and the lowest ERA, a miniscule 1.53. He also threw 16 complete games and 8 shutouts (the Cardinals' John Tudor incredibly beat him in this category by throwing 10!), inconceivable numbers for today's starters. His first two years were so extraordinary it seemed that would dominate the league for decades to come. In 1986, Gooden, who again had an excellent season, was the centerpiece of an amazing team that won 108 games and the NL pennant, and that went on to defeat the Boston Red Sox in one of the most iconic World Series ever played; in Game 6, Red Sox first baseman Billy Buckner erred and let Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson's grounder skip through his legs, allowing Mets third baseman Ray Knight to score the game-winning run. That proved to be the turning point, and the Mets took the league trophy.
By 1991, at the age of 26, his stats were on the decline. (Strawberry's too fell off.) A few years later, he had moved on to the Yankees, and then to Cleveland, before final stints with Houston, Tampa Bay, and, for an eyeblink, the Yankees again. By the end of 2000, he was no longer on anyone's major league roster and what had begun as a Hall of Fame-caliber career ended without fanfare, as he retired with a 194-112 record and an 3.51 ERA. By then, it was clear that drugs had taken a heavy toll on Gooden's gifts. In 1994, while still with the Mets, he was suspended for 60 days in 1994 for testing positive for cocaine, and again tested positive for cocaine again while on suspension, which led the league to bar him from pitching for the entire 1995 season. Like Strawberry, success, the demands of carrying a team, peer and societal pressures, and great wealth had destroyed him; he'd started taking drugs in the late 1980s as his star soared, and, as recent events sadly testify, he's never recovered.
Today Gooden appeared in court, his mother at his side, having surrendered after going missing for four days following his flight from police after a DUI stop. Mitch Stacy, in an AP article on Yahoo! News describes him as looking "gaunt," which the TV images of him confirmed. Actually, he looked weary and ill. He is to be jailed without bail until October, and can enter a substance-abuse facility if a bed becomes available. In March of this year, he was arrested and charged with hitting his girlfriend in the face during a quarrel. Yahoo! points out that in 2002, "Gooden was arrested by Tampa police...on a drunken driving charge, but later pleaded guilty to reckless driving and received a year's probation" (see photo below).
The problems don't end with Gooden, though; his 19-year-old son, Dwight Gooden, Jr., is also in jail after violating his probation on a cocaine possession conviction, and he faces additional charges police claimed to have found marijuana and bullets in his car as he was parked outside a nightclub. Gooden's nephew, Yankees star outfielder Gary Sheffield, publicly commented the other day that there was nothing the family could do for Gooden at this point. Today he said he would "pray that he will seek the help he so desperately needs."
It's heartbreaking to see what has happened to Dwight Gooden, who obviously has serious personal problems that must be addressed. I sincerely hope both he and his son will get the help his nephew mentioned.