August Wilson: 1945-2005

updated 10/17/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/17/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In just over 20 years, August Wilson took on 100 years of African-American life, riffing on each decade of the 20th century in a 10-play epic. Two of his works, Fences (1987) and The Piano Lesson (1990), won Pulitzer Prizes. But, says Viola Davis, who has appeared in three Wilson plays, his real achievement was replacing stereotypes with living, breathing characters. "The most revolutionary thing you can do as a black artist is to create characters who are people and not just social mouthpieces," says Davis. "He created people."

From the start, says Angela Bassett, who starred in his 1984 breakthrough Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, "you knew this man had a calling." The son of a German-born baker, Frederick Kittel, and an African-American housekeeper, Daisy Wilson, August left school in ninth grade and taught himself in the library of Pittsburgh's Hill district, later the setting for most of his plays. An initial inspiration was Bessie Smith. "All the ideas and attitudes of my characters come straight out of the blues," he told PEOPLE in 1996. This year brought the final chapter in his series, Radio Golf, to the stage. In May, he was diagnosed with liver cancer. "I've lived a blessed life," Wilson, 60, said. "I'm ready." The father of two (his widow is his third wife, costume designer Constanza Romero, 47) died in Seattle on Oct. 2. "Folks say that he wrote of the black experience," says Whoopi Goldberg. "He didn't. He wrote of the human condition."

From Our Partners