The August Wilson Center: a vision for 2015

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As the August Wilson Center for African American Culture seeks new leadership and a viable strategy for paying down its enormous debt, there has been no shortage of unsolicited advice. In two earlier columns (May 17 and May 28), I threw out a few suggestions that would take that institution into a more populist direction.

It's obvious even to those who have never run or programmed cultural institutions on the scale of the August Wilson Center that it can't continue on its current path and expect to ever ingratiate itself into the city's cultural life in a meaningful way. Unlike the Andy Warhol Museum, it doesn't have the institutional heft and resources that come from being one of the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.

Because Pittsburgh's black middle class is too small to sustain the August Wilson Center by itself, it has no choice but to develop the kind of cross-cultural audience that other local institutions take for granted. That's why incorporating some kind of interactive museum of jazz and rock 'n' roll under its roof would be an ideal way of generating immediate foot traffic.

Local musicians have played a big role in the development of American popular music in all of its forms throughout the 20th century. There's a built-in constituency in the thousands here consisting of relatives, friends and fans of these musicians who would make pilgrimages to the August Wilson Center a familial duty. The era of austere, but uplifting, exhibits of interest only to African-American academics is over.

Assuming 2013 is a year of rebuilding and hiring new blood at the August Wilson Center, 2014 will be a time for implementing their ideas. The following is my vision of where the center should be this time in 2015:

The first thing one sees upon approaching the well-lit building on Liberty Avenue are street-to-ceiling-sized photographs by Pittsburgh Courier photographer Teenie Harris and Life magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith alternating in the window down the length of the block.

Walking into the center's once mausoleum-like entrance, a visitor is greeted by a live recording of Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers. Every hour, music by a different musician with Pittsburgh roots goes into rotation on the sound system. Information about the musician or composer is available on a small digital display board near the entrance. The restocked gift shop has copies of every CD the August Wilson Center plays on its public sound system for sale.

There are two big exhibitions at the center that month. One is a Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective mounted in partnership with The Andy Warhol Museum. The other is a traveling photo exhibit about the Turkish-Armenian conflict. Prominent historians from both communities will lecture on the lingering implications of that conflict a century later.

A quick scan of the offerings at the August Wilson Center that day indicates a range of activities. The fourth installment of the Oscar Micheaux film retrospective is to be screened at 3 p.m. with introductory remarks by a film historian from the University of Pittsburgh. (Perhaps saving you a trip to Google: Micheaux was a writer and the first major African-American filmmaker.)

Hollywood veteran and Hill District resident Bill Nunn will lead a master class in monologues for high school and college students at 4:30 p.m. that is open to the public. Later that evening, director Mark Clayton Southers has another August Wilson play in rehearsal for its big premiere in two weeks. For one day during rehearsal, drama students from the city's major universities and high schools are invited to watch as the veteran director puts his cast through its paces.

Because it is shortly after noon, the aroma of spicy ethnic food wafts through the corridor from the far side of the building. One of the restaurants that rotates with several others within a Soul Food Collective is serving Ethiopian food. In a month, it will be Thai food, followed by Caribbean and Vietnamese foods.

Every year, four different restaurants take advantage of the August Wilson Center's prime Downtown location to introduce Pittsburghers to the cuisine served at their restaurants. Local bands will play during the lunch hour, attracting crowds curious about the music and the food. It is the perfect partnership.

The colorful fliers advertising coming events at the center include an Oldies Soul Night sponsored by WYEP's "The Soul Show," featuring old school DJs spinning original platter. On other nights, there will be performances by groups ranging from the Sun Ra Arkestra and Ambrose Akinmusire to Francoise Hardy and the Malawi Mouse Boys. One of the year's biggest draws will be an intimate evening of solo piano performances by Randy Newman, who will perform every song of his that's ever been misunderstood. (Even "Short People.")

If there are even 100 days a year like this, the August Wilson Center will be a massive success.


Tony Norman: or 412-263-1631; Twitter: @TonyNormanPG. First Published May 31, 2013 4:00 AM


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