One of the greatest playwrights in American history, August Wilson, found his voice by walking the streets of the Hill District, listening to the vibrant rhythms, lyrical language and struggles of Black life in 20th-century America.
Now, Wilson’s archives are coming home to the University of Pittsburgh Library System.
Wilson, who died in 2005, twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and has had all 10 of his American Century Cycle plays made into Broadway productions, and a few into movies like “Fences” (2016) starring Denzel Washington. Washington also produced a film of Wilson’s play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which is being released on Netflix in December. It was shot in Pittsburgh.
We talked to Kornelia Tancheva, Hillman university librarian and director of the University Library System, about the significance of the archives for Pittsburgh.
What role does Pittsburgh play in the works of August Wilson?
In his most well-known “American Century Cycle,” nine out of the 10 plays are set in Pittsburgh. But much more than that, Pittsburgh is the city where he grew up, which informed his understanding of the world and America, and the city which forever underpinned his insights into the experience of Black America.
How did Pitt acquire the August Wilson Archive?
We have been in conversations with Constanza Romero, August Wilson’s widow and the executor of his estate, for over two years. Building relationships of trust takes time — donors or their heirs need to be sure that the institution they are entrusting their own legacy or that of their loved ones to has experts who care about the work and life of the author.
Very early in my tenure at Pitt, I met Chris Rawson, the then-theatre critic of the Post-Gazette and a professor at Pitt, who gave me a wonderful tour of the Hill District, with highlights of the places that are significant for August Wilson’s work. I remember asking the question, ‘Why don’t we have his archive in Pittsburgh?’
Chris introduced me to Constanza, who herself is a theatre costume designer with a very active career, and she toured our Archives and Special Collections during one of her visits to Pittsburgh. Bill Daw, our theatre curator, and Ed Galloway, our Associate University Librarian for Archives and Special Collections, and many other staff at the library showed her archival material that we already held that’s connected to his life and work and gave her an overview of how we preserve, make accessible and engage the public with our collections.
Why is this such a good fit for Pitt’s library system?
One of our strategic priorities is building archives and special collections of national and international importance. The August Wilson Archive is our most important archive to date and we believe it will present innumerable opportunities for local, national and international researchers to create new knowledge, and for our faculty and students’ teaching and learning in a variety of disciplines, schools and departments. It will also allow us to engage more fully with the local community in a variety of ways— through the Pitt Community Engagement Centers and in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
The August Wilson Archive will also facilitate our collaboration with other cultural institutions in Pittsburgh: the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, the August Wilson House and many others. And finally, acquiring the archive is also part of another of the library’s strategic priorities —preserving underrepresented voices as part of the complete cultural heritage of this country and the world.
What are some of the things you are most interested in seeing in the archive?
From a scholarly perspective, I am always fascinated by the writer’s process, so I am most eager to see how the text of a play might have changed between the first draft and the final version — the subtle (sometimes not so subtle) changes in character, plot, resolution.
From a new discoveries perspective, undoubtedly, the unpublished material, including personal and business correspondence, that would augment our understanding and appreciation of August Wilson, the man and the writer.
Can you tell me a little about the August Wilson: The Writer’s Landscape exhibition coming to the August Wilson African American Cultural Center? What role will the archive play?
I can say that it is going to be the first permanent exhibit devoted to August Wilson’s life and work and that we are working with Janis (Burley Wilson, president of the August Wilson Center) and her team of exhibit designers to provide as much as we possibly can for their exhibit. I don’t know what exactly will be on display. It depends on two things — what their concept is and what we can actually find since you have to keep in mind that we haven’t even started processing the archive, which is enormous. So, all I can say is you will have to go see the exhibit when it opens.
Who do you think will be most interested in seeing this archive?
Researchers, theatre practitioners and certainly the local community.
What does this mean for Pittsburgh?
Pittsburgh is now the place of August Wilson’s legacy forever — between the archive, the AW Cultural Center, the August Wilson House, the Playwrights Theatre, and countless other organizations and initiatives, it will be the place where his life and work will live forever.
Once the archive is processed, it will be open to anyone (as all of our archives and special collections are). I can envision multiple uses — a high school student writing an essay on the history of African American art, a researcher or a citizen studying racial tensions in Pittsburgh, an actor looking for clues to a character in an August Wilson play they are playing. And countless others.
I should also mention that once we’ve processed the archive we envision a lot of programming around it and all of that programming will be open to the local community.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.