By SHARON EBERSON
The wait is over, and it was worth it. August Wilson: A Writer’s Landscape is every bit the legacy exhibition that the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and his hometown deserves and that the building that bears his name has needed since it opened in 2009.
The new permanent exhibition at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center is as engaging and educational and as immersive and interactive as anything you will see at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., or the late lamented Newseum.
As a permanent tribute to the Pittsburgh native, who died in 2005 at age 60, the exhibition is breathtaking in scope. It is a space to form a spiritual and cerebral bond with Wilson as a playwright, activist, and denizen of the Hill District.
“There is no better place for this exhibition to be situated than this very center that celebrates African-American arts and the arts of the African diaspora,” said Constanza Romero-Wilson, the playwright’s widow. Romero-Wilson played a large role in the creation and design of the exhibition, including artifacts donated from his estate.
Speaking at a press event on April 12, she said, “The past three years, as we have all invested the best part of ourselves to this project, I have often thought how important the center would have been to August during his formative years. What impact would it have made? Well, we don’t have to wonder now. Young people will learn here that there was once a man, not unlike themselves, who harnessed his own culture, the songs that sometimes escaped his mother’s parched lips, the history and struggle of his ancestors and said, ‘This is all worthy of art.”
As you walk through the three phases of this exhibition – The Coffee Shop, The Office, and The Street, the latter an immersive journey through Wilson’s 10-play American Century Cycle – there is a spiritual connection to the work and to the man.
Before the ribbon-cutting on April 15, attended by theater celebrities and local politicians, members of the press were given a leisurely tour of the exhibition that opened to the public on April 16. It is free, with a timed ticket.
The center recommends allowing 45 minutes to walk through its spaces, one flowing into another. Still, I imagine there will be those of us who spend much more than that and come back time and again.
If you are familiar with Wilson’s plays and have walked at all in his footsteps, there are places that you will recognize instantly, such as the setting of Seven Guitars and the re-created backyard of his childhood home, now the landmark August Wilson House at 1727 Bedford Ave. in the Lower Hill.
The carved piano from The Piano Lesson was a gift to Wilson from a Washington, D.C., production of his play. You can sit at Aunt Ester’s table in the Gem of the Ocean space. Each play’s display includes a video, most with images from Broadway and movie productions, repeated at five-minute intervals. Each is worth your time to see through to the end.
There’s magic not just in seeing the desk where August Wilson wrote about the Hill and the Black experience. With a wave of your hand over an icon, the desk comes alive with videos. It is one of several such portals with insights into Wilson’s mindset, including his love of the blues – albums from his own extensive record collection are gathered here with other personal artifacts.
The new exhibition is on the ground floor, with entry through the former art gallery, and it seems to burst its 3,600-square-foot seams. There are details to savor, such as the red door of Wilson’s ageless sage, Aunt Ester, with the number 1837, from her fictional home on Wylie Avenue. The door is at the entrance to The Street – with the plays unfolding in chronological order – and the other side of the door is seen as you leave, coming into a gathering place with a wall of thank yous to folks like Kenny Leon and Denzel Washington, and another wall that looks much like the backdrop for Wilson’s autobiographical solo show, How I Learned What I Learned.
A Writer’s Landscape is in itself a must-see destination for visitors to Pittsburgh and a welcome addition to the Downtown Cultural District. For the center, it is righting a misstep from its early days of using Wilson’s name as a draw without connecting to the man and his work.
Burley Wilson (no relation) talked of the center’s impact by programming free and low-cost community initiatives, arts presentations, and multi-genre festivals.
“Now, this project, A Writer’s Landscape, is a definitely global attraction and a true love letter to our namesake,” she said.
Burley Wilson joined the center in 2017 and has righted the ship in many ways, including navigating the pandemic that delayed the exhibition’s opening by nearly two years.
Romero-Wilson recalled it was four years ago that the head of the AWC contacted her with the idea to create “a one-of-a-kind August Wilson experience at the center.”
“I was absolutely thrilled to have a space dedicated to his legacy, which will, I hope, outlive us all,” Romero-Wilson said. “From the bottom of my heart, thank you, Janis. You see, theater is an ephemeral art form. It’s here and then it is gone, living only in memory. This exhibit is a lasting monument for my late husband’s contributions for our nation’s cultural history, a showcase of his love of Pittsburgh and, of course, its people.
“Any story of August Wilson has to start with Pittsburgh,” continued Romero-Wilson, who, besides the items seen in the exhibition, has worked with the team restoring the August Wilson House and bestowed her husband’s archives to the University of Pittsburgh. “And any story about August Wilson the poet, the artist, must start with coffee,” she said, standing beside The Coffee Shop entrance, where you will hear narration about Wilson’s early life from actor Wali Jamal, one of several voices heard throughout, including those of Wilsonian Warriors Stephen McKinley Henderson, Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Phylicia Rashad.
Wilson’s penchant for scribbling notes on napkins or whatever piece of paper was handy is celebrated here.
“In the first gallery, The Coffee Shop, we meet August as a young man, finding his way, discovering that the past burnished with art was going to be his future,” Romero-Wilson explained.
Historical, contemporary, and Pittsburgh-specific context runs throughout the exhibition from the start.
“Then, I thought it was important for visitors to see August’s office,” Romero-Wilson said. “View his many influences, and witness the long journey it took to become one of our finest playwrights. Finally, I remembered how crucial the streets of the Hill District were to August’s evolution, something he documented in his one-man show, How I Learned What I Learned.
The Street part of the exhibit, she said, is a symbolic walk through each of the 10 plays of the 20th-century cycle, nine set in the Hill, all of them presented on Broadway and throughout the world. It is an odd year when August Wilson’s name is not in the top 10 of the most-produced playwrights in America.
“Through August’s fundamental touchstones – love, honor, duty, betrayal – his call for racial and social justice is a beacon for people across the globe. His stories are universal, and they are necessary to our future as a people as much now as the day he wrote them,” Romero-Wilson said.
And the new exhibition August Wilson: A Writer’s Landscape is a worthy tribute to the legacy of a legendary writer and son of Pittsburgh.
For more information and to purchase timed tickets visit: https://awc.culturaldistrict.org/timed-entry/august-wilson-the-writers-landscape