August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape immerses audiences in life of legendary playwright | Pittsburgh City Paper

August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape immerses audiences in life of legendary playwright

click to enlarge August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape immerses audiences in life of legendary playwright
Photo: Courtesy of August Wilson African American Cultural Center
August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape
For all the works dedicated to the legacy of late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson — the productions, the award-winning film adaptations, the entire arts and cultural center named after him — he had yet to receive an exhibition. Now, the celebrated writer of plays about Black life in Pittsburgh has, for the first time, a permanent public display paying tribute to his life and work.

After years of planning, the August Wilson African American Cultural Center will debut August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape, an expansive, immersive look at its namesake. Set to open on Sat., April 16, the 3,600-square foot exhibition is described as examining Wilson’s creative process and “the people and places that had a profound impact on shaping his worldview which served as the inspiration for his unprecedented 10-play American Century Cycle.”

Wilson was born and raised in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which served as the inspiration for many of his works, including Fences, which was made into an Academy Award-winning film directed by and starring Denzel Washington.

The August Wilson Center’s president and CEO, Janis Burley Wilson, spearheaded the creation of The Writer’s Landscape and says that, when planning started in late 2018, they envisioned the show occupying a small gallery space “with a few pieces on view from the August Wilson Estate.” She says the idea “quickly expanded to a much larger space with custom interactive features.”

Much like Wilson’s own plays, the exhibition unfolds through a three-act series of areas representing stages of his life. The Coffee Shop is described as being inspired by an eatery in the Hill District where “a young Wilson frequently went to observe the day-to-day interactions of its diners” and “scrawled notes on napkins, which subsequently provided the basis for many of his characters and the inspiration for his storytelling.”
click to enlarge August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape immerses audiences in life of legendary playwright
Photo: Courtesy of August Wilson African American Cultural Center
August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape
The Coffee Shop is followed by The Office, a replica of Wilson’s home office that features his prized writing desk, manuscripts, and books and records from his personal collection, all donated by the Wilson Estate. The Street includes a recreation of the Hill District and incorporates video, props, and costumes from Broadway productions of Wilson’s work, providing insight into the “major themes from each play in the American Century Cycle.”

“The research for every aspect was intensive and required weekly meetings with the design and research team and August Wilson estate,” says Burley Wilson. She adds that the story for the exhibition, which visitors hear as they walk through the space, was written by Constanza Romero-Wilson, Wilson’s widow and chief curator of the exhibition.

Burley Wilson says that lead exhibition designer Victoria Edwards spent months working with Romero-Wilson and scholar-in-residence, Dr. Sandra Shannon, professor of African American Literature at Howard University and founder of the August Wilson Society, to “develop the exhibition while also doing independent research to create what visitors will experience in the space.”

Also involved were Wilson collaborators and Tony Award-winning scenic designers David Gallo and Viveca Gardner.

The August Wilson Center’s website says the exhibition was designed and fabricated by Eisterhold Associates, Inc., a firm whose past projects include the Rosa Parks Museum in Alabama and the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum in Missouri, and Display Dynamics, Inc., a “full-service custom exhibit design company” touted as being “the only Black-owned company of its kind.”

The nonprofit organization sees the exhibition, with its interactive, multimedia presentations, as a big part of its mission to offer programs and resources that “advance Wilson’s legacy, celebrate Black culture, and champion future innovators in arts and culture.”

“Through the use of motion sensors, audio, video, and other technologies, visitors will be transported into the scenes we designed and truly get a deeper understanding of August Wilson’s life and legacy,” says Burley Wilson. “There are elements that are so extraordinary, like magic, with the swipe of a hand the exhibit comes to life. We are very proud of this exhibit and the incredible team we assembled to bring August Wilson: The Writer's Landscape exhibit to fruition.”
August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape. Opens Sat., April 16. August Wilson African American Cultural Center. 980 Liberty Ave., Downtown. Free. Timed ticketing, registration required. aacc-awc.org/the-writers-landscape