2017-08-15 06:58:04
Footsteps: August Wilson’s Pittsburgh

As soon as you emerge from the Fort Pitt Tunnel in Pittsburgh the city’s impressive skyline appears, with the 44-story Art Deco Gulf Tower and the glassy, neo-Gothic PPG Place accentuating the view. Those two buildings tell the tale of the city. Once defined by its production of iron and steel, along with the ensuing smog, Pittsburgh now has self-driving cars being tested on its streets and rapid gentrification in many of its historically blue-collar neighborhoods.

It may seem as if the city is changing at an unparalleled pace but Pittsburgh has been steadily evolving for generations. August Wilson, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, poet, scholar and native son knew this firsthand. Change was something that Wilson brilliantly captured in what is known as the Century Cycle, his collection of 10 plays that reveal the broad African-American experience for each decade of the 20th century.

From Aunt Ester’s trove of cautionary wisdom in “Gem of the Ocean” to Troy Maxson’s face-off with the demons of unrealized dreams in “Fences” to Harmond Wilks’s dilemma in realizing the consequences of urban renewal in “Radio Golf,” the seminal elements of Wilson’s plays pay homage to the people of the Hill District. The working-class and heavily African-American neighborhood next to downtown serves as the setting for nine of his cycle plays.

Mark Clayton Southers, a playwright and the founder and producing artistic director of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company, has produced every cycle play at theater companies across the country and was a mentee of Wilson’s.

“August wrote what he knew,” Mr. Southers said, adding that “he championed the common man, with themes like duty, honor, trust and betrayal.”

Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel Jr. in 1945, the son of Frederick August Kittel Sr., a white German immigrant, and Daisy Wilson, an African-American domestic worker. Raised by his mother, Wilson was the fourth of seven children. After his father died in 1965 he started using the name August Wilson, but his family never stopped calling him Freddy.

Wilson was a resident of the city until 1978, before moving to St. Paul and then Seattle. He also made frequent trips back to Pittsburgh, the place that would define a career that ended only when he died in 2005.

For me to truly understand the cycle, I set off to explore the district and arranged to speak with some of the family members and friends who knew him best. They would define a portrait of an artist who had an unwavering commitment to chronicling both the triumphs and the painful setbacks of African-Americans, from the early days of industrialization to contemporary times. I thought about how he would have contributed to the national dialogue around recent incidents involving race and class. Wilson’s life story had long fascinated me. When he spoke, his poetic form could take over a room.

Heading to the neighborhood, I turned off the Fort Pitt Bridge, near where the Allegheny River and Monongahela River converge to form the Ohio River, and the water brought to mind one of the most poignant passages from Aunt Ester in “Gem of the Ocean,” Wilson’s earliest play in the cycle, set in 1904.

“I been across the water. I seen both sides of it. I know about the water. The water has its secrets the way the land has its secrets. Some know about the land. Some know about the water. But there is some that know about the land and the water. They got both sides of it.”

Aunt Ester, a 285-year-old former slave and one of my favorite Wilson characters, is talking to Citizen Barlow, a recent migrant from Alabama. She wants to take Citizen on a spiritual trip to the City of Bones, an underwater city in the Atlantic Ocean constructed from the bones of slaves who perished during the Middle Passage. This dialogue is classic Wilson — creative and relevant, yet emotionally captivating.

“I been across the water,” she starts before taking him on the journey.

If I wanted to capture the playwright’s childhood, it would require some digging. Much of what Wilson would have seen as a child there had been supplanted. Even the building that he would have gone to every day, Holy Trinity School, no longer existed.

But memories of Wilson and his time there endure. Sala Udin, who recently won a primary election for a seat on the city’s school board, attended school with him in the early 1950s. Mr. Udin recalled that when the other children would play games, Freddy was usually off to the side, writing.

Holy Trinity, his first school, was demolished later that decade as construction of the Civic Arena encroached on the lower Hill District, just a stone’s throw from downtown. Eminent domain was enforced and by 1958 roughly 8,000 mostly African-American residents had been displaced, including Mr. Udin and his immediate family.

“The plan was to extend the downtown cultural district eastward, but the neighborhood became very ill as a result of the construction,” Mr. Udin said. “It was an amputation of half of the body of the Hill District.”

After that, the Hill District experienced many of the same urban ills as other areas; rioting in the wake of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. left many stores burned. Despite this, a music scene remained in the area for several years, along with a contingent of local businesses, including Eddie’s Restaurant, one of Wilson’s favorite places in the neighborhood. He used to get coffee there, smoke and catch up with friends, often passing the hours talking. Wilson may have conceived “Jitney” inside Eddie’s, and the diner is referenced in “The Piano Lesson.”

