Wilson's Hill on Broadway one more time; conjectural map locates Pittsburgh Cycle plays
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Five ways to celebrate August Wilson's birthday.
May 10 review of 'Radio Golf' on Broadway.
August Reunion: opening night festivities.
The 10 plays of the Pittsburgh Cycle.
August Wilson: a timeline, 1945-2005.
New August Wilson role for 'Radio Golf' producer Tamara Tunie.
Review of 'Radio Golf,' Yale Rep, May 2, 2005.
Master index to August Wilson coverage in the Post-Gazette.
August Wilson is sending us a challenge from the grave.
His journey that began in the Hill District on April 27, 1945, and made its national debut on Broadway in 1984 will reach its final destination on May 8, back on Broadway with a drama prophetic of recent headlines about the Hill.
The play is "Radio Golf," the 10th and final installment in the late Mr. Wilson's epic Pittsburgh Cycle, which dramatizes the frustrations and ambitions of black America with a play set in each decade of the 20th century. "Radio Golf" is the cycle's 1990s play. Premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in spring, 2005, it was revised that summer as he was dying from liver cancer.
Following tune-up productions in five other cities, "Radio Golf" opens May 8 at Broadway's Cort Theatre, the same place where Mr. Wilson's first Broadway play, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," opened in 1984.
Ten plays in 24 years is a triumph of art and a marvel of hard work, but the cycle is also unprecedented in American theater for its concept, size and cohesion. And nine of the 10 take place on that same Hill where Mr. Wilson was born in 1945.
While both a conclusion and a return, "Radio Golf" is also as fresh as today's news. Set on the Hill in 1997 in a construction office on Centre Avenue, its central issues are among those in the recent debate over the location of the casino and in the current demand that some development money associated with the new arena for the Penguins go to support the economic and cultural life of the Hill.
That demand, as well as other Pittsburgh Cycle plays in addition to "Radio Golf," challenges Pittsburgh to compensate for the wrong done with the 1956 destruction of the Lower Hill to build the Civic (now Mellon) Arena (soon to be retired itself). The resulting displacement of 10,000 people set in motion the overcrowding, white flight and other population shifts that, exacerbated by the riots of 1968, cost the Hill its historic vitality. Destruction was followed by isolation, as the arena, roadways and parking lots cut off the Hill from Downtown.
A button advertising "Radio Golf"; its lead character plans to run for mayor of Pittsburgh.
As if in cosmic compensation, this beleaguered neighborhood -- really several neighborhoods with Wylie and Centre Avenues as their shared spine -- has achieved international fame in art, first in the cumulative achievement of its jazz greats such as Art Blakey, Errol Garner and Ahmad Jamal, and now in the Pittsburgh Cycle. Theater audiences nationwide know August Wilson's Hill, which has become a microcosm reverberating with mythic significance like such other fictional/real landscapes as Thomas Hardy's Wessex, William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County or Irish playwright Brian Friel's Ballybeg.
The conflict in "Radio Golf" is between commerce and history, which Mr. Wilson relates to a people's collective soul. What is the proper balance between ambitious individualism and the history that gives identity and meaning? For the first time, Mr. Wilson focuses on the black middle class, questioning whether it contributes what it should to the well-being of the whole community.Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh-born playwright August Wilson stands in the Hill District in front of 1727 Bedford Street, the house that was his boyhood home until age 12. His family lived in the apartment in the rear, at far right. He made the visit Nov. 18, 1999.
Click photo for larger image.
The play's central figure is Harmond Wilks, an Ivy League-educated lawyer with an educated and ambitious wife. Having inherited a prosperous real estate firm from his father and grandfather, he is about to declare his candidacy to be Pittsburgh's first black mayor. Meanwhile, he and his friend Roosevelt Hicks are engineering a development deal on Wylie Avenue with apartments and an urban mall including Whole Foods, Barnes & Noble and Starbucks.
The deal depends on federal money, which requires a finding that the area is blighted. There are offstage city politics and backroom deals. Harmond and Roosevelt, a newly-minted Mellon Bank vice president, think they are equal competitors in capitalism's public-private arena, but they may just be black front men for white money.
Suddenly another world intrudes when an old mansion at 1839 Wylie they have slated for demolition turns out to have a significant past. It was the home of Aunt Ester, the hereditary folk priestess whose tale goes back to 1619, when the first shipload of African slaves was brought to Virginia.
