By Sharon Eberson
With fanfare befitting the momentous occasion, Denzel Washington came and went, and the August Wilson House was opened for business.
Emotions were high Saturday as the sun beat down on a large gathering at 1727 Bedford Ave., the childhood home of the late August Wilson. A red carpet on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District led dozens of VIPs – politicians, judges, donors and stars of stage and screen – to the festivities.
Along the newly paved and manicured right side of the building, speakers including Washington and Mayor Ed Gainey perched on a second-story landing to address the gathering.
A Living Monument
They were there to celebrate the opening of the living monument to August Wilson, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Wilson, who died in 2005 at age 60, is renowned for his American Century Cycle of plays about the Black experience in each decade of the 20th century, all but one set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Year after year, he remains one of the most produced playwrights in America.
More than one speaker mentioned that the opening of the August Wilson House signals Pittsburgh as the destination for devotees worldwide – with the “A Writer’s Landscape” exhibition at the August WIlson African American Cultural Center and the August Wilson Archives at the University of Pittsburgh, the city now has a WilsonianGolden Triangle – an immersive exhibition, a place to study the great playwrights’ writings, and an arts and culture hub for nurturing a new generation of artists while serving Hill District residents.
Paul Ellis, son of Wilson’s sister Freida, was feted with a city proclamation that detailed his contributions to first getting landmark status for the decaying building, and years of work that led to having “my dream come true” on Saturday.
Ellis spoke of the looks he would get – “like you might give a child who says they are going to be president some day” – when he and architect Ron Pfaffmann would explain their hopes for the site. Some potential donors told him he was “dreaming too big.”
Ellis also spoke of his uncle standing on principles and not accepting a $35,000 check – the same amount later granted to Ellis by the Pittsburgh Foundation for a feasibility study. That same study was given to Denzel Washington, who agreed to meet with Ellis when the two-time Oscar winner was here for the filming of Fences.
Washington came onboard, and his fundraising efforts, along with foundation and corporate support, brought the August Wilson House to fruition.
After AWH CEO Denise Turner introduced Washington, he emerged to cheers, wearing a dark ball cap and T-shirt with the sun beating down on the assemblage – a very different day than the one that brought him here for the 2018 groundbreaking, during a downpour.
Washington was eager to hand the microphone to Constanza Wilson Romero, August Wilson’s widow and the guardian of his estate. But he took the occasion to thank his Hollywood friends “who gave a whole lot of money,” between $250,000 and $1 million each, including Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Shonda Rhimes, Samuel L. Jackson and LaTanya Richardson, Laurence Fishburne and Pittsburgh native Antoine Fuqua.
“And I want to thank the community,” Washington said. “Because he’s yours, you are his; just share him with the rest of us. And I personally want to thank you for that.”
Mayor Gainey gave a fiery speech about the history and opportunity bundled in the August Wilson House. Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor noted that he is the embodiment of Wilson’s writing about a Black man running for mayor, in the play Radio Golf.
When Gainey was attending Morgan State, he was told about a speaker coming from Pittsburgh – August Wilson. Gainey was unfamiliar with Wilson, and his friends also had no clue about this accomplished Pittsburgher. Now, he said, with legacy projects like the venue being dedicated on Saturday, “every child should grow up knowing the name August Wilson.”
An Artistic Hub for the Hill
The building itself is not for everyone, and it isn’t trying to be. It is for artists and community members, and not a museum, per its namesakes’ wishes.
However, through Sept. 18, anyone can see the exterior and feel the spirit of August Wilson at 1727 Bedford by seeing Jitney, the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company production that is playing on a newly constructed stage in the backyard.
Previously, when PPTC presented Seven Guitars there, the stage was the ground itself, and bleachers were built for the audience.
Several of the Jitney actors were present at the grand opening, along with Russell Hornsby, who starred alongside Washington and Viola Davis in the Oscar-nominated Fences film. Hornsby was the face of the AWH Legacy Brick Campaign, a fundraiser that is part of the restoration of the site.
Wilson family members including niece Kim El and daughter Sakina Ansari Wilson were among the speakers on the program held under the summer sun.
More luminaries were expected at the nighttime gala, but Washington and his wife, Pauletta Washington, bid adieu after a side-door ribbon-cutting at about half-past 3 o’clock Saturday, stopping to say hello to some Hill District neighbors who were watching the event from behind barriers.
Soon those barriers will come down, and the building, Paul Ellis’ dream come true, a working tribute to his uncle, will be theirs.
Categories: Arts and Ideas