August Occasion | Revelations | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

August Occasion

Belated justice for Pittsburgh's best-known playwright

I remember the first time the three of us crossed paths: me, city councilor Tonya Payne and August Wilson. It was at the opening of Gem of the Ocean at the Pittsburgh Public Theater: My uncle was dead, and I had never met my city council representative. I didn't meet her that night, either; instead, I was outraged to find the playbill that night included an ad from the front group that sought to put a casino in the Hill District -- a group Payne supported.

Such opportunism isn't surprising -- just hypocritical. August Wilson was a giant of a playwright, whose last major character uttered the slogan, "Hold Me To It" when campaigning to be the first black mayor of Pittsburgh in Radio Golf. Even Mayor Luke Ravenstahl recently felt the need to hail Pittsburgh as Wilson's home while traveling in Amsterdam and Paris.

Back home, meanwhile, Pittsburgh had two other giants visit in the last couple of weeks: Cornel West and Amiri Baraka. Neither felt it appropriate or even possible to set foot here without paying some type of homage to Wilson's legacy.

West is one of the premier intellectuals of our era. He packed the house in the University of Pittsburgh's William Pitt Union; there were at least 50 people waiting outside during his speech. Dr. West recites from Plato and Socrates just as easily as he does from Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet even he told the audience that to talk about just one of August Wilson's characters, Aunt Ester, he would need at least three hours of our time.

In comes Amiri Baraka, hailing from Newark -- where the citizens haven't known a white mayor since the 1970s -- and visiting Pittsburgh, where citizens have never known a black mayor. A world-renowned poet and cultural critic, Baraka is considered the father of the Black Arts Movement. Asked about Wilson's legacy, Baraka reeled off a handful of titles ("Jitney, that was my favorite play ... I haven't seen Radio Golf; I need to see that.")

Within its own borders, though, Pittsburgh has rarely celebrated its black geniuses until they were dead, gone or gone mad.

Even as Wilson's greatness was being heralded here and abroad, we discovered that petty politics almost cost us the chance to preserve his childhood home at 1727 Bedford Ave. A bill to designate the Hill District building as a historic landmark, proposed by my brother, had been approved by two city commissions and sent to council for a vote last October. Instead, the designation all but disappeared for months. In recent days, the Post-Gazette has reported that city staffers repeatedly sent e-mails urging action. Among other recipients, the e-mails were addressed to the councilor responsible for moving such legislation forward, Tonya Payne.

By this point, the deadline for acting on the designation had nearly expired. Had it done so, my uncle's house would not have been eligible for re-consideration for another five years. The roof would not have lasted that long. Thankfully, a new City Council has sought to rectify this near-tragedy. But someone must be held accountable. If this could be done to someone the likes of August Wilson, then it can be -- and probably has been -- done to someone with less notoriety but the same right to due process.

Post-Gazette theater critic Christopher Rawson and my own family members and friends are largely responsible for whatever accolades Wilson has received from the city ... and they came long after he'd been recognized nearly everywhere else.

Radio Golf is about a black politician who gives up his political career to save a home from a demolition, and to save its owner from injustice. That August Wilson's own childhood home would be neglected by Pittsburgh's elected officials -- let alone a representative of the Hill District itself -- is shameful. More than that, it's unbelievable. When you begin to hear the backlash of shame and reprimands heaped upon the Pittsburgh from August Wilson fans and lovers here and across the world, we should know who to hold responsible and act accordingly.

Three giants visited Pittsburgh within the last two weeks. And one of them is still here in spirit. Give him justice.


Dr. Goddess says: Hold them to it!

Ephemeral art made at Chalk Fest
25 images

Ephemeral art made at Chalk Fest

By Pam Smith