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Walk into August Wilson's life and plays in immersive new exhibit

August Wilson
August Wilson Legacy LLC
August Wilson

Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, who died in 2005, is one of the prides of Pittsburgh - yet until this week, there has been no site in his hometown where fans could go to experience the breadth of his legacy as a chronicler of the Black American experience through his monumental, 10-play Century Cycle.

Now there's "August Wilson: The Writer's Landscape," a permanent immersive and interactive exhibition at – where else? – Pittsburgh's August Wilson African American Cultural Center. The center, which opened in 2009, is located just a half-mile from the brick rowhouse that was Wilson's own first home, in the historically Black neighborhood called the Hill District.

Wilson only lived in Pittsburgh until 1978, before moving to St. Paul, Minn., and then Seattle, but the city he grew up in continued to inform his work for the rest of his life.

"It was important to have a site where people could walk and immerse in August Wilson's work, learn about his influences, learn about how he worked and why he did the things that he did, why he wrote about specific topics in a specific way," said Center executive director Janis Burley Wilson, who oversaw the four-year project from start to finish. .

"Writer's Landscape" consists of 13 separate walk-through installations. Ten are devoted to the works in the Century Cycle, each of which is set in a different decade of the 20th century. The plays explore the damage wrought by racism as well as the resilience and triumphs of Black Americans. Most spotlight working-class characters like trash collectors ("Fences"), recent migrants from the agricultural South ("The Piano Lesson"), blues musicians ("Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "Seven Guitars"), mill workers ("Gem of the Ocean"), and unlicensed cab 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 along with costumes 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 about each play, with historical context and dialogue performed by the actors like Phylicia Rashad and Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Another installation honors Wilson's autobiographical monologue, "How I Learned What I Learned."

Two other sections in the exhibit summon his writing life. One recreates Eddie's Restaurant, a now-vanished haunt of Wilson's in the 1960s and '70s; Wilson, famously, did a lot of writing in diners. The other immerses visitors in his home office, complete with big writing wooden desk, books, and favorite blues records on vinyl – all donated by his wife, Constanza Romero-Wilson, from the couple's residence in Seattle, where Wilson lived the final 15 years of his life.

Constanza Romero-Wilson (l.), chief curator, and August Wilson African American Cultural Center President and CEO Janis Burley Wilson.
Tara Geyer / AWAACC
Constanza Romero-Wilson (l.), chief curator, and August Wilson African American Cultural Center President and CEO Janis Burley Wilson.

Romero-Wilson, who heads the 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 feel him when I am 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 a paper he'd written on Napoleon. While that concluded his formal schooling, he began spending his days at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's main branch, in Oakland, reading everything he could.

"He was an autodidact," said Romero-Wilson, herself an artist and costume designer. "He read incessantly. And he always tried to perfect everything, he was his own best critic. So that persistence to me and the triumph of his life, is what I want people to see when they come to this exhibit."

In 1965, at age 20, Wilson adopted his mother's maiden name and declared himself a poet. The newly minted "August Wilson" had moved back to a Hill District devastated by city redevelopment projects. But as "Writer's Landscape" makes clear, he still found inspiration in the people he met while hanging out (and taking notes) in coffee shops, cigar stores and jitney-cab stations.

"He grew up observing the people here. Hearing the way they speak, their tonality, their musicality," said Romero-Wilson. "He picked up the philosophy about right and wrong, about justice, about race, all here, with the people of Pittsburgh. So the spirit of Pittsburghers lives in all of August's plays."

Wilson's 1956 Rock Ola 1448, which was featured in the 1996 Broadway production of "Seven Guitars."
Tara Geyer / AWAACC
Wilson's 1956 Rock Ola 1448, which was featured in the 1996 Broadway production of "Seven Guitars."

The exhibit also evokes other formative influences through touch-free interactive video and audio displays. In archival interview clips, for instance, Wilson discusses the importance of such keystones of his worldview as the Black Power movement and blues music. Wilson's importance to Black theater artists is massive, said Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a stage and screen actor who has performed in and directed numerous productions of Wilson plays on Broadway and Off Broadway. He also scripted the 2020 screen adaptation of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." "Instead of Black life being in the periphery, he put Black people's lives in ... the center of what is Americana," he said.

"He was huge in his ideas and his thoughts, in creating a space for us," he adds. "So we didn't need permission to be a part of America. With August Wilson, we are America."

More Wilson is on its way. This fall, LaTanya Richardson Jackson is expected to direct a Broadway revival of "The Piano Lesson," starring John David Washington, Danielle Brooks and Samuel L. Jackson. And actor Denzel Washington is committed to bring every installment of the Century Cycle to the big screen.

"It's beyond my imagination how important August has become in our consciousness, in our American consciousness," said Romero-Wilson.

"August Wilson: The Writer's Landscape," is a permanent exhibit at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center in Pittsburgh. Tickets are free.

Copyright 2022 90.5 WESA

Bill O'Driscoll

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