August Wilson Legacy LLC
Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, who died in 2005, is one of Pittsburgh’s pride – yet until this week there was no site in his hometown where fans could go and discover the extent of his legacy as a chronicler of the black American experience through his monumental 10-piece Century Cycle.
Now there’s “August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape,” an immersive and interactive permanent exhibit at – where else? – August Wilson African-American Cultural Center of Pittsburgh. The center, which opened in 2009, is located just half a mile from the brick townhouse that was Wilson’s first home, in the historically black neighborhood called the Hill District.
Wilson only lived in Pittsburgh until 1978, before moving to St. Paul, Minnesota, and then Seattle, but the city he grew up in continued to influence his work for the rest of his life.
“It was important to have a site where people could walk and immerse themselves in the work of August Wilson, discover his influences, discover how he worked and why he did the things he did, why he wrote about specific topics in a specific way,” said the Center’s Executive Director, Janis Burley Wilson, who oversaw the four-year project from start to finish. .
“Writer’s Landscape” consists of 13 separate installations. Ten are devoted to works from the cycle of the century, each set in a different decade of the 20th century. The pieces explore the damage caused by racism as well as the resilience and triumphs of black Americans. Most spotlight working-class characters like garbage collectors (“Fences”), recent migrants from the agricultural South (“The Piano Lesson”), blues musicians (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, “Seven Guitars” ), factory workers (“Gem of the Ocean”), and unlicensed taxi drivers (“Jitney”).
All 10 plays made it to Broadway; “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson” won Pulitzers. And all but one of the plays are set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where Wilson partly grew up and then came of age as a young man. The installations feature Wilson’s personal effects as well as costume props and furniture from productions of the plays, including a 1956 Rock Ola jukebox from the 1990 Broadway staging of “Two Trains Running.” There are also short videos on each piece, with historical context and dialogue performed by actors like Phylicia Rashad and Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Another installation pays homage to Wilson’s autobiographical monologue, “How I Learned What I Learned.”
Two other sections of the exhibition evoke his life as a writer. One recreates Eddie’s Restaurant, a now-defunct haunt of Wilson’s in the 1960s and 1970s; Wilson, famous, wrote a lot about restaurants. The other immerses visitors in his home office, complete with a large wooden desk, books and favorite blues records on vinyl – all donated by his wife, Constanza Romero-Wilson, from the couple’s Seattle residence, where Wilson lived the last 15 years. of his life.
Romero-Wilson, who runs August Wilson Legacy LLC, served as the exhibit’s chief curator. She said the office was her favorite part of the show. “I can almost smell it when I’m in the room,” she said.
Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel. His father was a German immigrant whom Wilson never really knew; he and his five siblings were raised by their mother, Daisy Wilson, who was black.
He dropped out of high school at age 15, after a teacher accused him of plagiarizing an article he had written about Napoleon. As this concluded his formal schooling, he began spending his days at the main branch of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, Oakland, reading whatever he could.
“He was self-taught,” said Romero-Wilson, an artist and costume designer herself. “He was reading all the time. And he was always trying to perfect everything, he was his best critic. So for me, that perseverance and the triumph of his life, that’s what I want people to see when they come to this exhibition.
In 1965, at age 20, Wilson adopted his mother’s maiden name and declared himself a poet. The new “August Wilson” had returned to a Hill district devastated by city redevelopment projects. But as “Writer’s Landscape” makes clear, he always found inspiration in the people he met while hanging out (and taking notes) in cafes, cigar shops and jitney taxi stands.
“He grew up watching the people here. Hearing the way they speak, their tone, their musicality,” Romero-Wilson said. “He learned the philosophy of right and wrong, of justice, of race, all here, with the people of Pittsburgh. So the spirit of the Pittsburghers lives in every August play.”
The exhibition also evokes other formative influences through touchless interactive video and audio displays. In archival interview clips, for example, Wilson discusses the importance of cornerstones to his worldview such as the Black Power movement and blues music. Wilson’s significance to black theater performers is enormous, said Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a stage and film actor who has starred in and directed numerous productions of Wilson’s plays on Broadway and Off Broadway. He also scripted the 2020 screen adaptation of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” “Instead of black lives being on the periphery, he put black lives at the center of what Americana is,” he said.
“He was huge in his ideas and thoughts, creating space for us,” he adds. “So we didn’t need permission to be part of America. With August Wilson, we are America.”
More Wilson is on his way. This fall, LaTanya Richardson Jackson is set to lead a Broadway revival of “The Piano Lesson,” starring John David Washington, Danielle Brooks and Samuel L. Jackson. And actor Denzel Washington has pledged to bring every episode of the Century Cycle to the big screen.
“It’s beyond my imagination how significant August has become in our consciousness, in our American consciousness,” Romero-Wilson said.
“August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape“, is a permanent exhibit at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center in Pittsburgh. Tickets are free.