Artist Najimeh Njie observing installation of her art onto the August Wilson House last spring. Image used by permission via Instagram.

In August Wilson’s final play, “Radio Golf,” a civic-minded real estate developer must navigate bureaucracy, local politics and the weight of history as he attempts a grand project to “bring back the Hill.”

The play has been on Paul Ellis’s mind a lot over the past decade. Not just because it’s one of his favorites in Wilson’s “The Century Cycle,” and not just because Ellis is the playwright’s nephew.

Ellis is the executive director of The August Wilson House, a nonprofit dedicated to both redeveloping the house itself and cultivating the next generation of Pittsburgh artists. For more than a decade, he’s been working to realize Wilson’s dream for the Hill District.

Ellis tells NEXTpittsburgh that in the final years of his life, the famed playwright often talked about leaving behind a legacy of public spaces and institutions that would support young artists in the Hill.

“August did not want the building to be a museum,” Ellis says. “He really wanted it to be useful. Something practical and beneficial to the community.”

Paul Ellis kicking off the August Wilson birthday celebration in April 2018. Image used by permission via Instagram.

With support from The Pittsburgh Foundation, Ellis successfully obtained landmark status for Wilson’s childhood home in 2007.

From there, he set about finding partners for a more ambitious redevelopment of the house at 1727 Bedford Avenue that would turn it into a community space. He eventually partnered with the local design firm Pfaffmann + Associates to work on feasibility studies and schematics.

The house, like many in the Hill, is more than a century old and was neglected for several decades before Ellis and Pfaffmann teamed up. As a result, the interior will need several million dollars worth of renovations before it can be opened to the public.

This hasn’t deterred Ellis and his team from pushing ahead with the cultural side of their mission. The August Wilson House organization has staged several of the author’s plays in and around the Bedford Avenue area in the last several years.

In April of this year, they staged several weeks of performances of 1999’s “King Hedley II,” which featured long-time activist and former Pittsburgh City Councilman Sala Udin as well as legendary jazz singer Etta Cox.

In addition, the August Wilson House and Duquesne University will partner on a fellowship program set to begin this fall. The fellowship will financially support artists across many mediums, as well as give them space to showcase their work.

“I know from just being around the community,” Ellis says. “It’s sort of common knowledge that there’s a lot of talent in the community, and a lot of it is untapped.”

A groundbreaking ceremony for the final phase of construction and fellowship announcement will come this fall.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.