August Wilson’s life and plays explored in immersive new exhibit : NPR



AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Playwright August Wilson was a giant of 20th century American theatre, a one of a kind voice on the pain, resilience and triumph of Black life. There’s a new exhibit celebrating Wilson’s career. It’s in Pittsburgh and member station WESA’s Bill O’Driscoll went to take a look.

BILL O’DRISCOLL, BYLINE: The first thing you see in “August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape” looks like an old-school neighborhood diner. There’s an upholstered booth, a lunch counter, even cigarette ash and a half-empty coffee cup. If that seems an odd tribute to a world-famous playwright, well, the late August Wilson often wrote in diners. And this exhibit was curated by his wife, Constanza Romero Wilson.

CONSTANZA ROMERO WILSON: It was important for me, for people to see that he was a real person. He was a real Pittsburgher.

O’DRISCOLL: Wilson was born in Pittsburgh in 1945 and won fame only after leaving town for good in 1978. But Romero Wilson says the city made him who he was.

ROMERO WILSON: He grew up observing the people here, hearing the way they speak, their tonality, their musicality. So the spirit of Pittsburghers lives in all of August’s plays of him.

O’DRISCOLL: There’s nothing in American theater quite like Wilson’s monumental century cycle. Its 10 plays, each depicting Black life in a different decade of the 20th century, mostly through working-class characters like blues musicians and jitney cab drivers. All 10 made it to Broadway. “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson” won Pulitzer Prizes, and a Broadway theater was named after him in 2005 after his death of him-the first named after a Black person. Four years later, the August Wilson African American Cultural Center opened in a grand new building in downtown Pittsburgh, just half a mile from the brick row house where Wilson lived as a child. Executive Director Janis Burley Wilson says this is the largest permanent exhibit about Wilson anywhere.

JANIS BURLEY WILSON: It was important to definitely have a site where people can walk and be immersed in August Wilson’s work. Learn about his influences from him, learn about how he worked and why he did the things that he did.

O’DRISCOLL: A replica of Wilson’s home office in Seattle features his writing desk and personal effects like books and records. Interactive video honors his influences on him like the Black Power movement. Here’s archival audio of Wilson himself discussing blues music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AUGUST WILSON: I think blues is the best literature that we have long since created, since we’ve been here. And it’s a lot of philosophical ideas. And I call it our sacred book.

O’DRISCOLL: The walk-through installations focus on each of his century cycle plays. The rooms are like small stage sets from “The Piano Lesson’s” wallpapered parlor to the brick-wall backyard of “Seven Guitars.” Short videos provide the historical context and plot for each play. Here’s Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in 2017’s big screen adaptation of “Fences.”

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “FENCES”)

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Troy Maxson) It’s not easy for me to admit that I’ve been standing in the same place for 18 years.

VIOLA DAVIS: (As Rose Maxson) Well, I’ve been standing with you. I’ve been right here with you, Troy. I got a life, too.

O’DRISCOLL: Wilson dramatized not only the daily struggle for love and survival, but also the importance of Black culture in history. Ruben Santiago-Hudson directed and acted in numerous Wilson productions on and off-Broadway. He also contributed to the new exhibit, which he says brings home Wilson’s real artistic victory, the idea that Black Lives Matter on stage.

RUBEN SANTIAGO-HUDSON: Instead of Black life being on the periphery, you put it in the center of what is Americana. He was huge in his ideas of him and his thoughts of him in creating a space for us. So we didn’t need permission to be apart of America. With August Wilson, we are America.

O’DRISCOLL: Admission to August Wilson, The Writer’s Landscape is free to all.

For NPR, I’m Bill O’Driscoll in Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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