“Go on down there to Wylie and Kirkpatrick to Eddie’s restaurant. Coffee cost a nickel and you can get two eggs, sausage, and grits for fifteen cents. He even give you a biscuit with it.” — Doaker, “The Piano Lesson”

The neighborhood endured heavy urban flight and disinvestment in the 1970s and 1980s. The marked turnaround of the early 1990s resulted in the construction of the Crawford Square Apartments. Part of the complex was constructed on the site of 85 Crawford Street, where as a young man he struggled to pay rent in a now-demolished boardinghouse, but where he stored his cherished typewriter.

When Doaker says, “Go on down there to Wylie and Kirkpatrick,” he is referring to Wylie Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares in the district, which cuts through the heart of August Wilson’s home turf. The building that housed Eddie’s was razed in 2006. The intersection of Wylie Avenue and Kirkpatrick Street is now a grassy lot. A remnant of Eddie’s is a stool in a library behind the original restaurant.

Eventually the Civic Arena, which many came to see as a harbinger of the community’s destruction, was torn down and replaced with the modern PPG Paints Arena. Half a block away, the Freedom Corner was dedicated in 2001, commemorating the civil rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s who sought to maintain the Hill District. It is also a symbolic gateway to the neighborhood.

In 2006, a proposal to build a casino in the lower Hill District was overwhelmingly rejected by residents. To this day, the sphere of influence from downtown generally stops at Crawford Street, which for me was a jarring reminder of how ghosts from the past don’t easily dissipate.

Though much of Wilson’s Pittsburgh is gone, you could use his words to tour the district. I did so, led by Kimberly C. Ellis, a digital consultant and founder of the preservation-minded Historic Hill Institute, who is also the playwright’s niece. “The neighborhood has changed a lot,” she said, adding that “there is a renewed level of pride.”

Ms. Ellis took me to 1727 Bedford Avenue, where Wilson lived with his mother and most of his immediate family until he was almost 13. The brick building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is ringed by scaffolding. After its renovation, the house is slated to be the site of a multidisciplinary arts center, with an artist-in-residency program. We then saw her brother, Paul A. Ellis Jr., the executive director and general counsel of the August Wilson House. “This center is going to be an economic anchor for the entire Hill District, which is huge,” Mr. Ellis said. “It is a significant undertaking.”

Wilson used the house as valuable source material: It was the conceptual basis for “Seven Guitars,” which begins after a death and focuses on character and mortality.

I walked to the back of the house, to orient myself. In the play, the backyard is a meeting point for the characters, including Vera, who has conflicting feelings about the return of her musician ex-boyfriend, Floyd, and the down-to-earth neighbor Louise. I saw the cellar doors leading to the basement that Wilson described as storage space for the always eccentric Hedley.

Set in 1948, during Wilson’s early childhood, the play chronicles a time when many African-Americans were returning from serving in World War II but still faced inequality. Wilson never shied away from this sort of commentary, as it honestly tackled the African-American experience in a northern city, something that was often overshadowed by the overt oppression of the Jim Crow South. Being near the cellar reminded me of one of Hedley’s monologues, in which he laments the need to constantly defend his self-worth at a time of rigid racial norms.

“Everybody say Hedley crazy cause he black. Because he know the place of the black man is not at the foot of the white man’s boot. Maybe it is not all right in my head sometimes. Because I don’t like the world. I don’t like what I see from the people. The people is too small. I always want to be a big man.” — Hedley, “Seven Guitars”

The Bedford Hill Apartments, part of the Hope VI redevelopment plan, are across the street from Wilson’s home. The apartments were intended to create mixed-use housing in areas where public housing was predominant. It, too, appeared in one of Wilson’s plays. In “Radio Golf,” which focuses on gentrification, the “Bedford Hills Redevelopment, Inc.” exists.

Skepticism about the durability of minority political power is a theme in the play. In one scene, Harmond Wilks, an African-American real estate developer with mayoral ambitions, is speaking to Elder Joseph Barlow, known as Old Joe. Old Joe doesn’t think a presumptive African-American mayor would be allowed to have as much power as a white mayor. Harmond disagrees, but gives a witty retort: “Naw, I’m going to have all the keys and they’re going to have to make me some new ones. We are going to build up everything.”

Ms. Ellis and I headed to the Upper Hill District and 809 Anaheim Street, where “Fences,” starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, was filmed. It is a private residence, so there aren’t any tours. The facade is enough. Passing the tidy brick house, Mr. Wilson’s depiction of Troy echoed in my head, especially in a heated scene with his son Cory over a desire to play football. “See … you swung at the ball and didn’t hit it. That’s strike one. See, you in the batter’s box now. You swung and you missed. That’s strike one. Don’t you strike out!”

In the Middle Hill District, mostly along Centre and Wylie Avenues, are the remnants of the neighborhood’s golden age. Several buildings are ripe for renovation, but others have been demolished.

