PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — The legendary Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson, having taught audiences much about racial inequality, once said that Black artists should be “the spearhead of a movement” to reignite political and social change.
Today in Pittsburgh, there’s a renewed effort to fulfill that legacy.
Wilson died in 2005, having won two Pulitzer Prizes and a Tony award for his plays about Black life in America. Were he still alive, “he would be thinking about what to write about what’s going on,” says his nephew and founder of Pittsburgh’s August Wilson House, Paul Ellis Jr. “We definitely lost him too soon.”
In 2002, the late CBS News correspondent Ed Bradley interviewed Wilson on “60 Minutes,” calling him “one of the most acclaimed playwrights of our time, as well as one of the most popular. Not bad for a high school dropout from Pittsburgh.”
As Bradley noted, Wilson’s acclaimed plays were informed by his early years as a boy in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. The plays are poignant — angry and funny — and tell stories of struggle.
Amid today’s anger over injustice, Ellis remembers a speech his uncle gave not long after police fired shot after shot at Amadou Diallo outside his home in New York City in 1999.
“He just slammed his hand on the podium. It was really loud: pow, pow, 41 times,” says Ellis. “It was riveting.”
On “60 minutes,” Wilson elaborated.
“A black man, unarmed, standing in a vestibule in his house, is shot 41 times. A white man, waving a rifle on the lawn of the White House — 150 yards from the leader of the free world — they negotiate with him for 10 minutes and shoot him one time in the leg. That’s the difference in being white and Black in America. So yes, I’m angry.”
Today, Ellis is bringing new life to his uncle’s boyhood home, the August Wilson House, which will be a center for arts education and programming.
Chris Rawson, the August Wilson House program chair, suspects that many Pittsburghers don’t fully appreciate what Wilson means around the country and the world. He says people have come from all over just to gaze at — and maybe touch — the history on Bedford Avenue.
“They just want to put their hands on the house where August Wilson spent his first 12 years, where the whole history and stories were nurtured that gave us that rich cycle of plays,” Rawson said.
While fundraising for the Wilson home continues, Rawson and Ellis are about to launch a weekly series of online interviews. Rawson will interview actors who’ve been in Wilson’s plays, and Ellis will focus on connecting aspiring young artists with professionals.
The goal is to create a pathway for more voices of Pittsburgh to be heard far and wide.