August Wilson Center needs dollars and sense

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"What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? / Or fester like a sore -- / and then run?"

The first lines of Langston Hughes' epic 1951 poem "A Dream Deferred" could've been written about the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in 2013.

Last week, nearly a dozen workers were laid off at the $40 million Downtown cultural center for lack of cash on hand to make payroll. After opening in the Cultural District to much fanfare and optimism four years ago, the August Wilson Center has underperformed as a self-sustaining institution even while hosting popular performances, exhibitions and lectures that have filled its auditorium and galleries.

Construction cost overruns added to the center's multimillion-dollar debt even before its doors opened. The institution's failure to implement a successful fundraising plan that realistically addressed its shortfalls from the outset had the unintended effect of making it a ward of the city's foundation and philanthropic communities. This is an untenable and undignified position for an ostensibly independent institution with unlimited potential and drawing power.

"Does it stink like rotten meat? / Or crust and sugar over -- / like a syrupy sweet? / Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load. / Or does it explode?" (the rest of "A Dream Deferred")

So how does the August Wilson Center right itself after a purge that included laying off Mark Clayton Southers, the director tasked with programming plays for the center? And how is it even possible to name an institution after an award-winning local playwright of August Wilson's stature and not have at least one of his 10 Pittsburgh Cycle plays on the schedule at any given moment?

There's no easier way to spark a heated discussion among this town's black intelligentsia than to bring up what the center's administrators did right and got terribly wrong over these last four years. There's a consensus among people I've spoken to that the only way the August Wilson Center will survive -- and thrive -- is to have one person ruthlessly devoted to raising money for it 24/7. This person should have actual -- not theoretical -- skill as a money-raiser and manager.

It should not be someone who merely looks good on paper or is merely the product of the peculiar cronyism of the local civil rights establishment. Oh, this person's race is immaterial to his or her mission: Show us the money!

Having an unsentimental money person handling the ledgers frees up time and resources for a co-director to craft a tough-minded, but aesthetically flexible, vision that embraces low, middlebrow and high-art strategies guaranteed to draw crowds and critical appraisals by the national press. A constant complaint is that the center doesn't have a strategic vision that is inclusive of the city's many communities.

If the top job were split into two, then it would be possible to recruit a younger-to-middle-aged visionary like Quantum Theatre's Karla Boos or Kelly-Strayhorn's Janera Solomon or even performance poet Vanessa German to do the heavy lifting of programming. The August Wilson Center needs a leader capable of thinking outside the box while being mindful of the institution's fiscal realities. This requires a leader with a mature artistic sensibility to balance out the necessary bean-counting by a co-director.

As for the programming, if August Wilson's plays aren't playing at least once a quarter, then something's wrong. If fully staged and costumed plays are too difficult or expensive, then scripted table readings will suffice. So would monologue competitions featuring young people. The point is that August Wilson should be as ubiquitous as Shakespeare in Pittsburgh. Schoolkids should be able to recognize lines from his most famous plays by the time they graduate.

The center should also take a page from urban theaters across the country and book those obnoxious Tyler Perry plays that churchgoing folks are wild about. While it is understandable that most self-respecting program directors would look down their noses at "chitlin' circuit" plays, they make a lot of money and have enthusiastic audiences. How many buses full of black church members pulled up outside the O'Reilly for the last August Wilson play? Zero!

This would give the August Wilson Center the resources to book more challenging projects. If it's making money on mama-on-the-couch dramas, it could also host money-losing avant-garde jazz and bring in obscure but important authors.

The center should lose any sense of racial exclusivity, too. Every citizen in Pittsburgh should feel invested in the success of this institution. More unsolicited suggestions to come.


Tony Norman: or 412-263-1631; Twitter: @TonyNormanPG. First Published May 17, 2013 4:00 AM


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