Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
During a visit to his hometown of Pittsburgh in 1999, playwright August Wilson was photographed in front of the shuttered New Granada Theater on Centre Avenue in the city’s Hill District. The building had served as a movie theater and a venue for jazz musicians. Photo by Bill Wade. Copyright © Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2022, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

During a visit to his hometown of Pittsburgh in 1999, playwright August Wilson was photographed in front of the shuttered New Granada Theater on Centre Avenue in the city’s Hill District. The building had served as a movie theater and a venue for jazz musicians.
Photo by Bill Wade. Copyright © Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2022, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

August Wilson seemed perturbed when he met journalist Abiola Sinclair for a May 1990 interview in his favorite nook in the lobby of New York’s famed Edison Hotel. This candid session, published later in New York Amsterdam News, included the exasperated playwright’s charge that — despite having four of his American Century Cycle plays performed on Broadway — his work had not received the attention he believed it deserved, especially from Black critics. With the notable exception of the late Paul Carter Harrison, who published the first collection of Wilson’s plays in August Wilson: Three Plays (1984), Wilson felt ignored at this early point in his career by “people like Addison Gayle, Amiri Baraka, who have the basis for critical analysis, who can judge the work as being valuable or not.”

Just as concerning to Wilson was that, while the narratives that are advanced in what was to be labeled later as the American Century Cycle revolve around the Black community, he faced the grim reality that this community knew little to nothing about him: “The Black world had stood by and watched in amazement as an African American received not one, but two Pulitzer Prizes. We were happy for him,” Sinclair explained. “It was good, great. But who was he? Where was he coming from? What was he thinking?” These questions mattered greatly to Wilson as he fought his way out of relative obscurity over the next two decades to gain widespread attention and acceptance across racial lines and become one of America’s greatest playwrights.

As of this writing, 32 years have passed since this now-major American playwright used a public platform to cry foul about how poorly he and his work had fared within these communities. Although he may have sulked a bit then, August Wilson continued unabated over the next 15 years, adding one play after another to complete the American Century Cycle and achieve his mission to write 10 plays that chronicle the lives of African Americans through each decade of the 20th century. During the ensuing years, the amount of attention that August Wilson has garnered in his hometown in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, in his home state of Pennsylvania, and throughout the world is nothing short of phenomenal.

Well before he succumbed to liver cancer in October 2005, he had already made quite a name for himself beyond the two notches on his belt for the Pulitzers he won for Fences in 1987 and The Piano Lesson in 1990. The list of awards that followed remains staggering by any measure: three Tony Awards, one for Best Play (Fences) and two for Best Revival of a Play (Fences, Jitney); eight New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards, six for Best Play (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Jitney) and two for Best American Play (Two Trains Running, Radio Golf); Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame award; American Theatre Critics Association Award (Two Trains Running); Clarence Muse Award; Peabody Award (The Piano Lesson); National Humanities Medal; Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play (Jitney); Olivier Award for Best New Play (Jitney); 10th Annual Heinz Award in Arts and Humanities; U.S. Comedy Arts Festival Freedom of Speech Award; Make Shift Award at the U.S. Confederation of Play Writers; and Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Revival (Two Trains Running), just to name a few.

 

Wilson poses with the cast and crew of Seven Guitars at the play’s world premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 1995. He is standing to the right of the table and is behind his wife, Constanza Romero-Wilson, who was the costume designer for the production. Courtesy of August Wilson Archive, University of Pittsburgh Library System

Wilson poses with the cast and crew of Seven Guitars at the play’s world premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 1995. He is standing to the right of the table and is behind his wife, Constanza Romero-Wilson, who was the costume designer for the production.
Courtesy of August Wilson Archive, University of Pittsburgh Library System

In addition to Wilson’s growing list of awards and accolades is a passel of honorary degrees, interviews and feature articles, along with Paramount Pictures’ 2016 film adaptation of Fences and Netflix’s 2020 adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Wilson’s American Century Cycle plays are regularly stocked in public and private libraries as well as in bookstore chains and campus bookstores throughout America and the world. A slow but steady effort has also been underway among publishers to make the playwright’s works available for public consumption and classroom instruction. Take, for example, Theater Communications Group’s publication in 2007 of a 10-volume collection of The August Wilson Century Cycle and the many anthologies that regularly feature one or more of his plays along with critical insight.