The Pittsburgh Weil School, where Wilson created the Black Horizon Theater with the playwright Rob Penny in 1968, continues to operate as a public school. At Black Beauty’s Lounge, a huge, colorful mural by Kyle Holbrook of Wilson and his plays is painted on the side of the building.

The building that formerly housed Lutz’s Meat Market, featured in “Two Trains Running,” stands vacant. In the play, an intriguing 1960s-era generational divide between Memphis Lee, who runs a diner, and Sterling, an aimless young man, breaks out in the open. Memphis is skeptical about the black power movement, while Sterling is curious about it. Memphis tells Sterling that African-Americans have to use the system that’s currently available and work within it, despite its flaws. “Freedom is heavy,” he says. “You got to put your shoulder to freedom. Put your shoulder to it and hope your back hold up. And if you around here looking for justice, you got a long wait.”

The New Granada Theater, originally built as a fraternal lodge and designed by Louis A. S. Bellinger, one of Pittsburgh’s first African-American architects, has been in disrepair for years. Despite this, it’s a stunning structure, and as Ms. Ellis noted, the theater often hosted musical legends including Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.

Nearby, the former Westbrook Jitney Station is now a grassy corner. When many cab companies wouldn’t service the Hill District, jitneys stepped in, providing an invaluable community resource. Reading “Jitney,” which won this year’s Tony Award for best revival of a play, I was fascinated by the practicality and quiet dignity of Becker, who runs the jitney station.

“You look up one day and all you got left is what you ain’t spent,” he says. “Every day cost you something and you don’t all the time realize it.”

We soon passed the now-vacant Crawford Grill No. 2, where Wilson relished a performance by the saxophonist John Coltrane. Down the block is the former Wylie Avenue branch of the Carnegie Library, which Wilson frequently visited as a small child. The building now houses the First Muslim Mosque of Pittsburgh.

One more focal point in the Wilson universe is Aunt Ester’s house, at 1839 Wylie Avenue. The home existed only in the universe of Wilson’s plays, with the address being a symbolic nod to the 1839 mutiny on the slave ship La Amistad. Despite this fact, the sloping site, accessible by stairs, has an almost supernatural quality to it.

The central location of the Hill District allowed us to get downtown in mere minutes. Soon we were at the Original Oyster House, a local institution in Market Square that Wilson frequented throughout his life. A mural inside depicts him eating a fish sandwich alongside other patrons.

A few blocks east we came upon the August Wilson Center, which features a 486-seat theater and a full complement of art exhibition and dance spaces. Opened in 2009, it struggled financially for several years, but recent leadership changes have prompted optimism about a turnaround, Ms. Ellis noted.

On my second day in Pittsburgh, I decided to go to the Oakland neighborhood, home to the University of Pittsburgh. It was in Oakland that Wilson had some of his most formative experiences.

As he moved around, Wilson went to several schools. At Central Catholic he gained encouragement for his writing from his English teacher, Brother Dominic. Yet Wilson struggled with the constant racial harassment that he endured. He left after one year, heading to a trade school and then enrolling at the Gladstone School in Hazelwood, where a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a term paper on Napoleon. Distraught, Wilson shunned the classroom and played basketball within sight of the principal’s office for several days. No one ever came outside for him, so he simply left.

The stacks of the main Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh soon became Wilson’s new classroom, nurturing his intellectual curiosity. I walked throughout the building, imagining Wilson using the large reading rooms and admiring the architecture. With the words “Free to the People” etched in stone across the entrance, the ornate library, which opened in 1895, complements the nearby 42-story Gothic Revival Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh.

Back in the Hill District, the local Carnegie Library branch has a community room dedicated to Wilson. During my visit it was packed, filled with patrons playing chess. There is that stool salvaged from Eddie’s restaurant, a large map of the Hill District and notably, a high school diploma issued to Wilson by the library.

August Wilson was 60 years old when he died of liver cancer. His memorial service, held at the grand Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland, was followed by a jazz-infused procession through the Hill District.

“When Wynton Marsalis played ‘Danny Boy’ at the service, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Mr. Udin said. “August dealt with death in a manner of dignity, the same way he would have done with any of his characters.”

I always wondered how August Wilson could write about joy and tragedy with such vigor. But then I realized that his use of raw vernacular among African-Americans was rather unprecedented. Not only are Wilson’s poems and plays necessary, but they will continue to be vital in understanding the complexities of the common man.

TOURS

The Historic Hill Institute (historichill.org/tours) offers tours of August Wilson’s Hill District, along with other customized tours.

WHERE TO EAT

Grandma B’s Café (2537 Wylie Avenue; 412-681-4087) feels like an old-school diner, with some of the friendliest staff that you will find anywhere. The menu features halal food, with choices like omelets and burgers. The French toast is spectacular.

WHERE TO STAY

There are a lot of options downtown, but the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Pittsburgh (620 William Penn Place; 412-471-1170; monaco-pittsburgh.com) stands out for its Beaux-Arts charm and personalized service.