Monument Or Eyesore? Weighing The Legacy Of A Pittsburgh Playwright
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Every writer is from somewhere. But then there are writers whose work is rooted in a place, it's hard to imagine their words without it. That's true for the late playwright August Wilson and Pittsburgh's Hill District. A decade after Wilson's death, the Pulitzer Prize-winner's plays continued to tell the story of the Hill District whenever they're performed. But the home he grew up in is in terrible shape. From member station WESA, Erika Beras has this story.
ERIKA BERAS, BYLINE: The most chronologically recent play in August Wilson's cycle is "Radio Golf," set in the 1990s. In this Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater production, one man rebukes an up-and-comer with plans to redevelop their childhood neighborhood.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "RADIO GOLF")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) How you going to bring it back? It's dead. It'd take Jesus Christ to bring it back. What you mean is, you going to put something else in its place. Say that, but don't talk about bringing the Hill back. The Hill District's dead.
BERAS: The house August Wilson grew up in blends with the rest of a neighborhood that lags behind Pittsburgh's economic resurgence. It's a three-story building that used to have a grocery store on the first floor. These days, the interior is gutted. A neighboring lot is full of trash. If it weren't for a historical marker, you'd never know it's a place of pilgrimage for theater lovers. Terri Baltimore often leads visitors there on her Hill District tours.
TERRI BALTIMORE: It's important that we make sure that people understand the things that influenced him as a child, and the family home is a big part of that story.
BERAS: So is the rest of the Hill, she says. But many of the landmark settings of Wilson's 10-play cycle have fallen to the wrecking ball or to slow deterioration.
IRMA COY: We have so very little left of the Hill. The hill wasn't - I mean, what you see now is a shadow of itself
BERAS: Irma Coy, who frequents the Hill District's Senior Center, grew up in the area.
COY: We have very little community left that I knew and loved.
BERAS: She has never seen an August Wilson play, but she's heard of him. Wilson spent the first 13 years of his life in the Hill District. As a young man, he was in and out, honing his craft, says senior center regular Lester McKoy.
LESTER MCKOY: I thought he was going to be a bum all of his life. He surprised the hell out of me.
BERAS: McKoy says he appreciates Wilson' legacy. When it comes to the house, though, he says...
MCKOY: Tear it down.
MCKOY: Because it looks bad down there.
BERAS: After Wilson became famous, he bought that house - a brick structure built in the mid-1800s. He willed it to his nephew, an attorney. The National Register of Historic Places installed the plaque, but the money for upkeep has to come from somewhere else. As a young painter, Norman Battle used to run in the same artistic circles as Wilson.
NORMAN BATTLE: He really never spoke, you know? He would just observe a lot of things. And he'd pull out his little pencil and pad, and he'd more-or-less stay to himself.
BERAS: With his little pencil, the playwright recorded the cadences of the neighborhood in plays like "Jitney," and "The Piano Lesson," Battle says.
BATTLE: Because here on the Hill, the people - they are, like, kind of - I want to say aggressive but not really aggressive - they're outspoken, you know? He wasn't one of them people, at least vocally. He could do it on a piece of paper.
BERAS: Now Battle lives in a house around the corner from the August Wilson home.
BATTLE: That place has been like that - oh, my, I moved down there in '83 - it was like that then. And this is what - 2000 - about to be 2016 and there's no change? It's kind of sad, especially when you walk by and see the plaque up there and you look around, you know, for something to be there, and it's just, like, a shell.
BERAS: Wilson's nephew has raised thousands of dollars from grants and other donations to stabilize the roof. The hope is to turn it into an artist space that could host residencies and performances. Supporters of that vision figure it would cost about $2 million to make that happen. For NPR News, I'm Erika Beras in Pittsburgh.
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