A byproduct of this exposure has been the steadily growing field of August Wilson studies fueled by easy access to his plays and an impressive body of incisive scholarship. August Wilson and his work now stand as canonical.

Wilson’s increased profile also owes much to the ongoing, seemingly ubiquitous performances of his American Century Cycle plays. Chances are that, on any given day, some theatre somewhere — at home or abroad — is staging or preparing to stage a Wilson play. Regional and college theatres, local playhouses, arts festivals, and community centers often turn to plays such as Fences, The Piano Lesson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Gem of the Ocean, or Jitney in their season’s lineup to fill their houses. In the American Theatre of September 26, 2016, for example, Diep Tran reported that August Wilson stood atop the Theatre Communications Group’s “Top 20 Most-Produced Playwrights of the 2016–17 Season.” At the time of the survey, Wilson had “a full 9 of his 10 plays in circulation.”

Wilson’s phenomenal achievement has never been lost on the chief caretaker of his legacy, his widow Constanza Romero-Wilson, who is quoted on the August Wilson African American Cultural Center’s website: “In 2016 he was the most produced playwright in America! And more people know his name because of the full screen motion picture, FENCES in 2017. Actors that have performed in his British productions have given him the unofficial moniker, ‘America’s Shakespeare.’ Why? My answer is always, ‘within the specific you will find the treasure of the universal.’ August, while seeking out all the beauty, the struggle, the truths, and wisdoms in African American Culture, mined the larger themes that make us all human. How can we ever forget the powerful poetry in his plays depicting love, honor, duty, betrayal, forgiveness . . . ?” What comes with this sure sign of Wilson’s box office appeal is confirmation that his plays have caught and held the attention of large swaths of the theatre-going public.

Had August Wilson lived to witness the impressive monuments under construction in and around his boyhood home in the Hill District of Pittsburgh to honor and preserve his legacy, he would, no doubt, be humbled and perhaps moved to regret the frustration he expressed over 30 years ago. Recent activities on the ground there to institutionalize the late August Wilson — both the man and his work — affirm that this native son will be firmly rooted in the city’s identity and, indeed, in the state’s history. Three Pittsburgh institutions are in the forefront of this extraordinary effort: the August Wilson House, the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, and the University of Pittsburgh Library System.

 

Wilson visits his childhood home at 1727 Bedford Avenue, the building to the far right, in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1999. Photo by Bill Wade. Copyright © Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2022, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Wilson visits his childhood home at 1727 Bedford Avenue, the building to the far right, in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1999.
Photo by Bill Wade. Copyright © Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2022, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

August Wilson House

The success of Pittsburgh’s favorite son was meteoric in the wake of the hugely successful 1984 Broadway run of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and the subsequent accolades and awards heaped upon him. Ironically, however, members of Wilson’s Hill District community and his family saw no evidence that his increased notoriety mattered beyond the Great White Way. The place Wilson called home for 12 years — 1727 Bedford Avenue in Pittsburgh — was in ruins. City records show that this structure — described by Beth J. Harpaz, writing for the Associated Press, as “a two-room, cold-water flat [that] was upstairs and around the back from a grocery store, Bella’s Market” — was built in the 1840s, and despite Wilson’s mounting successes on both national and global stages for quite some time, it appeared that little to no attention had been paid to its upkeep once the family had dispersed. This led Pittsburgh Post-Gazette senior theatre critic and longtime Wilson associate Chris Rawson to recall in 2016 during a bittersweet moment when significant funding had been secured and renovations to the home were imminent: “For years, the house . . . sat as a rebuke to Pittsburgh — derelict, crumbling, the windows rotting. Visiting theater artists and other pilgrims have been shocked at Pittsburgh’s seeming indifference to the birthplace and childhood home of a great American.”

To fully appreciate the herculean efforts that went into saving Wilson’s boyhood home calls for a quick lesson in the contributions of key figures in this endeavor — most notably, Paul Ellis, August Wilson’s nephew and an attorney-at-law who brought to the job a mixture of family reverence, legal savvy, and unflappable resolve. In the early stages, both literal and figurative groundwork had to be laid.