It's a fictional house, of course, given this address because 1839 was the date of the Amistad slave ship revolt. A kind of modern station on the underground railway of black empowerment, Aunt Ester's house has served as a center of healing and sanctuary in three other plays in the cycle.
Now it is the center of conflict. Should economic development weigh more than history and the spirit? Who really benefits from economic development, anyway? But the most urgent question, as with the piano carved with the saga of slavery in Mr. Wilson's "The Piano Lesson," is, who owns the house?
That's the play's central metaphor: who owns the legacy of black oppression and achievement? Who makes decisions for the black community? And is there really a black community with a common interest?
Mr. Wilson's theatrical take on this is clear. The play's most striking speech makes its class conflict explicit. A self-employed handyman, significantly named Sterling, assumes the N-word as his badge of pride, and attacks Roosevelt: "You a Negro. ... Negroes are the worst things in God's creation. ... a Negro don't know he's a Negro. He thinks he's a white man."
Mr. Wilson also gives Roosevelt his due. Like Shakespeare, his sympathetic insight extends to every player in "Radio Golf."
Hill native Kimblerly Ellis, an academic, a performer and, incidentally, Mr. Wilson's niece, is clear on the play's relation to the events of the past year: "I've seen 'Radio Golf' 10 times, and I'm not going to come back and see them put a casino in our neighborhood. ... Would you want your neighborhood to look like Wal-Mart?"
Ms. Ellis was the engine behind last fall's "Raise Your Hands -- No Casino in the Hill" campaign. Now she is working with those urging that some of the money promised for Hill development go to housing and preservation, with the New Granada Theatre a priority. (The most recent negotiations between Hill residents and the Penguins have shown promise.)
Former city councilman and longtime friend of Mr. Wilson's, Sala Udin, played the lead, Becker, in the 1982 premiere of the first written of the Pittsburgh Cycle plays, "Jitney." He notes that it is "about the turmoil in the jitney station on rumors about the station being torn down," and in the 10th play, "Radio Golf," "we are still fighting over our place, the ground on which we stand, on which August stood, still trying to maintain the connection to the land where we grew up."
Talk to jitney drivers -- an opinionated group, if not necessarily more well-informed than others, as is dramatized with such panache in Mr. Wilson's "Jitney" -- and you'll hear there has been a conspiracy to keep Hill property values low. Soon enough, they say, its location between Pittsburgh's two centers, Downtown and Oakland, will open it up to expensive homes and gentrification, with the inhabitants shuffled elsewhere yet again.Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
August Wilson walks through the back yard of the rowhouse that was his mother Daisy's last home. She died in 1983, age 63. On a 1999 visit, he said this inspired the set for his play "King Hedley II."
Click photo for larger image.Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
August Wilson based nine of the ten plays of the Pittsburgh Cycle in the Hill District, where he grew up. (A tenth, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," was set in a Chicago recording studio.) Wilson was photographed in front of the Hill's once vibrant New Granada Theatre on Centre Avenue in 1999.
Click photo for larger image.
Maybe so. In his last substantial interview, with fellow Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks for American Theatre magazine, two months before his death, Mr. Wilson spoke of the "slickness" of redevelopment schemes "simply to entice middle-class people to move back to the Hill, which is only a four-minute walk from Downtown. That's prime real estate." He believed such schemes ignore the current inhabitants and the spiritual, artistic legacy they must cherish.
There are many working to revive the Hill with that in mind. For example, the "Find the Rivers!" project, a collaboration of Hill advocates, the Riverlife Task Force and Carnegie Mellon University's Urban Lab, is designing ways to reduce the Hill's isolation, opening it up to the rivers north and south and to other communities on every side. Its organizers believe development doesn't have to mean big-box stores and can use the energy of the arts and green spaces.
"Radio Golf," too, suggests development and the spirit might co-exist. But it ends with perfect ambiguity. And Mr. Wilson was not optimistic. After the end of the story, he said, "I think the bulldozer might come and the police ... that's usually the way it goes. ... But symbolically, 1839 will always be standing, as part of our repository of our wisdom and knowledge that we as an African people have collected."
First Published April 27, 2007 5:22 pm