This was years in the making. And it’s now complete. The grand opening, the ribbon-cutting for August Wilson House as a state-of-the-“arts” center, just like Pittsburgh’s beloved playwright desired. A-list celebrities, such as actors Denzel Washington and Russell Hornsby, came to Pittsburgh on Aug. 13 for the big celebration. The celebration lasted all afternoon and into the night on Bedford Avenue, a place that will forever be cherished as August Wilson’s childhood home. (Photo by J.L. Martello)
by Marcia Liggett
For New Pittsburgh Courier
Pittsburgh’s historic Hill District gained national attention on Aug. 13, as VIPs, dignitaries, and the community walked the iconic red carpet to celebrate the grand opening of August Wilson House (AWH). The location serves as a physical reminder of the profound impact Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson made throughout his lifetime. His childhood home, located at 1727 Bedford Ave., was prominently displayed, showcasing the ongoing strength, resilience, and heritage of Black Pittsburgh.
The complete restoration of the previously blighted, dilapidated property was spearheaded by Paul Ellis, Wilson’s nephew. “This is surreal. I feel blessed to be able to provide this type of a monumental cultural asset to the Hill District and residents of the City of Pittsburgh. This belongs to you,” Ellis told the New Pittsburgh Courier. “I’m deeply humbled and honored by this event. I knew that this was going to be a long journey but to see it come to fruition is indescribable.”
CONSTANZA ROMERO-WILSON, WIDOW OF AUGUST WILSON, WITH ACADEMY-AWARD WINNING ACTOR DENZEL WASHINGTON, AT AUGUST WILSON HOUSE’S GRAND OPENING, AUG. 13. (PHOTO BY J.L. MARTELLO)
Constanza Romero-Wilson, widow of Wilson and executive director of the August Wilson Legacy, LLC, joined in the celebration. “It’s a dream realized for him. He’s gone and I’m so sad about that, but I am here in his stead to celebrate, shed a tear even for how much his legacy has brought to all of us, and his gifts keep on giving,” she told the Courier exclusively. “I’m just so privileged and humbled and this is a happy day. We are marking the glorious day of opening up the August Wilson House here on the Hill. A place for future artists to be nurtured, supported to be entrusted with the legacy of August Wilson as being a voice for Black America in this country.”
Remarking on Wilson’s inspiration, Romero-Wilson expressed, “It was many, many other citizens of the Hill that made it so special. The cadence of their speech, the musicality of their voices, and he (August) recorded them. As a poet he put his own spin on it. Pittsburgh is as much a part of shaping August Wilson as August Wilson is a part of shaping the legacy of Pittsburgh. I hope younger generations will be as proud of August Wilson as I am. He was a shy man but would have been very proud if he were here today. It would be keeping with his values.”
Marcy Metelsky, Pittsburgh resident, volunteer, and part of the host committee, helped organize the event and had been involved with the project since the property was threatened to be demolished. “This is now a formal piece of history that no one can deny. It’s now engrained and is part of Pittsburgh’s history. This means a tremendous amount of giving back and making sure there is a place for people to cultivate their arts and truly be inspired, and to have resources available for them. It will be a useful place. We thank the City of Pittsburgh for finally enabling this to happen.”
Metelsky also noted, “The older I got, the more I appreciated August’s work. He captured the dynamic that I think everyone can relate to.”
Jasiri X, CEO and co-founder of 1Hood Media, made it a point to attend the celebration with his wife, Celeste Smith, and daughter, Jannah Smith, emphasizing the importance of celebrating Black culture as a family. Jasiri X, the socially conscious Hip-Hop artist, commented that Wilson’s legacy shows that “it means you can come from here (Pittsburgh) and touch the whole world.”
Jannah Smith, a high school senior at Pittsburgh CAPA, who also serves as social media content creator for 1Hood Media, read Wilson’s play, “Fences,” in school and emphasized to the Courier the personal impact it had on her creativity. “The way that he does his art is inspiring,” she said of Wilson. “Being able to convey emotions through his writing is amazing.”
Denise Turner, AWH Acting Chief Executive and board president, greeted the audience, many of whom would be the first official visitors of August Wilson House. Turner acknowledged the multitude of dignitaries and actors in attendance throughout the event, such as Wilsonian actor Russell Hornsby; Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and wife Michelle; City of Pittsburgh Chief of Staff Jake Wheatley; President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark; Dawn Keezer, Director of the Pittsburgh Film Office; Kiya Tomlin, fashion designer and wife of Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin; Sam Reiman, Director and Trustee of the Richard King Mellon Foundation; Jessica Pumphrey, Senior Social Strategist for the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund; Pamela Lewis, Senior Program Officer for the Hillman Family Foundations; Marimba Milliones, President and CEO of the Hill Community Development Corporation; Janet Sarbaugh, Vice President Creativity of The Heinz Endowments; Derrick Sanders, award-winning director and filmmaker; Representative-Elect La’Tasha D. Mayes (Pennsylvania House District 24); and Marissa Williams, CEO of HEARTH.
DENZEL WASHINGTON ADDRESSES THE CROWD AT AUGUST WILSON HOUSE, AUG. 13. (PHOTOS BY J.L. MARTELLO)
Excitement piqued when Academy-award winning actor Denzel Washington and Romero-Wilson took center stage. Washington acknowledged and thanked individually those who made generous philanthropic donations and recognized the tremendous contributions of architect Robert Pfaffmann (of Pfaffmann & Associates), who Washington jokingly referred to as Paul Ellis’ “brother from another mother.”
Romero-Wilson told of Wilson’s connection to what she referred to as the sacred ground on which she stood. “August Wilson House belongs to the Hill, to Black Americans. Because his stories are American stories of triumph under oppression, it belongs to all of us Americans.”
FAMILY—AUGUST WILSON’S NIECE, DR. KIMBERLY ELLIS, HIS NEPHEW, PAUL ELLIS, AND DAUGHTER, SAKINA ANSARI WILSON. (PHOTOS BY J.L. MARTELLO)
Later in the program, Ellis tearfully accepted a proclamation from Mayor Gainey and City Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, as August 13, 2022, was named “Paul Ellis Day” in the City of Pittsburgh. His emotional address followed, explaining the irreplaceable role his uncle played in molding his life, filling the void after his father died when he was a child. August Wilson died in 2005.
CITY COUNCILMAN R. DANIEL LAVELLE, RIGHT, GIVES A CITY PROCLAMATION TO THE NEPHEW OF AUGUST WILSON, PAUL ELLIS.
Ellis contributes a large part of the project’s success to Washington’s involvement. “Denzel’s impact has been incalculable,” Ellis explained, having shared with Washington the vision for the project, which was carefully drafted and designed to be consistent with Wilson’s wishes for what would be most beneficial to the people. “I’m very grateful to Denzel for helping me realize a long-held dream.”
Recognizing the profound impact Wilson had on the arts, many Hollywood legends joined Washington and his wife, Pauletta, in financially ensuring the success of the restoration project. Glass plaques adorn the wall upon entrance to the house, where an inscription reads, “August Wilson House has been restored by the generous contributions arranged by Denzel Washington and his friends.” Underneath the inscription, those friends include: The Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation; Tyler Perry; The Samuel and LaTanya R. Jackson Foundation; Laurence Fishburne; Antoine Fuqua; (Shonda) Rhimes Family Foundation; and John McClain.
TRACEY MCCANTS LEWIS, INSIDE AUGUST WILSON HOUSE.
Tours of the house were given upon the conclusion of the formal program. Guests were able to step back in time, literally walking in Wilson’s footsteps as they explored his humble beginnings. The narrow wooden stairs adorned by fancy carved railings guided visitors to the second floor, where antiquities from Wilson’s past were reminiscent of days gone by. His meager accommodations were indicative of the struggle and survival of Black families in the Hill during that era. Views of the iconic Heinz smokestacks could be seen from windows in the back of the house, behind the outdoor, open-sky patio stage.
Frank Hightower, Pittsburgh native, photographer, and playwright, met Wilson when he was in his early 20s. He photographed Wilson, and remarked how Wilson had a tremendous impact on his life. “I took the photograph 2-3 weeks after Dr. Martin Luther King passed away,” he said, explaining that he captured an iconic, reflective moment with Wilson smoking his cigarette while standing in the rubble of the riot zone. “I call the photo, ‘1968’.”
The photograph and other images of Wilson are on display at August Wilson House.
Activities ensued at AWH the night before the official grand opening celebration as the first theatrical production of Wilson’s “Jitney” was performed in the patio theater. Directed by Mark Clayton Southers, the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company’s production will run until Sept. 18.
Tremendous plans are in the works for AWH. According to Paul Ellis, the future for AWH entails a lot of arts education and arts programming. “My goal was not to create the best visitor experience that ever existed, it’s to create a true, transformative, active arts space so that people could actually come here and avail themselves of the educational opportunities that are typically illusive, particularly the arts of color. Experiences for artists in residency, theatrical productions, professional development opportunities both in front of and behind the camera will be available. I’m so thankful to all our supporters, friends, funders, and community partners. This is for you.”