August Wilson Archive celebrates it’s opening with a once-in-a-lifetime event

Written By Ana Bellamy, Staff Writer

A celebration of the opening of the August Wilson Archive occurred on March 3rd at the University of Pittsburgh. Staff, students, researchers, family members, and lifelong fans of August Wilson’s work gathered into the Hillman Library for the multimedia exhibit. His artwork was displayed on the walls and about a hundred materials, ranging from his notebooks to playscripts to awards to personal items from his collection, were on display. After years of deciding on where Wilson’s materials should go, Constanza Romero, executor of his estate, his widow, costume designer, and artist, chose to give the materials to the University of Pittsburgh’s Archives and Special Collections so that August Wilson’s materials will come back to where he was born, raised, and influenced. The general public was able to see the hard work and dedication of the archival staff leads, Dr. Leah Mickens, William Daw, Miriam Meislik, Anaïs Grateau, and the twelve interns who were or are current students in Pitt’sMasters of Library and Information Science degree program. 

August Wilson was born in 1945 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District and passed away in Seattle in 2005. He had dropped out of high school because he was falsely accused of plagiarism when he was fourteen. He had educated himself on literature, studying all of the books that the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh had to offer. Ignoring his mother’s dreams of him becoming a lawyer, he decided that he wanted to be a writer and started submitting his poems to magazines in his early twenties. Amidst the Black Arts Movement in the sixties, he and a bunch of other poets and literary figures created theCentre Avenue Poets Theater Workshop and the Black Horizon Theater to entertain and provide opportunities for youths and adults in his neighborhood to write, produce, and perform for plays.  He left Pittsburgh in 1978, however his fondness of the Hill District never left him. August Wilson, to honor the Hill District, made sure to make the residents’ everyday lives the subject of the plays which made up the 9 of histen-part series commonly referred to as The American Century Cycle. He made sure to capture the struggles of the working-class families throughout each decade of the 20th century. 

Over the course of his lifetime, he wrote almost twenty plays. The American Century Cycle made up 10 of those plays and was written over the span of twenty-three years, all of which were opened on Broadway almost immediately after they were finished, except for his first play written in 1982, Jitney, which opened on Broadway in 2017. A lot of unpublished and unproduced works are amongst the materials that were given to the University of Pittsburgh. August Wilson was a literary genius, and the bits and pieces that he had collected over his lifetime represented who he was. These materials made up over four hundred and fifty boxes when they were given to the university in 2020.

The exhibit was categorized into four sections: The Notebooks Wilson, Playscripts of Wilson, the Music that Influenced Wilson, and the Props & Personal Effects of Wilson. Pitt Jazz Studies had provided live music for the attendees. Constanza Romero and August Wilson’s nephew Paul Ellis were in attendance and thanked the audience for their support and attendance, as well as the Director of the University Library System and Hillman University librarian Kornelia Tancheva. 

August Wilson wrote down ideas and drafts for plays and poems, scheduling notes,calendars, and sketches onto anything he could find whenever creativity struck. He wrote on yellow legal tablets, postcards, cocktail napkins, and stationery, all of which were included in the accession in  The Notebooks of Wilson display. In addition to his notebooks, his paintings and sketches that were enlarged and put on the wall, and a recreation of a famous picture of August Wilson standing in front of notes that he taped to his wall doubled as a photo opportunity. An array of playscripts were on display, many of them drafts with his notes written in the margins; these were set aside from the notebooks and made their own category. 

The Music that Influenced Wilson highlighted the playwright’s love of music. Jazz and blues were an integral part of Augusts Wilson’s life and his stories, specifically The Piano Lesson and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. He was influenced by the famous musicians that performed and  grew up in the Hill District. The archive had received the records, cassette tapes, and CD’s that helped influence and inspire his plays and poetry. The Props and Personal Effects of Wilson section showcased objects from his personal life and a few props from his plays. A couple of miniature glass roosters accompanied a hat he commonly wore and a machete from the play King Headley II. 

There was also a preview for an upcoming documentary, The Hill District: Resilience & Revival, that was made by director Jumoke Davis and Pitt students in their class “Making the Documentary: August Wilson and the Hill.” The film contains interviews with people who had known the playwright, fans, people who had grown up in the Hill District, as well as people who had observed the district’s post-industrious downfall. The documentary shares the history of the Hill District. The pain and the anguish were overshadowed by love and hope during the community’s toughest times. The Great Migration, gentrification and displacement, the Black Arts Movement, Civil Rights Movement are all prominent points in The American Century Cycle.

August Wilson could not have been as successful as he was without the Hill District. The memory of the businesses and families in the Hill District are not forgotten due to the help of August Wilson and his plays. His stories were shared around the world, either on stage or digitally, which allowed for the sharing of the liveliness and joy the Hill District once had and how hope for a better Hill District lives on today.

Attendees were able to get creative by making a quilt square for a virtual quilt and by engaging in an online exhibit called August Wilson in Place that was made by the University of Pittsburgh Department of English. This website features a story map for the places that August Wilson had lived and where his plays were set and where his characters resided. Pictures were gathered from the August Wilson Archive, other collections housed in the University of Pittsburgh Archives and Special Collections, and the Rivers of Steel Archives. 

The opening of this archive allows for people of all ages to get entertained, educated, and inspired by the large variety of items that are accessible to the public. This archive opened a door for many other archives around the world to attain and celebrate collections that celebrate black life and black culture. All of the materials in the archive can be viewed by anyone in the university’s reading rooms. Archiving staff and interns will continue their work in the next few months, creating organized inventories for each series that will be located in the “finding aid” section of the University of Pittsburgh’s website. August Wilson’s poetry, not related to the notebooks, is set to be accessible to the public next year.