The Enduring Legacy of Pittsburgh’s August Wilson
The acclaimed playwright's life is celebrated in a Downtown exhibition and a growing Hill District arts center.
Mark 2022 as the year that Pittsburgh establishes itself as the premiere spot to honor and learn about the life and legacy of native son August Wilson, one of America’s greatest playwrights. The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of the 10-play American Century Cycle, including Tony Award-winning plays “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson,” died in 2005 at age 60. Now, the city of Wilson’s youth — also home to The August Wilson Archive at the University of Pittsburgh — boasts a stunning, permanent exhibition dedicated to the playwright, activist and chronicler of the Black American experience. In addition, Wilson’s childhood home has been resurrected as an arts center and outdoor performance space.
‘August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape’
In April, the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, Downtown, unveiled an immersive, interactive exhibition devoted to its namesake. The atmospheric walk through Wilson’s life and work engages visitors with touches of techno-magic and impresses with its scope, as visitors are transported into scenes from the 10 plays, all produced on Broadway. Contextual videos incorporate movie scenes from adaptations of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Fences,” filmed in Pittsburgh with Academy Award nominees Chadwick Boseman and Denzel Washington and Oscar winner Viola Davis.
The exhibition is packed with artifacts such as the writer’s desk and records from Wilson’s vinyl collection, provided by his widow and chief curator Constanza Romero-Wilson. With the wave of a hand, visitors can conjure videos that include the man himself on several surfaces. Voiceovers by artists such as Phylicia Rashad and Ruben Santiago-Hudson follow visitors navigating the exhibition’s three phases: “The Coffee Shop,” “The Office” and “The Street,” the latter flowing from play to play, each representing a decade of the 20th century.
It is recommended that you give yourself 90 minutes to take it all in, but you may want to take your time at the carved-wood piano from “The Piano Lesson,” musical instruments in the “Ma Rainey” room, or the City of Bones quilt from “Gem of the Ocean.”
“The Writer’s Landscape,” free with a timed ticket, is a must-see for theater or history buffs or anyone wanting a peek into the story of Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
(980 Liberty Ave., Downtown; 412/339-1011, awaacc.org)
August Wilson House Year of Celebration
Less than a mile away in the Lower Hill District, a street plaque marks the landmark August Wilson House, the writer’s childhood home. Born in 1945, Wilson lived here until he was 13 with his mother and five siblings. They were initially in two rooms, then four.
On Aug. 13, 2022, a Grand House Party — set to include luminaries from near and far — will launch the multiyear restoration of the House and backyard theater, dedicated to nurturing artists of color and creating an artistic community. While the home is not set up for public tours, the backyard has hosted productions of Wilson’s plays; beginning Aug. 12, it will be the setting for Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company’s production of “Jitney,” a Tony winner for best revival in 2017. A schedule of the Year of Celebration events is on the website.
(1727 Bedford Ave., Hill District; augustwilsonhouse.org)