Bill O’Toole, in the online newsletter NEXTpittsburgh of August 9, 2018, reported that in 2007 Ellis acquired landmark status for the home with support from The Pittsburgh Foundation. Seeking to redevelop the house as a community space, Ellis partnered with the Pittsburgh design and planning firm Pfaffmann + Associates to work out the possibilities. Ellis then formed the Daisy Wilson Artist Community, a nonprofit named in honor of August Wilson’s mother, dedicated to both redeveloping the August Wilson House (AWH) itself and cultivating the next generation of Pittsburgh artists.

As Rawson further recalled in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Starting in 2011, there were initial reconstruction projects — shoring up floors and walls, masonry patches, a temporary roof — without which the building would have crumbled further away. In 2014, there was a careful reconstruction of the street façade.”

This view of the August Wilson House was shot in 2022 during the final stages of renovation. Courtesy Ron Pfaffmann, Pfaffmann + Associates

This view of the August Wilson House was shot in 2022 during the final stages of renovation.
Courtesy Ron Pfaffmann, Pfaffmann + Associates

Following months of increased public outcry, amplified by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission’s installation of an official Pennsylvania Historical Marker for Wilson in 2007 and a listing in the National Register of Historic Places in April 2013, along with massive fundraising campaigns, Wilson’s Hill District home underwent vast renovations. Thanks not only to the tireless efforts of Paul Ellis but also to the enormous support from community leaders, local universities, arts institutions, and other family members, the once forgotten property has become what the nonprofit earlier foresaw as “a hub for artists” to be “used for gallery space, exhibits, small performances, and guest rooms for visiting artists.”

Funding for this revitalization effort was successfully tapped from multiple sources. For example, in 2018 the Daisy Wilson Artist Community received $50,000 of a $1.1 million grant from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. These funds are part of an effort by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to preserve and promote African American historic places. In 2019 an AWH spokesperson announced a whopping $499,626 grant from the National Park Service for final renovations to the house that sits on this property. Three years later, this same location has become, as AWH notes on its website, “a creative hub for nurturing black artists and revitalizing the Hill District” with the “house museum preserving the exact living conditions featured in Wilson’s renowned American Century Cycle plays.”

This windfall of financial support represents the extent to which these entities understand the importance of August Wilson and their obligation to preserve his legacy. As Ellis recalled to Bill O’Toole in NEXTpittsburgh, “August did not want the building to be a museum. He really wanted it to be useful. Something practical and beneficial to the community.” Ellis shared further that, in the final years of his uncle’s life, he often talked about leaving behind a legacy of public spaces and institutions that would support young artists in the Hill.

 

August Wilson African American Cultural Center

Just miles from the renovated Bedford Avenue address, another public display of Wilson’s importance has grabbed the attention of Pittsburgh, America and the world. The August Wilson African American Cultural Center (AWAACC), known as the gateway to the city’s cultural district, has just completed what it calls “the first-ever permanent exhibition dedicated to the life and works of Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright August Wilson.” The 3,600-square-foot exhibit features artifacts and collections that reveal the people, places and things that often surface in his American Century Cycle plays because of their varying degrees of impact upon the playwright. Officially opened on Saturday, April 16, 2022, August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape features interactive, multisensory exhibits, artifacts from Wilson’s estate, and replicas of his personal memorabilia from the 1900s to early 2000s. Collectively, these items, along with audio recordings performed by award-winning Wilsonian actors, provide crucial historical context about his writings.

The August Wilson African American Cultural Center is an ideal place to promote Wilson’s legacy, as its mission is to champion artists whose work simultaneously reflects African American experiences and universal issues of identity — topics that Wilson tackled through his works and that still resonate today.

