University of Pittsburgh

August Wilson’s CLASS ACT

One of the nation’s greatest playwrights, August Wilson, was born within a few miles of the University of Pittsburgh campus, and his legacy here continues to stir the souls of students and teachers alike.

Written by Ervin Dyer

Glasco

Glasco

On a Saturday morning, regulars in the Kuntu Writers Workshop gather in a bright room along Forbes Avenue on the University of Pittsburgh campus. Eight writers—young, old, Black, White—pull their chairs into a circle. One is wearing a dashiki. Another sports an afro.

One fair-skinned man in a dark goatee and floppy cap sits with his shirt buttoned to the collar. He fumbles with his rolled up legal pad. Usually, he offers writing—poems and prose—that touch on culture, race, and the human heart. When he reads, he lifts a pipe from his mouth and speaks almost in a whisper. Softly, he assesses the work of others, sometimes stammering, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings.

The man is August Wilson, at age 31, on the path to becoming one of the nation’s greatest playwrights. For awhile, he was part of this writers’ circle every other Saturday, where the group bantered about history, politics, life, and the struggle for equality. The writers critiqued each other’s work, revised their pieces, and some even submitted scripts to Pitt’s Kuntu Repertory Theatre.

Wilson, in the Hill District on Bedford Avenue near the house that was his boyhood home.

Wilson, in the Hill District on Bedford Avenue near the house that was his boyhood home.

It turns out that Wilson—a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who died in 2005 at the age of 60—has a 30-year legacy that’s woven into Pitt as intricately as roses to a trellis. Today, the playwright’s accomplishments make for flourishing study here. Several Pitt professors are among the national vanguard of scholars who are exploring and teaching about Wilson’s world and his works.

It is a warm Wednesday evening, and an orange sun is setting. A lanky professor with a gentle yet sonorous voice holds class on a Centre Avenue corner in the Hill District, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. For a moment, he stops talking and waits for the noisy bus belching black smoke to pass. Pitt history professor Laurence Glasco does not want the dozens of students, some of them taking notes, to miss a word.

He’s giving his students a walking tour of the neighborhood. The group moves together along the avenue, then stops in front of the century-old St. Benedict the Moor Church. Atop the church is a giant open-armed statue of St. Benedict, the patron saint of Blacks in North America. Playwright August Wilson once worshipped in this building, says Glasco to the group.

The professor knows that he stands in the shadow of one saint while revering another: Wilson has taken his place at the top of the pantheon of revered, creative figures who passed through the Hill neighborhood across the years, among them  Lena Horne, Billy Strayhorn, George Benson, Billy Eckstine, and Earl “Fatha” Hines.

Wilson was born in the Hill District in 1945, when the community bounced with Black life. He grew up on its cobbled streets, where friends remember him as a wandering, mischievous young man. His nickname was “Freckles,” because his light skin was dotted with them. He always had a pen and paper and was always scribbling, scribbling, scribbling.

Not far from the church, reminders of Wilson’s life still haunt the Hill: his age-battered birth home; the jitney stations he frequented; and the block where a young Freddy August Kittel shut himself up in a boarding house, blues music wailing on his 78 rpm phonograph, and typed permutations of his name, eventually merging his middle name with his mother Daisy Wilson’s maiden name, to be reborn as August Wilson.

“C’mon, let’s move on,” says Glasco as the group turns a corner and rambles up Crawford Street, crawling deeper into Wilson’s world.

Various biographies of the playwright recount a similar story:  Wilson began reading at the age of 4. As a youngster, he often visited the local library, and he remained an enthusiastic reader throughout his life. During his teenage years, his family moved off the Hill to a mostly White working-class neighborhood, where Wilson experienced recurring racism, especially in high school. Frustrated, he dropped out of school and began his own course of self-study at Oakland’s Carnegie Library.  At the age of 20, he bought his first typewriter and continued to earn money through a string of low-wage jobs.  On his own time, he would often sit in local restaurants, writing, writing, writing.

Eleven years later, in 1976, he cofounded the Kuntu Writers Workshop with his friend, Rob Penny—a Pitt professor who later became chair of the Department of Africana Studies. The University-related writer’s forum blossomed as part of the nation’s Black arts movement, fostering work that fed Black pride. Years earlier, Wilson and Penny had founded Black Horizon Theatre on the Hill, a Black activist theater company that flourished during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Wilson’s presence at the Kuntu Writers Workshop is one of the earliest recollections in which friends can place him on Pitt’s campus. In 1976, two events boosted Wilson’s writerly ambitions: A colleague, Pitt professor Vernell Lillie, directed one of  Wilson’s early plays, The Homecoming, for Kuntu Theatre, and Wilson later guest directed In New England Winter, a Kuntu show performed in the University’s black box theater. People involved at the time remember him as a meticulous, sensitive director who showed up for rehearsals in a crumpled jacket and tie. Over several years, both the Kuntu workshop and theater kept Wilson connected to Pitt.

The budding playwright left Pittsburgh in 1978 to visit a theater friend in St. Paul, Minn. Wilson stayed in St. Paul, got a job as a scriptwriter at a science museum, and began focusing on writing for theater. Somehow, being away from the hub of Pittsburgh Hill life gave him artistic clarity. One account says that he wrote his play Jitney in 10 days, mostly while sitting in a fish-and- chips restaurant.

His work began to attract attention and grant money, ultimately gaining notice from Lloyd Richards, who was the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre and dean of the Yale School of Drama. In April 1984, Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was staged at Yale; in October, the play opened on Broadway and then won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. Before Wilson’s death from liver cancer in 2005, he would win many more awards for his work, including a Tony Award for Fences in 1987 and two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama—one for Fences in 1987 and one for The Piano Lesson in 1990.

Around 4:15 p.m., the students start to show up. Their hands are cupped around coffee mugs, their cell phones pasted to their ears.  In their jeans and sweatshirts, baseball caps and ponytails, they take their seats and wait for their professor in Room 230 of the Cathedral of Learning. Soon, Chris Rawson enters in his tweedy jacket.

He’s in a swirl. Before class ends, he must review an exam, preview the next lecture, and take students through a discussion of Aunt Esther, an ancestral figure that Wilson uses to explore the continuity of Black culture.

Welcome to August Wilson as English literature.

Rawson, a faculty member in Pitt’s English department since 1968, also is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s longtime theater critic. He has taught the August Wilson class since 2006. It grew from conversations he had with the playwright over the years. Wilson, who once taught a theater class at Dartmouth and who received an honorary doctorate from Pitt in 1992, liked the idea and told Rawson, “Great. I’ll come to your class. It will be fun.”

He died before he could get there.

The University of Pittsburgh, though, had already found its way into Wilson’s work. In Jitney, set in 1977, a character nicknamed Booster is a bright African American kid who wins a scholarship to Pitt in the mid-1950s only to lose it when an interracial romance turns tragic. Booster’s story is one among many in Wilson’s 10-play cycle that chronicles every decade of the Black experience in 20th-century America. Nine of the plays take place in Pittsburgh’s Hill neighborhood, where Wilson pays homage to the rhythm of the lives of garbage men, blues musicians, domestics, and mystics. As the soul of a people’s history flowed from his pen, Wilson made the ordinary extraordinary.

On many occasions, dating back to 1984, Rawson sat in the dark—as a drama critic—and witnessed the poignant theater of August Wilson. In the last years of the playwright’s life, Rawson’s relationship with him budded into friendship. They chatted at Broadway openings, and Wilson sent the critic photos of his new baby daughter, autographed books, and cigars.

For Rawson, teaching the August Wilson class has been a privilege and an emotional experience. At times, the teacher has been the student. After all, Rawson—who also heads the national theater critics association—has lived in Pittsburgh for four decades. For 30 of those years, he avoided the Hill District, believing it to be desolate. It was his interest in Wilson’s dramas and his growing relationship with the playwright that first took Rawson to the Hill.

What he found there, he wrote in the playwright’s 2005 obituary, was “August Wilson Country—the archetypal northern urban Black neighborhood, a construct of frustration, nostalgia, anger, and dream.” It was a world of imagination, wrote Rawson, “to rank with such other transformational fictional worlds as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, Hardy’s Wessex, or Friel’s Donegal.”

So, as a bright sun pours through the curtains in Room 230, it is Rawson who works hard to help his students understand that Wilson has created theatrical literature—and it’s not just something to read, but it’s something to be put on its feet.

