Denzel Washington Honors August Wilson’s Legacy at House Opening

PITTSBURGH — On Saturday, crowds gathered outside August Wilson’s childhood home in the historic Hill District here to celebrate the grand opening of the August Wilson House. After a yearslong fund-raising and restoration effort, the house where the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright spent the first 13 years of his life will now be open to the public with the goal of extending Wilson’s legacy and advancing Black arts in culture.

Wilson, who died in 2005, is perhaps best known for his series of 10 plays called the American Century Cycle, which detail the various experiences of Black Americans throughout the 20th century. Nine of these plays are set in this city’s Hill District — a bastion of Black history, arts and culture — and one, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” is set in Chicago.

The restoration effort was a long time coming. Wilson’s nephew, Paul Ellis Jr., began the project after his uncle’s death. The abandoned house had been left to sit in a state of disrepair. Although it became a spot of cultural pilgrimage for Wilson’s fans after his death, those pilgrims saw only decay once they arrived.

With the help of various Pittsburgh foundations and other benefactors — among them, the two-time Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington — the house is now a home for those who will follow in Wilson’s footsteps.

The August Wilson House is not a museum. Instead, the restored space is a community center that will offer artist residencies, gathering spaces, fellowships and other programming for up-and-coming artists and scholars. There is also an outdoor stage behind the home, which is currently showcasing the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company’s production of Wilson’s play “Jitney” through Sept. 18.

The playwright spent the first 13 years of his life in the house in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood, the setting for many of his plays.Credit…Jeff Swensen for The New York Times

According to Sam Reiman, a trustee of the Richard King Mellon Foundation here and a board member of the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, the space will be “the birthplace of August Wilson’s successors.”

Along with Reiman, Saturday’s ceremony featured a star-studded lineup of speakers, including Washington, who helped raise millions toward the home’s restoration. Washington also starred in, produced and directed the 2016 film adaptation of “Fences,” one of Wilson’s Pittsburgh-based plays, that filmed throughout the Hill District. He also produced the 2020 film adaptation of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Washington praised those in attendance for their support of Wilson and his legacy.

“I want to thank the community,” Washington said, because Wilson “is yours, and you are his. You just share him with the rest of us.”

Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero Wilson, who designed the costumes for many of Wilson’s later plays, also spoke at the event.

“This is sacred ground,” she said of the house, located at 1727 Bedford Avenue. It “commemorates our generation’s hero — August Wilson. August Wilson House belongs to the Hill, to Black Americans, and because his stories are American stories of triumph under oppression, it belongs to all of us Americans.”

Washington thanked the community for its support. “You just share him with the rest of us,” he said.Credit…Jeff Swensen for The New York Times

Also in attendance were local leaders, including Ed Gainey, Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor, and Daniel Lavelle, a city councilman.

The commencement speaker for Gainey’s college graduation in 1994 was none other than August Wilson, whose name the mayor admitted to never hearing before that day. He called his mother, he said, and she told him everything about the playwright.

“There’s not a child in this city who should not know who August Wilson is. Not a child,” Gainey said. “And today speaks volumes to how far we’ve come in recognizing African American history in this city and celebrating the heroes that came before us.”

He added, “Today is August Wilson’s Day.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Lavelle, who had one note for Gainey’s speech.

“Not only should every kid in our city know who August Wilson is,” he said, “but every person in this country should know who August Wilson is.”

Lavelle also read a City of Pittsburgh proclamation declaring Aug. 13, 2022, Paul Ellis Jr. Day, honoring his work to preserve Wilson’s home.

“People actually told me that my vision was too big,” Ellis explained, adding that when he spoke about what he wanted his uncle’s house to become, people looked at him as if he was a child proudly declaring he’d someday be president.

“But as Nelson Mandela said, ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done.’”

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