Actor, playwright Edwin Lee Gibson takes helm of Hill House's Kaufmann Center
March 7, 2016 12:00 AM
Edwin Lee Gibson, actor
Edwin Lee Gibson, actor
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Minutes before poets would take the stage at the Hill House Association’s Kaufmann Center, Edwin Lee Gibson stepped out into an unseasonable February twilight. He stood grandly framed between colossal Doric columns.
The monthlong program he had organized, “28 Days,” was underway that night, in his fourth month as the center’s new director, and 15 people had shown up.
“Do people realize what this neighborhood means to the rest of the world?” he said, as much to himself as to others. The sidewalk at the foot of the wide stone steps was empty, traffic was sparse. It was nothing like the days when the world passed through the Hill District.
That was before urban policy culled and leveled so many neighborhood structures that the Kaufmann Center was left as its most grandiose and, conversely, most existential.
At the turn of the 20th century, the site originally opened as the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House and welcomed a huge influx of immigrants, providing social services, help with housing, health care, assimilation, entertainment and warm coats. Rebuilt in 1926, it became a hub of activity as part of the Hill House Association.
A renovation in 2011 included a 2,400-square-foot addition and the dedication of the Elsie Hillman Auditorium.
In 2012, Mr. Gibson, who had been through Pittsburgh once on a bus, was invited by director Derrick Sanders for a role in the local Barebones production of “Jesus Hopped the A-Train.”
Before he saw Pittsburgh as “a cool-looking place at night” from a bus window, he knew the Hill District through the plays of August Wilson. After his acting stint here, he kept coming back. He finally rented an apartment in the Hill and talked himself into a job.
“He started to appear at a lot of our events,” said Hill House CEO Cheryl Hall-Russell. “He let me know he had worked at the Harbor Conservatory [a former settlement house in New York City] and how he had loved that.”
“I moved here because I wanted to be in August Wilson’s neighborhood,” said Mr. Gibson, 51. “He was a cat whose work shone a light [outwardly] but also back at you. It asked the question ‘What are you going to do?’ I’ve been thinking about that since he died” in 2005.
Ms. Hall-Russell said Mr. Gibson was a good fit to bring “relevant cultural experiences to that space, exposing minority children and others to different types of art. The Hill was a launching pad” for so many creative performers.
A native of Houston, Mr. Gibson also has worked as a playwright, a college instructor and a stand-up comedian. He is an Obie award winner for this role as Oedipus in “The Seven” off Broadway, and his TV credits include appearances on “Law & Order” and in Showtime’s “Shameless” opposite William Macy.
Mr. Gibson is currently seeking funds to start Kaufmann Arts, a conservatory of affordable training in music, theater and dance.
‘We want to prepare young people for professional artistic opportunities,” he said, “but it’s also about building an audience. If we don’t build an audience, they can’t challenge the artist, and if the artist isn’t challenged, it’s just entertainment.”
“We’ll start small,” Ms. Hall-Russell said. “But we already have musicians who are itching to get in here” as instructors. “A lot of them got their start in the Hill House and Kaufmann Center.”
She said about $86,000 in RAD money is available to start and that a strategy should be mapped out by summer.
Mr. Gibson has taken his message to the community as a volunteer mentor for Service Access for Youth, a program of the Homeless Children’s Education Fund.
“He tries to motivate the kids and give them hope that there are opportunities out there for them,” said Bill Wolfe, executive director of the fund, based in the Strip District. “I think his enthusiasm builds confidence in the kids.”
“28 Days” picked up steam through the month of programming, with some free events and others with a suggested donation of $7. Mr. Gibson said the low turnout the first night — about 30 people by the time the headliner came on — was still a turnout.
“Art must be valued,” he said. “It should never be free, but it should be accessible. You will have nights like that. If you don’t learn from them, that’s the problem.”
The series ends on March 19, with a March 14 reception for artist Amir Rashidd’s gallery show.
“I have to convince people in the Hill that they are as grand” as the Kaufmann Center “and that they belong here,” Mr. Gibson said, “and to convince people outside the Hill to come. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.”
Diana Nelson Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626.
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