 

The first of the three “acts” that make up the exhibit August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center is “The Coffee Shop,” which represents the type of restaurant where Wilson liked to write during his early years in the 1960s. Exhibit, August Wilson African American Cultural Center / Photo, PHMC

The first of the three “acts” that make up the exhibit August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center is “The Coffee Shop,” which represents the type of restaurant where Wilson liked to write during his early years in the 1960s.
Exhibit, August Wilson African American Cultural Center / Photo, PHMC

In 2018 Constanza Romero-Wilson offered a similarly sanguine assessment of AWAACC’s role in drawing attention to her late husband’s legacy in her endorsement of the center’s work: “August Wilson did not live in Pittsburgh all his life, but he carried Pittsburgh in his heart, always. It was the grand canvas upon which he painted the lives of his characters. All but one of his plays is set in this great city. The dedication of the August Wilson African American Cultural Center here, is something that would have made him beam with pride and joy. It is also a place that he would have appreciated greatly when he was a young man growing up on the Hill.”

On April 27, 1945, Frederick August Kittel Jr., now known as August Wilson, was born in a neglected area of Pittsburgh’s Hill District to Daisy Wilson and Frederick August Kittle Sr. “Freddy,” as he was called by close family members, was the fourth of six children and the cherished first son within a female-dominated household.

The Hill District is a collection of neighborhoods considered by many to be the cultural center of African American life in Pittsburgh. Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay once called the district “the crossroads of the world,” referring to the neighborhood’s heyday from the 1930s through the 1950s. It is known to many Pittsburghers as simply “The Hill” and is home to almost 17,000 people who walk, drive or ride the bus to Downtown or Oakland.

Born in poverty, August Wilson was abandoned by his white German father and raised by his single African American mother. He left high school at 15 following trumped-up accusations of plagiarism and frequent racist taunts. Together with his five siblings, August was forced to become a responsible adult and man of the house early in his life. Daisy eventually divorced Kittle and married David Bedford, a Black exconvict and former high school football star.

The series of lateral moves that Wilson made to become a writer of note for the ages put him on a course with many unavoidable detours and obstacles. Yet with an impressive amount of hard work and self-discipline, he beat those odds and brought pride to his surviving family members and to himself. One of Wilson’s own often-cited quotes can easily apply to his life story: “Have a belief in yourself that is bigger than anyone’s disbelief.”

 

“The Office,” the second act of the Wilson exhibit at AWAACC, presents a replica of Wilson’s workspace that includes objects and documents from the Wilson estate and the August Wilson Archive. Exhibit, August Wilson African American Cultural Center / Photo, PHMC

“The Office,” the second act of the Wilson exhibit at AWAACC, presents a replica of Wilson’s workspace that includes objects and documents from the Wilson estate and the August Wilson Archive.
Exhibit, August Wilson African American Cultural Center / Photo, PHMC

In 1958 Wilson’s family moved to a suburb of Pittsburgh. Daisy Wilson Kittel — whose maiden name her son later adopted to formalize the emotional and cultural split with his absent father — worked as a cleaning woman and was by all accounts a principled, attentive mother who “ran a structured household.” Her son’s decision to divest his white German father’s surname and claim his African American mother’s maiden name was, on multiple levels, an act of reclamation; essentially, he was a fatherless young Black man who came of age at the height of the Black Power and Black Arts movements and who proudly self-identified as Black, not as interracial or “mixed.” According to John Lahr in The New Yorker of April 18, 2001, “Wilson’s hankering to be spectacular was fed not only by his mother’s expectations but by his father’s abdications.”

It has long been a goal of the August Wilson African American Cultural Center to create a permanent exhibition that celebrates the life of August Wilson and the Pittsburgh community that inspired him. This vision gained much more clarity and traction following the 2017 hiring of the center’s current CEO and president, Janis Burley Wilson, who has not only overseen massive improvements in AWAACC’s operations but also has worked tirelessly to increase its local and national profile and provide valuable services to the surrounding cultural district. In 2019 she was presented with the prestigious Women of Influence Award largely to acknowledge her efforts to reimagine and bring much needed financial and programming stability to AWAACC. According to Richard Cerelli in the Pittsburgh Business Times of May 18, 2019, “Since assuming that role, she has worked to reconnect the facility with the community, created a venue for local art to be showcased and increased the number of events held there. . . . She has brought more than 120,000 people to the center within her first year of becoming CEO.”

