Around the Nation


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

In 2009, a beautiful performing arts space opened in downtown Pittsburgh. Named after renowned playwright and native son August Wilson, it was meant to be a hub for African-American theater, art and education. Today, the Center is for sale, unable to pay its bills. Larkin Page-Jacobs from member station WESA has the story.

LARKIN PAGE-JACOBS, BYLINE: August Wilson grew up on the hilly streets of a predominantly black neighborhood in Pittsburgh in the 1940s and '50s. He met Sala Udin in elementary school.

SALA UDIN: I was one of the wild, crazy kids running around wrestling. And that wasn't August. August stood back and kind of watched, always with a kind of amused smile on his face.

PAGE-JACOBS: That intent observation, as well as his deeply conflicted feelings about the city, formed the backbone and marrow of Wilson's plays.

UDIN: August loved Pittsburgh, and he hated Pittsburgh. He hated the racism. He hated the poverty. He hated the brutality of the police. There was a lot to hate about Pittsburgh, the place that we loved. And you'll see that throughout all of August's plays.

PAGE-JACOBS: Wilson is best known for his cycle of 10 plays, known as the Century Cycle, which depict issues facing the black community across 10 decades. He eventually left Pittsburgh and died in 2005 as plans for a cultural center were taking shape. Udin, a founding board member, says they decided to name it after Wilson.

VANESSA GERMAN: The building is as long as the block is long. And the corner of the building looks like the sail of a ship made in glass and stone.

PAGE-JACOBS: Standing on Liberty Avenue downtown, artist Vanessa German studies the distinctive $42 million dollar August Wilson Center for African-American Culture. German was thrilled to be among the institution's inaugural group of fellows. But the euphoria dissipated when the money and technical aid for their projects were either late or nonexistent.

GERMAN: The support that we were promised didn't come through.

PAGE-JACOBS: The Center's ability to function was crippled by debt stemming from construction cost overruns, unrealistic revenue projections and mismanagement. Financial records went missing, vendors and staff unpaid. Last year, the August Wilson Center stopped paying its mortgage, and the bank moved to foreclose. Retired Judge Judith Fitzgerald was brought onboard as conservator. Her job was to try and find a path to sustainability for the Center. But...

JUDITH FITZGERALD: Essentially, every door that we tried to open was not available to us.

PAGE-JACOBS: Without the money to move forward, and carrying a debt of 9.5 to $10 million, Fitzgerald recommended liquidation. Some in the black community ask why the center has been allowed to fail while other institutions are aided by the city and its deep-pocketed philanthropic community. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has dipped in and out of the red for years, and the Heinz History Center stumbled when it first opened. But the August Wilson Center, devoted to black culture, is on the brink of dissolution and there's no help in sight. Artist Vanessa German feels let down by a city that has a history of rooting for the underdog.

GERMAN: Where was the voice and the person who was pointing at the Center saying yes? No matter what, yes. Oh, no - liquidation? We've got this. That's who we are.

UDIN: There are so many plays contained in this story. He would have a field day. Tragedy, disappointment, betrayal, that's the stuff of August Wilson's plays.

PAGE-JACOBS: Udin says the legacy of August Wilson will endure. Whether the gem on Liberty Avenue can survive is an open question. For NPR News, I'm Larkin Page-Jacobs in Pittsburgh.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from