PITTSBURGH (AP) - People regularly visit Pittsburgh’s Hill District seeking the birthplace of August Wilson.
“That happens every day,” Hill District resident Mark Southers, founder of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, said.
A greater number of visitors could be headed there soon, thanks to the Christmas Day release of “Fences,” a film set and shot in Wilson’s old neighborhood and adapted from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
With Denzel Washington and Viola Davis delivering Oscar-caliber performances, a question emerges: Will “Fences” bring a wider, more mainstream audience to Wilson’s works?
“Oh, absolutely. And it’s long overdue,” said Southers, whose theater group has staged Wilson’s acclaimed “Pittsburgh Cycle” of plays. “It’s just too bad it couldn’t have happened in his lifetime.”
A broadened interest in Wilson’s writings could provide spin-off benefits for local entities like the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District, and Wilson’s childhood home at 1727 Bedford Ave., now being transformed into an artist-driven community center.
“The success of a movie that has ties to the great August Wilson should raise awareness for the August Wilson Center, his works, and theater groups that are associated with his works,” Tom Loftus, chief marketing officer for VisitPITTSBURGH said.
Loftus and other members of VisitPITTSBURGH, the official tourist agency for Allegheny County, recently brainstormed on possible benefits “Fences” could bring.
“Literary lovers already seek out August Wilson’s boyhood home just to see the plaque that stands along Bedford Avenue,” the VisitPITTSBURGH report concluded. “The revitalization of this home into the Daisy Wilson Artist Community, whose mission is to promote the literary and social legacy of August Wilson through the restoration of his boyhood home, would be another reason for admirers to visit Pittsburgh.”
Construction scaffolding currently dominates the outside of the future Daisy Wilson Artist home proposed as a studio space for fine arts, music and literature, while enabling visitors to explore the cultural narrative of August Wilson plays through seminars, readings, exhibits and performances.
This summer, in another salute to Wilson, city officials renovated and renamed Cliffside Park in the Hill after the award-winning playwright who died in 2005 at the age of 60. Today, August Wilson Park features public art inspired by neighborhood children; an installation of vintage photographs from Pittsburgh native Charles “Teenie” Harris; and displayed quotations from Wilson.
Neighbors like Beverly Brown say the “Fences” movie was a big deal for the Hill, and could help with ongoing revitalization efforts, especially with any publicity sparked by Oscar-winner Washington’s star power.
“I heard that he bought the houses that he stayed in and filmed at,” Brown said. “I figure (the movie) will help. Everything seems to be building up. They’re fixing up a lot of things due to the fact. I’m sure it’s a good thing.”
A greater awareness of the Hill’s historical roots could result from the “Fences” film, which includes references to the legendary Crawford Grill jazz club and the Pittsburgh Courier, which was one of the nation’s top African-American newspapers.
Set in the mid- to late-1950s, “Fences” revolves around a Pittsburgh garbage collector, Troy, who causes a rift within his family when he opposes his son’s dreams of playing college football. A great baseball player in his youth, Troy is bitter that he missed out on the chance to try out for Major League Baseball, since the league didn’t lift its color ban until 1947. A proud and pragmatic man who becomes one of the Pittsburgh sanitation department’s first black drivers, Troy believes his son should forget football, and learn a career trade like auto mechanics or home construction.
It’s a powerful story that resonates with audiences. The same goes for Wilson’s nine other “Pittsburgh Cycle” plays, all of which Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre has performed, including a version of the Tony- and Pulitzer-nominated “Seven Guitars” staged this summer for sold-out audiences in the backyard of Wilson’s childhood home.
Southers, the founder and producing artistic director of Pittsburgh Playwrights, said Wilson plays typically sell out, prompting more shows to be added. He estimates 80 to 90 percent of Pittsburgh audiences have been white.
“What’s happened in the last 30 years is white folks have had a chance to better appreciate black life through August Wilson’s plays, and his very realistic portrayals of the daily grind faced by African-Americans through every decade,” Southers said. “So it’s been a history lesson as well as great storytelling.
“From my perspective, I think August Wilson is the greatest playwright of all time, and that’s not dissing William Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams,” Southers said. “From my perspective, he speaks to my life. His characters are my aunts and my uncles and my cousins and my grandparents; I don’t get that from Tennessee Williams. And if a white person said the opposite thing, I’d respect that.”
For people already fans of the “Fences” play, the film will be like a tasty dessert, said Southers, who’s planning a Christmas Day movie outing with family members.
“We can’t wait to see it. We need to see it,” said Southers, whose grandmother’s house is visible in an opening scene where kids are playing baseball in the street.
As a theater director, Southers doesn’t worry the film will hurt ticket sales for stage versions of Wilson plays.
“Nothing can replace live performances,” he said.
“I’m going to be very honest: My hope is that the African-American community takes this journey, understanding this movie comes from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play and won multiple Tonys; a play that’s one of the best things that ever happened on Broadway for African-Americans.”
He hopes “Fences” becomes a bridge leading moviegoers to see other plays.
“August Wilson plays, Pittsburgh plays, plays by other African-Americans or just plays in general,” Southers, former chief photographer for the New Pittsburgh Courier, said. “That’s how we learn about each other. You’re touching lives through different experiences.”
While it certainly won’t reach anywhere near the lofty box office numbers of the new “Star Wars” film, or whichever superhero flick comes out next, “Fences” could make an indelible mark, spearheaded by the pairing of Oscar winner Washington and Oscar nominee Viola Davis (an Emmy winner for ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder”).
“It’s great in not only what this film is going to do for the legacy of August Wilson, but what it’s going to do for Pittsburgh,” Southers said.
And that could include a publicity boost for the downtown August Wilson Center, which has struggled financially, less than three years removed from bankruptcy proceedings and a November 2014 sheriff’s sale. A coalition of private foundations saved the center, providing $8.3 million, aided by another $3.1 million in taxpayer money supplied by the Allegheny County sales tax and Urban Redevelopment Authority.
With the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust brought in to help manage the Liberty Avenue center, the sleekly modern-looking facility currently offers multiple exhibition galleries, a 472-seat performance theater and an education center for classes, lectures and hands-on learning.
A Cultural Trust spokeswoman couldn’t be reached for comment, thought the Trust’s website lists such upcoming August Wilson Center events as a jazz show by the Sean Jones Quartet on Dec. 17, and critically praised Portland, Ore., soul singer Jarrod Lawson on Jan. 20.
Information from: Beaver County Times, https://www.timesonline.com/
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