Much of the driving force behind August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape can be attributed to Burley Wilson’s vision and tenacity. Reportedly the catalyst for this ambitious project was an early conversation between Burley Wilson and Constanza Romero-Wilson, the playwright’s widow and chief executor of his estate, about the possibility that her late husband’s desk could be housed at the center. That conversation led not only to an agreement to secure this precious item of furniture but also to the construction of an expansive space that mirrors Wilson’s entire writing “landscape.” With Romero-Wilson’s approval, she then took on the herculean task of assembling an experienced project team that included Romero-Wilson, Jerry Eisterhold and Victoria Edwards of Eisterhold Associates design firm, filmmaker Emmai Alaquiva, and August Wilson Scholar-in-Residence Dr. Sandra G. Shannon.

For more than three years, Burley Wilson has worked to keep this project on track, even as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across the nation, eventually taking its toll on a member of this assembled team. Fortunately for Pennsylvania and the world at large, Burley Wilson persevered. “I’m thrilled to officially open to the public,” she said in a recent press release. “Having additional time to design and construct the experience has allowed us to reimagine ways in which all who come to the Center can immerse themselves in Wilson’s work, amplifying his legacy even further and inspiring generations from around the world for years to come.”

 

The third act in the AWAACC exhibit on Wilson’s life and career, “The Street,” is a multimedia journey through Wilson’s 10 American Century Cycle plays. Exhibit, August Wilson African American Cultural Center / Photo, PHMC

The third act in the AWAACC exhibit on Wilson’s life and career, “The Street,” is a multimedia journey through Wilson’s 10 American Century Cycle plays.
Exhibit, August Wilson African American Cultural Center / Photo, PHMC

AWAACC is also partnering with the University of Pittsburgh Library System (ULS), which recently acquired August Wilson’s archives from the playwright’s estate. In addition to objects that AWAACC has already acquired from Wilson’s estate for use in August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape, AWAACC will collaborate with the ULS archivists on cross-organization programming with the center, expanding both organizations’ materials to be used as educational and community resources.

To enhance the exhibition beyond the four walls of the center, AWAACC has partnered with TurnKey Education Inc. to develop tools for students and teachers to utilize before and after experiencing it. Ranging from an introduction to Wilson and his works and what inspired him as an artist to helping students understand the history of Pittsburgh and the world events that informed his writings, the resources are available at no cost to educators across the country.

The exhibition currently on display at AWAACC presents Wilson’s life in three acts, much like the plays that he wrote: Act I, “The Coffee Shop,” where a young Wilson would do his writing; Act II, “The Office,” a replica of Wilson’s home office that showcases his working environment and items that he prized; and Act III, “The Street,” a symbolic walk through Wilson’s American Century Cycle that features a section dedicated to each of Wilson’s 10 plays, utilizing video, props and costumes from notable Broadway productions of his work and providing insights on the decades they are set in and events that took place in Pittsburgh and across the nation at those times.

This all-encompassing exhibition offers audiences, children and adults alike the opportunity to engage with Wilson’s work in a new and exciting way. Although Wilson is one of the seminal playwrights of the 20th century, one of the goals of this exhibition is to raise awareness about his legacy and to universalize his name by providing access to his writing life and his canon of dramatic works.

In August 2018, I was invited by Burley Wilson to join this team of experts who would go on to turn the vision that she and Constanza Romero-Wilson shared into an impressive reality. It did not take long for this group to gel and form a formidable community working toward the common goal of memorializing August Wilson in “epic” fashion and doing justice to his “epic” legacy. Although we drew from different wells of knowledge and experience, we were equally invested in the mission of August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape. I am honored that my credentials as the nation’s leading scholar on August Wilson — as a result of my seminal scholarship on his work, combined with my grounding in African American history, literature and culture — and Black Theater helped to secure my role as AWAACC scholar-in-residence and project consultant for this state-of-the-art cultural center in the heart of Pittsburgh that proudly bears Wilson’s name.

