If Trip Gabriel, the New York Times reporter who wrote yesterday’s story about the dire straits of the August Wilson Cultural Center in Pittsburgh, were steeped in Wilson’s writing, he might have noted a sad irony. In August’s final play of his ten-play Century Cycle, Radio Golf, the plot turns on the fate of a decrepit house in the Hill District, the setting for almost all of the Cycle plays. The home of the great Aunt Ester, a seer and guide who reputedly lived for centuries, is standing in the way of urban redevelopment, until one of the men spearheading the project begins to regret the loss of this historic home and fights, at great personal cost, to save it.
That tale was August’s creation. But now two Wilson homes in Pittsburgh are on the precipice. The first is August’s actual boyhood home on the Hill, owned by one of his nephews but long boarded up; the other is the gleaming new downtown cultural center, opened only in 2009, on the verge of being taken by the bank to which it owes the money which funded its construction. It sits without programming and no visitors, used primarily by a megachurch that rents it on Sundays for its predominantly white congregation.
With arts organizations like the Minneapolis Orchestra and the New York City Opera all but finished and already buried, respectively, it’s not difficult to understand how a new arts facility that opened in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis has failed to succeed, but of course there are countless reasons that contributed both to its construction and its downfall. The story has been followed in detail in the Pittsburgh press; the Times story makes it a matter for national attention at a time when it may already be too far gone. It is nonetheless quite sad, since there deserves to be a commemoration of one of America’s greatest playwrights beyond the Broadway theatre that bears his name, long the home to Jersey Boys, though that honor is not unwelcome in the least.
In Radio Golf, Harmond Wilks risks his career and faces possible indictment, largely self-inflicted, in order to preserve history and the soul of a lost neighborhood. No doubt many people have made sacrifices and given support in the effort to create the August Wilson Cultural Center and it must be painful to see it failing so very publicly. I cannot help but wonder what his widow and his children must feel to see what was surely a source of emotional support and civic love rise and fall in just a few years time. That this happens just as reports of the precarious state of many of America’s black theatre companies have also gained national attention makes the story even sadder.
I have never believed in the “if you build it, they will come” school of arts promotion; I don’t know the people who led the Center or their specific plans and where they went awry. As no doubt some of them have, I would like to think that at the last minute some deus ex machina, or more specifically some deep pocketed individual or group, might rescue the Center, but that is the heart of a theatregoer speaking, not the mind of an administrator. Yet the administrator dreams that if by some miracle it happens, the Center is put in the hands of people with the commitment and skill to successfully and creatively run it.
I came of age in the theatre just as August burst onto the national scene. I saw Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in a pre-Broadway engagement on the campus of my college, I saw the premiere of Joe Turner’s Come And Gone at Yale Rep; I saw The Piano Lesson in its first reading in the barn at The O’Neill Theatre Center as well as its final dress rehearsal at Yale; I attended the Broadway openings of Two Trains Running, Gem of The Ocean, and Radio Golf. I have seen many other productions of his work. Though I knew August only casually, I was to have been a guest on a 60th birthday barge trip on the Nile that he and his producing partner Ben Mordecai had planned together, because my wife worked with Ben, and therefore August; she was ultimately a producer of August’s final Cycle play. The trip never happened because the birthdays fell in 2005, the year that Ben’s cancer recurred, leading to his death in May, followed by August’s passing only months later.
So my most direct connection to August is one of a great opportunity missed, and I feel the same sense of lost opportunity as I read about the troubles of the Center in Pittsburgh. I wish I could rush out there and lend whatever help I can, but I don’t have the financial resources and it seems as if I would be much too late regardless. Even if Pittsburgh will lose what could have been an extraordinary cultural and community asset, at least America and the world will always have August’s Pittsburgh (and one fateful night in Chicago) through his writing . As I write this, Ruben Santiago-Hudson is sustaining August’s living legacy by enacting August’s words at the opening night of How I Learned What I Learned, a monologue Wilson originally wrote for himself to perform.
There is one bit of positive news that the Times missed. Wilson’s boarded up childhood home may yet see life again, as a plan to reopen it as a coffee shop was announced just over a week ago. Since August was well known for writing in coffee shops, perhaps that will be the truest memorial, rather than the $42 million edifice that never really become anyone’s home.