Gray clouds clung to the skyline and a piercing wind whipped through the streets. But gloomy weather couldn’t dampen the celebratory vibes for last weekend’s third annual August Wilson Block Party.
Smoke streamed from the food truck grills, their generators rumbling furiously, while partygoers danced to music blasted from massive speakers, everything from “Fight the Power” to “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae).” Nearby, dozens of vendors braved the chill to sell their wares — makeup, clothing, necklaces, djembe drums — and local African American artists displayed their work inside a tent.
This was, however, no ordinary block party. The festival honors legendary playwright August Wilson in front of his long-empty childhood home at 1727 Bedford Ave. in the Hill District, the Pittsburgh neighborhood made famous in his 10-play “Century Cycle.” (Two of those plays, “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson,” won the Pulitzer Prize; “Fences” and “Jitney” both won Tony Awards.)
The party is held on the Saturday closest to his April 27 birthday; Wilson, who died of cancer in 2005, would have been 73. The event included young actors performing Wilson’s monologues for a competition in the backyard. This year’s event drew more than 3,000 visitors, more than twice the attendance of the inaugural event in 2016.
“The festival is about black culture and the preservation of it in Pittsburgh,” said Tierra Thorne, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh attending the festival.
Another attendee, Esther Bush, president of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, says Wilson’s name “is one that still brings hope, it’s one that brings the I-can-do-it attitude.”
Indeed, while the Block Party celebrates Wilson’s life and legacy, it has grander ambitions too, says Paul Ellis Jr., Wilson’s nephew and a local attorney. Ellis, who bought the house and created the nonprofit to oversee the restoration efforts, sees the party as a chance to raise awareness about plans for the house and to draw people back to the Hill District as it works to reinvent itself after decades of struggle.
“August said to Paul and me a half-dozen times, ‘I don’t want my house to be a museum, I want it to be useful,’” says retired theater critic Christopher Rawson, who teaches a course on Wilson’s plays at the University of Pittsburgh and sits on the House board. (The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.) Two period rooms will represent Wilson’s childhood but, Rawson says, the home will also host roundtables, classes, community meetings and other forums for art and politics.
“His house is a symbol of what was but also what could be,” says Sala Udin, Wilson’s childhood friend and early theatrical partner, who became a local politician and activist.
Ellis says the house should open in September 2019; this fall the nonprofit will inaugurate the August Wilson House Fellowship in collaboration with Duquesne University. Fellows will make presentations on campus and at the house.
“To use the house as a place for artists to land is such a beautiful step forward and it would have been very meaningful for August,” says his widow, Constanza Romero, who attended the Block Party and spoke at the August Wilson Society’s annual Colloquium at the August Wilson Center.
(The center is a performance and exhibition space in downtown Pittsburgh, “which causes some confusion,” Rawson says. The Howard University-based society brought its members to the Block Party.)
Wilson lived in this house until he was 13, then in another Pittsburgh neighborhood until he was 20, when he returned to the Hill District for another 13 years. He’d walk the streets, sit in the diners, go hear jazz greats, soaking up the sights and sounds that enabled him to make the Hill District as complex and compelling as his characters.
The Hill remains a community struggling to find its footing for the future while still fighting the battles of the past. The biggest symbol, besides Wilson’s house, is the site of the Civic Arena, former home of the Pittsburgh Penguins. In the 1950s, the city designated the 95-acre Lower Hill District for “urban renewal” but it quickly became clear that the city was not particularly concerned with the well-being of the residents. More than 1,500 families (about 8,000 people) and 400 businesses were displaced for the Civic Arena.
The community fought back against the city’s further use of eminent domain to seize land, which became a plot point in Wilson’s “Two Trains Running,” but the damage was done. Investors and businesses fled and the Hill went without a supermarket for three decades. The hollowed-out neighborhood was riven by crime and poverty. At its peak, the Hill District had perhaps 55,000 people. Today, there are perhaps 12,000. Gentrification efforts were often met with hostility, which Wilson depicted in his 1990s play, “Radio Golf.”
The Civic Arena was demolished in 2012 and the Penguins, whose new home is next door, cycled through several redevelopment plans. Last year, they announced construction of 935 residential units, just 20% of which would be affordable housing.
Redevelopment has slowly started taking hold in recent years — a new library, a new YMCA, a new supermarket and new parks. August Wilson Park near the house features “gobsmacking views” and displays of quotes from his plays, says Terri Baltimore, vice president of neighborhood development for the Hill House Assn., a community group.
“The neighborhood is still very much in transition with pockets of activity,” Baltimore says, adding that she was talking from a coffee shop that didn’t exist two years ago. “The goal is to have a tapestry of cool places so people would not just come for one event. The August Wilson House is a critical part of the neighborhood’s master plan.”
Even now the Wilson house is drawing people to the community beyond the block party. Or rather, the backyard is. In 2016, the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company staged Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” there, right where Wilson set the action.
People traveled from all over the country for the production. “Audience members said they felt like they were watching the play in a sacred place,” says artistic director Mark Clayton Southers.
This year, Southers, working with Romero, chose “King Hedley II,” also set in a Hill District backyard. The production has faced adversity of its own -- stormy weather canceled opening night on Wilson’s birthday and then Southers replaced a cast member, pushing the opening back until May 11. (It runs through early June.)
Set amid the Reaganomics of the 1980s, “Hedley” is one of the cycle’s bleaker plays, showing the devastation caused by institutional racism and the lingering impact of a government’s abandonment of a community.
Udin, who will play the character Stool Pigeon, says performing Wilson’s plays in his old neighborhood is a perfect blend of medium and message.
“For August as a writer, there wasn’t just an artistic desire,” he says. “The theater had a practical purpose as an educational and motivational tool as people struggle for freedom, justice and equality.”