Quotes, such as this one by Wilson about The Piano Lesson, punctuate August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape. Exhibit, August Wilson African American Cultural Center / Photo, PHMC

Quotes, such as this one by Wilson about The Piano Lesson, punctuate August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape.
Exhibit, August Wilson African American Cultural Center / Photo, PHMC

In the weeks, months and years that followed, I welcomed the various demands of this role — a challenging yet welcomed commitment that sometimes required three-, four- or up to six-hour Zoom sessions to review and approve content and significant blocks of time to edit, re-edit and critique recordings, drawings, costumes, props, written texts and so on, all in our unending quest for maximum impact and absolute accuracy. As the project’s content specialist, I drew heavily upon my years of research, teaching, reading and writing about Wilson, the playwright and the man. As such, I was comfortable suggesting a fitting name for the project, crafting succinct plot summaries for each of his American Century Cycle plays, offering relevant historical and cultural context on Black life in 20th-century America, and identifying major themes that emerge in each of the plays’ 10 decades. My work also entailed critiquing the exhibit’s design and layout with visitors’ needs in mind, doing voiceover recordings of select excerpts from my 1991 interview with Wilson as part of the culminating “How I Learned What I Learned” portion of the exhibit, and offering feedback on original artwork — most notably, on the hauntingly beautiful rendition of Gem of the Ocean’s City of Bones done by the late Eisterhold Associates design specialist Victoria Edwards. In addition to all the above ways I worked to bring forth August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape, I suggested language for both “street scripts” and “office scripts,” identified touchstone lines or particularly resonating dialogue to be highlighted in the exhibit, and offered supplemental readings or helpful links.

I feel particularly fortunate to have played such a key role in bringing this historic project to fruition. Being a part of this venture has not only introduced me to an amazing team of professionals, but it has also given me a front row seat to the fascinating process of reconstructing August Wilson’s writing landscape. Being in this mix has also shown me the absolute value that dedicated and sustained scholarship has in documenting and preserving the work of literary giants such as Wilson.

 

More than 450 boxes of scripts and other handwritten documents, audio and video recordings, awards, posters, production designs, and photographs, including this one of Wilson reviewing a manuscript, make up the vast collection of materials in the August Wilson Archive at the University of Pittsburgh. Courtesy of August Wilson Archive, University of Pittsburgh Library System / Photo, Joseph Mehling

More than 450 boxes of scripts and other handwritten documents, audio and video recordings, awards, posters, production designs, and photographs, including this one of Wilson reviewing a manuscript, make up the vast collection of materials in the August Wilson Archive at the University of Pittsburgh.
Courtesy of August Wilson Archive, University of Pittsburgh Library System / Photo, Joseph Mehling

August Wilson Archive

In what is perhaps the most telling act that underscores the importance of August Wilson to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the world, the University of Pittsburgh Library System is now home to the August Wilson Archive. Following two years of quiet negotiations between ULS and Constanza Romero-Wilson, the playwright’s personal and professional effects have returned to the milieu that produced him and that heavily influenced his playwriting. Although several institutions had vied for possession of the Wilson Archives, for a host of reasons, the University of Pittsburgh prevailed.

In early 2021, the University of Pittsburgh Library System began processing the more than 450 boxes of materials shipped from Wilson’s Seattle, Washington, home to his Pittsburgh hometown to become part of the Wilson Archive. In addition to its sheer volume, ULS’s website touts items, such as “scripts and production materials of his American Century Cycle plays, Wilson’s personal library and music collection, artwork, poetry, unpublished work including non-Cycle plays, speeches, essays, and interviews. Materials range from audio recordings, awards and degrees, books, correspondence, newspapers, and magazines to notebooks, writing tablets, photographs, posters, production designs, props, scripts, and video recordings.”

The entire enterprise commanded ULS’s full attention, from hiring additional staff to reconfiguring the space in the Hillman Library to accommodate the massive Wilson Archive and organizing a local and national public relations campaign to draw attention to this new acquisition.

As of this writing, the daunting work of cataloging items in August Wilson’s expansive collection nears completion. The August Wilson Archive is set to officially open in January 2023 followed by a ULS-led week-long public celebration in March 2023 — complete with an expected level of pomp and circumstance and media coverage. Even as it puts on finishing touches, ULS is also steadying itself for the all-but-certain onslaught of visitors and patrons to the site. Plans are already being made to offer sessions and activities to acquaint participants with the content of the Wilson Archive and to reveal how best to engage it.

