The 60-year-old playwright had most recently been working on revisions of Radio Golf, the 10th and final play in his monumental, decade-by-decade series chronicling the African-American experience in the 20th century. The cycle - whose plays garnered two Pulitzer Prizes and a host of other awards - stands as an unprecedented achievement. Only Eugene O'Neill attempted such an undertaking, but he died after completing only two plays in a projected 11-play series.
"America can't afford to lose writers of this caliber because they just don't come along that often," said actor Charles S. Dutton, who starred on Broadway in two of Wilson's plays. "The worst of it is that there were probably 10 more plays, but the best of it is that he promised and delivered."
Mr. Wilson created his remarkable body of work in slightly more than two decades and went on to see eight of the 10 plays produced on Broadway. Those plays introduced a primarily white Broadway audience to a wide range of African-American experiences by focusing on characters who had rarely been in the limelight - a former Negro Leagues baseball player eking out a living as a garbage collector in Fences; the gypsy cab drivers in Jitney; or the denizens of an early-20th century boarding house in Joe Turner's Come and Gone.
But if Mr. Wilson's characters initially seemed ordinary, the playwright revealed their distinctive inner spirits and, most of all, celebrated their abilities as storytellers, as the inheritors of the legacies of African griots. And oh, how his characters could talk! One of the hallmarks of his writing was lengthy, intricately layered monologues that reverberated like blues arias. Indeed, the playwright claimed that his characters spoke to him. "Anything you want to know you ask the characters," he once said.
James Earl Jones, who won a 1987 Tony Award for portraying the baseball player protagonist of Fences, said, "He observed neighborhoods, people in neighborhoods, and he learned how they talk. I think that is the greatest achievement that he has done - he brought that to his plays, the language of people."
But Mr. Wilson did more than re-create the language of African-American culture on stage. Mr. Dutton, a Baltimore native whose career was launched in 1984 when he made his Broadway debut in Mr. Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, explained that while the playwrights' characters were familiar to him "in the kind of barbershop, street corner, saloon, blues, womanizing, philosophizing way ... the scope of their humanity, the width and breadth of their humanity - that belongs solely to the theater."
Mr. Wilson's plays tackled immense themes: Responsibility, choice, forgiveness, redemption and especially the importance of recognizing and honoring the past. And his writing habits were as idiosyncratic as his characters. Wherever he was, Mr. Wilson would seek out a coffee shop or bar and jot down ideas and bits of dialogue on napkins or scraps of paper. "I go from place to place to place searching for the play," he said in a 1987 Sun interview.
He then fashioned these tidbits into plays in a manner similar to the way Romare Bearden - an artist he greatly admired - created collages. The playwright took inspiration from Mr. Bearden's statement: "I try to explore, in terms of the life I know best, those things which are common to all cultures."
A high school dropout, Mr. Wilson came to playwriting relatively late. The son of a largely absent white, German-born baker and an African-American mother, he left school at age 15 when a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a paper on Napoleon. He then proceeded to educate himself at the Carnegie Library, which years later awarded him its first and only diploma, an accolade he said he valued more than the many honorary doctorates he also received.
He purchased his first typewriter at age 20 and set about becoming a poet, supporting himself with various jobs, including being a short-order cook. In 1978, he moved to St. Paul, Minn., where he got a job writing plays for the Science Museum of Minnesota. He also began submitting scripts to the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, a prestigious play-development program in Waterford, Conn. Lloyd Richards, former artistic director of the O'Neill and the director who later staged many of Mr. Wilson's plays on Broadway, recalled that the O'Neill rejected the playwright's submissions for five years.
"Once he thought we were wrong, so he resubmitted the same script that we had turned down the year before," Mr. Richards said from his home in New York. Then Mr. Wilson submitted Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and his career was launched. When he read Mr. Wilson's play about the great blues singer cutting a record in a Chicago studio, Mr. Richards said, "The people were real. I recognized them. ... I knew those people, and they moved in the world for me."
The cycle that began with that play changed American theater. "He's one of our great playwrights - period - and some of his isolated soliloquies are really poems that can be read separately from the play," said Irene Lewis, artistic director of Center Stage, which has produced seven of the plays in the cycle and will mount the most recent, Radio Golf, in March.
In the two decades since Ma Rainey's Black Bottom debuted, Mr. Wilson's plays helped foster the careers of numerous actors, including Angela Bassett, S. Epatha Merkerson and Courtney B. Vance. Many of his plays also became required reading in schools.
But Mr. Wilson's views could prompt controversy as well. In 1996, he lambasted the practice of colorblind casting (which holds that actors can play any character regardless of race). This led to a highly publicized debate in New York between the playwright and critic Robert Brustein, who criticized Mr. Wilson's viewpoint as "dangerous and narrow."
Last month, after Mr. Wilson announced that he had inoperable cancer, producer Rocco Landesman revealed plans to rename Broadway's Virginia Theatre in his honor. It will be the first Broadway theater named for an African-American.
Mr. Wilson is survived by his third wife, Constanza Romero, their daughter Azula Carmen, and a daughter from his first marriage, Sakina Ansari, a 1994 graduate of Morgan State University, at whose commencement Mr. Wilson spoke.