The graduate student is immersed in her American drama and theater studies. It’s 1991, and Kornelia Tancheva, a native of Bulgaria, is a seasoned student of English language and literature. She’s always been intrigued by stories and the power they possess to convey history, culture and identity.
Now, her professors have charged her to consider how the theater ignites this power, too. She watches plays and engages with critical writing and debate — all in pursuit of understanding how theater tries to answer the question, What is America? She and her classmates investigate through iconic playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee and Arthur Miller.
Early in her studies, the work of another noted playwright is brought to her attention. She reads the play “Fences” and is introduced for the first time to August Wilson, a Pittsburgh-born playwright whose fame is surging. By 1991, he’s had four plays on Broadway, received a Tony Award, and won two Pulitzer Prizes — a list of remarkable honors and achievements that have helped to open new pathways for Black artists and started to transform the way theater approaches race.
Perhaps because she, too, has transplanted herself across geographies and cultures, Tancheva is drawn deep into Wilson’s work, much of which focuses on people torn from one place and seeking dreams in another. Through the course of her graduate studies in the 1990s at Cornell University, she sees most of Wilson’s plays and keeps copies of his work used in class discussions. She’s impressed with Wilson’s ability to capture experience through language and fascinated by the voices he gives to his characters. But she’s also struck by the setting of his plays. What was this almost mythical Hill District that showcased the frustration and promises of being Black in America in the 20th century, she ponders, and what made it such a deliberate part of Wilson’s body of work?
Years after Tancheva sits in a dark New York theater absorbing Wilson’s work, a little girl who will come to be deeply inspired by the playwright comes into being. Trinidy Manison begins her life in 2006, born into a family that lives in a house in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. She first hears of the playwright as a fourth grader at A. Leo Weil Elementary School, where Wilson is but a mere mention on a list of Black History Month pioneers.
She doesn’t yet know that Wilson was born in the rear of a tattered house less than a mile from where she gets her lessons. She has no idea the streets she walks are the same streets he roamed, collecting the stories and hearing the voices that became the foundation of his work. Little does she know the heroes of his plays are the everyday people of the Hill, folks no different from her mother, her neighbors, her friends.
In 2017, after channeling her studies into a vibrant career as an academic library director and coordinator, Tancheva is hired as the Hillman University Librarian and director of Pitt’s University Library System, which consists of 13 libraries across Pitt’s campuses. Tancheva relished the opportunity to oversee a system that has a cumulative print and electronic collection of approximately 7 million volumes. She was also well aware of the system’s Archives and Special Collections department, which houses records, manuscripts, personal papers and rare books on a multitude of topics and individuals.
Along with her years of experience, Tancheva brings her appreciation for Wilson to Pitt. She believes there would be no better place to house Wilson’s archives than the University — in part because the Pittsburgh campus is just a short jitney drive away from where Wilson’s story began.
Born in the Hill District in 1945, Wilson was a complicated riddle of a man. If he didn’t live his life, he surely would have written it. His story is as rich and intricate as any he’s penned.
He was the Black son of a white father, a bohemian spirit growing up in a tough urban environment and a young poet with a gentle soul, often writing about his romances and the generations that had come before him — Hill residents and his own family.
His African American mother was from North Carolina. She and his father, who came from Eastern Europe, had seven children and rented two rooms in the rear of a dilapidated home on Bedford Avenue.
He was a quiet, observant and gifted child. He learned to read at age 4 and spent much of his life cataloging and trying to document a world he didn’t seem to fit into. His mixed racial heritage made Wilson feel like an outsider. As noted by Laurence Glasco, an associate professor of history at Pitt who is writing a biography of Wilson, he was someone wandering on the “periphery” of life.
He was drawn to African American culture early. Sitting at his mother’s knee, he learned of the history and purpose of the people who came before him. But he also absorbed the stories he heard from immersing himself into life around the Hill District. Wilson thought the world should know the pride and strength of the people he saw along Centre Avenue.
His arc toward making that happen was launched, strangely enough, when a Black high school teacher mistakenly believed Wilson had plagiarized a 20-page paper on Napoleon Bonaparte. Insulted by the teacher’s disbelief and in a huff of teenage obstinance, Wilson never returned to school. Instead, he left his home every day and headed to the Carnegie Library. There, he read, and he read. Poetry, biographies, novels — poring over classical and African American literature. His first imagining of himself was as a poet, where his verse, often dotted with the everyday men and women of the Hill, documented his personal sufferings as an outsider.
Coming of age in the Black Power and the Black Arts movements, Wilson soon evolved into a playwright. He would come to pen a 10-play cycle — nine of which are set in the Hill District. He would use his poetic sensibilities to give voice to Black struggle and agency. With his look at the Black working class and its resilience in the face of systemic oppression, Wilson wanted to show that cultural and spiritual survival in a new land was a Black power.
Over time, the Pittsburgh native earned a reputation among academics and theatergoers of being among the best-ever playwrights, the bard of Black theater, a sort of Shakespeare for a new generation. In 2005, he was the first Black man to have a Broadway theater named in his honor. In 2021, he was honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a stamp bearing his name and likeness.
Meanwhile, Hollywood’s elite pant after chances to play the characters he created. Actor and director Denzel Washington is working to bring all of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle to the big screen. He’s already done so with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which won two Oscars in 2021, and “Fences,” which won an Oscar in 2017.
Wilson died of liver cancer in 2005 while living in Seattle, and his bounty — scripts and production materials, items from his personal library and music collection, artwork and poetry — was stuffed into a warehouse there.
“The archive really helped me to understand where I come from and the contributions that come from this community.”
Tancheva, after arriving at Pitt in 2017, envisioned bringing all of it “home” to Pitt. She wanted to make his world accessible to scholars around the world through the University’s library system and its digital and archival services. She also wanted to help preserve everything of Wilson’s, from the paper napkins where he had written bits of dialogue, to handbills, photos, Playbills and scores and scores of yellow legal pads, where — poignantly, for a writer who often lived on the margins of society — he had filled the margins with notes of his observations and thoughts.
Almost immediately, she built relationships with people associated with Wilson. Those associations led her to Wilson’s widow, the costume designer Constanza Romero. Tancheva corresponded with Romero, pitching to her why the University of Pittsburgh, neighboring the Hill District, would be the perfect repository. Romero agreed.
The library officially acquired the Wilson collection in 2020. Tancheva calls it “the most significant archival collection the University of Pittsburgh has acquired to date.”
Once on campus, part of the work of opening the archives included outreach to established scholars, encouraging them to come and take a first look. Come they did, from far and wide.
“This place is sacred,” says Eric M. Glover, a professor with the Yale University School of Drama. “To touch the papers, hold the notes, read the letters, and pore over Wilson’s correspondence is a way to contemplate the life and ideas of the playwright we honor,” he says.
There’s good reason why Wilson’s work is so prized, says Tancheva. The playwright contributed something new, different and enduring.
“He gives a voice to the Black experience in the United States that is authentic and grounded, and is in a medium — Western theater in general, but American theater, in particular — that has ignored or distorted those voices for a very long time. That’s the new part.”
“The different part,” she explains, is that “Wilson captures a specific experience through dramatic dialogue as opposed to using poetry or fiction or music.”
And the enduring part?
“That is very obvious,” she says. “We are still talking about August Wilson and his work today.”
Tancheva knew from the outset this “sacred” site would be useful to more than just August Wilson scholars. “There’s intrinsic value in this archive, not just for the people who are studying drama and theater, but because of who Wilson was, because of his background,” she says.
Each item in the collection offers a bridge to historical, sociological, political and artistic discoveries. Like other parts of Pitt’s special collections, the August Wilson Archive has the power to foster research and scholarly engagement across fields and generations.
With that promise in mind, Pitt’s Library Services offers funding opportunities for artists, scholars and educators. One of those opportunities is the August Wilson Archive Student Research Award for Pittsburgh-area high school students, which provides a paid, three-month research internship to explore the Wilson Archive and create a project exhibit or creative work.
In the fall of 2022, Manison, at the time a junior at Milliones University Prep high school in the Hill, hears about this opportunity from one of her teachers.
She’s an inquisitive student who dreams of being a lawyer or a neurosurgeon and was intrigued by the idea of the research award. She applied and was accepted.
Over the course of three months, as she took her place in the Archives and Special Collections reading room on Hillman Library’s third floor, Manison became immersed in her studies.
She says she learned about more than Wilson’s life and works. Through him, she studied art, history, politics and perseverance.
She learned how the Hill was once considered the “crossroads of the world,” a place vibrant with commerce and buzzing with ideas. Writers bloomed there and music flowed, including from the likes of jazz legends Cab Calloway and Dizzy Gillespie, who passed through on their way from Chicago to New York. She learned how it all began to crumble when swaths of homes and businesses were razed to make way for the discriminatory urban renewal projects of the late 1950s, including the building of the now-demolished Civic Arena. And she learned about the people who never ceased to fight to make the Hill better. It’s a fight that soldiers on even today, as redevelopment efforts continue on the Hill.
Manison says Wilson’s work opened her up to the idea that her neighborhood is more than a church or a corner store. It’s a place to belong.
In working with archive staff, she accessed nine boxes of material. She ultimately zeroed in on the play “King Hedley II,” set in 1985, and how it navigates the subjects of reproductive rights and incarceration — subjects, she notes, that are still relevant to Hill residents today. She turned her explorations into a visual exhibit that was displayed at the main branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
Manison says her research with the archive was “one of the most inspirational experiences” of her life.
“[With] the insight that I got about the Hill, I now see everything differently,” she says. “The archive really helped me to understand where I come from and the contributions that come from this community.”
Wilson’s work exposed her to the idea that the Hill is a place of culture and creation. The Hill’s history, she saw, is American history — is her history.
Before 2020, there were two pillars in Wilson’s hometown that memorialized his legacy: downtown Pittsburgh’s August Wilson African American Cultural Center — which features The Writer’s Landscape, a permanent exhibition of Wilson’s life and plays — and, not too far away, the home where he was born, which has been restored as August Wilson House, now functioning as a community arts center. It’s only the third such honor for a Black male writer in America’s history.
By bringing his archive to Pitt, says Tancheva, a “trilogy of care” has been created, with the University serving as a third pillar supporting and advancing Wilson’s legacy, the legacies of the people, places and events that helped to shape him, and the understandings of those moved by his stories.
Manison agrees. In finding Wilson, she says, she found herself.
Sacred sites are known to have that kind of effect.
Lead image: A self-portrait by August Wilson (circa 1992)
This story was published on Aug. 30, 2023. It is part of Pitt Magazine's Fall 2023 issue.