Playing a key role in these negotiations was Kornelia Tancheva, Hillman University librarian and director of ULS, who knows full well the importance of Wilson’s hometown and home state, ground zero for the impressive spread of Wilson ephemera. When asked to respond to questions from me about the importance of landing the August Wilson Archive, she wrote, “As caretakers of the collection, we recognize the unprecedented opportunity to share the August Wilson Archive broadly with numerous communities, from global to local and have already begun establishing connections to lay the ground for implementing our broad vision.”

The August Wilson Archive includes more than 600 tablets and notebooks containing drafts of Wilson’s plays, work notes, poetry, artwork and other writings. Courtesy of August Wilson Archive, University of Pittsburgh Library System / Photo, Justin Pastrick

The August Wilson Archive includes more than 600 tablets and notebooks containing drafts of Wilson’s plays, work notes, poetry, artwork and other writings.
Courtesy of August Wilson Archive, University of Pittsburgh Library System / Photo, Justin Pastrick

In a recent interview conducted by Michael Machosky for the November 10, 2020, edition of NEXTpittsburgh, Tancheva said, “Pittsburgh is now the place of August Wilson’s legacy forever.” When asked, “Why is this such a good fit for Pitt’s library system?” she responded, “The August Wilson Archive is our most important archive to date, and we believe it will present innumerable opportunities for local, national, and international researchers to create new knowledge, and for our faculty and students’ teaching and learning in a variety of disciplines, schools, and departments. It will also allow us to engage more fully with the local community in a variety of ways . . . facilitate our collaboration with other cultural institutions in Pittsburgh. . . . And finally, acquiring the archive is also part of another of the library’s strategic priorities—preserving underrepresented voices as part of the complete cultural heritage of this country and the world.”

Similar sentiments were echoed in remarks by Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher in the October 29, 2020, edition of Pittwire: “This acquisition is about more than bringing August Wilson back home to Pittsburgh. . . . The University of Pittsburgh is proud to do our part in keeping August Wilson’s brilliance — for those in Pittsburgh and far beyond — alive and are deeply grateful to Constanza for entrusting us with this task.”

***

I have heard it said that the most cherished honor one can receive is that which comes from one’s own village. Although Wilson did not get to bask in the limelight of these multiple honors aimed at Pittsburgh’s native son, I am heartened to witness the valiant and persistent efforts led by his wife Constanza Romero-Wilson to make sure that her late husband is accorded the recognition that eluded him in the 1990s but now seems boundless in 2022 and beyond. Joining her in relishing this full-circle moment is a well-populated village — among whom are Wilson family members, Wilsonian actors, designers, directors, producers, scholars, educators, the August Wilson Society, and other long-haul believers — who over the decades have witnessed August Wilson’s beautiful struggle that produced a powerful legacy to last through the ages.

 

August Wilson’s American Century Cycle

Each play in the cycle is set in one of the 10 decades of the 20th century. All but Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom take place in Pittsburgh.

1900s: Gem of the Ocean (2002)
1910s: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1986)
1920s: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984)
1930s: The Piano Lesson (1989)
1940s: Seven Guitars (1995)
1950s: Fences (1985)
1960s: Two Trains Running (1990)
1970s: Jitney (1982)
1980s: King Hedley II (2001)
1990s: Radio Golf (2005)

 

Visit the following websites for more information on August Wilson’s legacy in Pittsburgh:
• August Wilson House, augustwilsonhouse.org
• August Wilson African American Cultural Center, awaacc.org
• August Wilson Archive, University Library System, University of Pittsburgh, augustwilson.library.pitt.edu

 

Sandra G. Shannon, Ph.D., is professor emerita of African American literature in the Department of English at Howard University. She is widely acknowledged as a major scholar in the field of African American drama and the leading authority on playwright August Wilson. She is the author of the books The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson and August Wilson’s Fences: A Reference Guide, has written numerous essays and chapters on Wilson, and served as editor of Modern American Drama: Playwriting in the 1980s and August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle.