Brian O'Neill: Wrong school of thought to save Wilson Center

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Pittsburgh has let August Wilson down, but the notion that the city schools should take on more than $9.5 million in debt on the crippled African American Cultural Center that bears the great playwright's name? There's no way.

Mr. Wilson never asked that his name grace the sleek Downtown building's side; that was decided after his death. Now his name is tied to a center that may have died in just its fifth year. But covering other people's mistakes is no part of any school system's mission, and the schools haven't any pressing need for a slightly used 65,000-square-foot building.

It has been suggested that Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, the creative and performing arts school that's a four-minute walk away, could use the place. No. The school opened only six years before the August Wilson Center did and is an extraordinary facility with two theaters. As the Post-Gazette architecture critic Patricia Lowry wrote in a glowing review of the school's new Downtown location in August 2003:

"The three-story, 425-seat professional theater has a 38-line, six-story, state-of-the-art rigging system, an optional thrust stage, an orchestra pit and suspended proscenium walls that can be moved with the touch of a hand. The two-story, experimental 'black box' theater is neither all-black nor a box, but heavy velour curtains will block the light coming from the curved window-wall. The space also can be used for dance, exhibits and receptions."

Thus adding the Wilson Center's 486-seat theater would be hard to justify even if the only new costs were lighting and heating, not a mansion-sized debt. A takeover would amount to the broke leading the broke.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools board spent the first decade of this century closing about 30 schools to try to match an enrollment that had shrunk long before. That allowed the city schools, unlike every other district in Allegheny County, to go more than a decade without raising the tax rate -- but that ended in the past two budgets. Last month, the board voted to raise taxes almost 2 percent for the second consecutive increase. That may not be life-changing, but it affirms that money is tight.

State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale took the unusual step this week of saying that, barring a wealthy advocate taking on all that debt, board member Mark Brentley Sr.'s suggestion to acquire the Wilson Center would be fiscally irresponsible.

None of that means Pittsburgh -- speaking as a community, not a government -- should walk away from the Wilson Center. Construction cost overruns left it with the debt and essentially no endowment to cover operating costs, and it may be too large for the audience it can attract. It matched its namesake in ambition, but it fell woefully short in execution.

That's no way to treat one of this country's greatest dramatists, and a Pittsburgh native son.

I'm an unabashed fan of Mr. Wilson, having seen seven of the 10 plays in his "Pittsburgh Cycle'' since moving to the city a quarter-century ago. Four of them -- "Joe Turner's Come and Gone,'' "The Piano Lesson,'' "Fences'' and "Jitney'' -- all but blew me out of my seat.

I'm hardly alone. "Fences'' and "The Piano Lesson'' each won the Pulitzer Prize, and the full 10-play cycle -- one for each decade of the 20th century, nine of the 10 set in our Hill District -- is one of the most ambitious acts of writing in American history. Mr. Wilson pulled it off with his final play, "Radio Golf,'' set in the '90s. That premiered in the spring of 2005 and he continued rewriting it into that summer, even as liver cancer was killing him. Mr. Wilson died that October at age 60.

He famously dropped out of Gladstone High at 15 after a teacher unjustly accused him of plagiarism for turning in a prematurely brilliant 20-page paper on Napoleon. He then took what he learned through his well-worn Carnegie Library card and the streets of the Hill to begin a writing career with little more than a pencil and diner napkins.

Mr. Wilson beat long odds to put himself in the conversation with Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams when talk turns to great American playwrights, but any path to rescue of the Wilson Center looks no less daunting.

Mr. Wilson's reputation is secure no matter what happens next, but the city's could suffer. The schools are the wrong lifeboat, and almost any other plan would involve some Olympic-level begging. Every Wilson play is mixture of wit and anger, seared with a strong sense of place, and any way out of this mess is bound to be, too.

Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947.

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