To that end, he has taken his classes to local theater performances and on trips to Washington, D.C., for marathon viewings of Wilson productions, often staying behind to chat with actors before driving home late in the night.

Together with Pitt’s Glasco, Rawson is writing a book about “August Wilson’s Pittsburgh.” The publication will have 10 chapters, each focused on one of the decades in which the plays are based. It also will include a biography of Wilson and hundreds of photos.

The book, says Rawson with a smile, will be written so that everyone, even those most like the characters who populate the plays—the waitresses, drivers, and everyday people—can access the historical cycle.

The lady in red enters Pitt’s Posvar Hall, Room 4165. She does not so much walk in as she pirouettes, light on her feet and grand. Her black hair is pulled into an upswept bun, a crown. “Hello students,” she grins as she plugs in her Dell computer.

Through the Department of Africana Studies, Kimberly Ellis, an American Studies scholar, is teaching a course created by the late Rob Penny called August Wilson Dramas. How apropos for the glam, theatrical “Dr. Goddess,” an alter ego that Ellis—who also is an actress—uses to combine a bold spirit with an ardor for the arts and activism. Funny, intelligent, passionate, she is always onstage.

Her computer revved up, she’s ready to discuss one of her favorite subjects: August Wilson.  Her class, a stew of ages, generations, ethnicities, and political thought, resembles an August Wilson audience. This early evening, they are all more actors than spectators as Ellis assigns readings from King Hedley II and Seven Guitars, the two plays being discussed. “And, action,” she commands the students, who take turns chewing on the rich language that Wilson puts in their mouths.

For Ellis, all of Wilson’s words are gems. She mines the plays for lessons in history, faith, sexuality, community, fatherhood, and culture. The students laugh, and debate, and laugh some more.

“I love this class,” says Ellis. “So many things going on at once, but I want my students to walk out understanding August Wilson’s life, works, and legacy. He gave everyone—young people, African Americans, women, human beings—a toolbox for survival. His plays are a survival manual.”

Just look at his history, she reminds the students: Wilson dropped out of school and wasn’t supposed to have a future. “He had to prove life was worth something. He did make something of his life,” says Ellis, pausing a moment and peering into the eyes of her students. “He knew more than anybody what it meant to be looked down on.”

But, she adds, he became a “big man”—a line he uses in his plays. “I think he wanted young people to know you can’t let others define who you are,” she says. “You can create the life you want. You have to find your song and sing it.”

Honoring all that Wilson accomplished is bittersweet for the actress and academic. First, she never has enough time in her class to discuss it all. Second, Ellis is the niece of August Wilson, and any discussion of her uncle brings back the ghosts of their loving connection.

A native of the Hill District, Ellis practically grew up at the playwright’s knee. Her mother’s old home, despite always being hammered by repairs and upgrades, was a refuge for her uncle. When “Uncle Freddy” visited, it was storytelling time. They would engage in a sing-songy call-and-response (one of her favorites was, “What you gonna do when your troubles get like mine?”) and spend the night sharing tales.

To distance herself professionally and to not cry every time she lectures on her uncle, she refers to him by the formal “Wilson.” But that does not stop her memories. Even in his 20s, she recalls, “Uncle Freddy dressed like an old man. He was very practical, and shopped at Goodwill until he died.” She tried to get him to listen to hip-hop, to go to the movies, but he stayed in his own world. All he listened to was the blues.

Yet, Wilson’s art extends far beyond that simple world. Ellis has introduced the playwright’s work to plenty of students, including David Tyson, a Pitt senior majoring in Italian studies. In her class, he found a freewheeling forum where history, urban development, race, and economics intersected. He also took the Hill District tour.  Tyson, who wears a braided ponytail and favors T-shirts, has embraced Wilson as one of his most revered authors. “Everything I’ve learned,” he says, “I’ve learned from August Wilson.”

Ellis thinks her uncle would be euphoric to know his influence lives on. A man deeply moved by artistry—blues music, the poems of Amiri Baraka, the writing of Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges, and the paintings of Romare Bearden (the playwright’s “four Bs”)—Wilson would love the idea that his own art continues to inspire others’ lives at the University of Pittsburgh and far beyond.

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