The award-winning Tarell Alvin McCrany, writer of Marcus which riveted City Theatre audiences this January and February, was once an assistant to Pittsburgh’s own August Wilson. How fitting that the cast of Marcus received a tour of August Wilson’s Hill District on their last week in town from theatre critic and renowned August Wilson scholar, Christopher Rawson.
August Wilson is the playwright of “The Pittsburgh Cycle”, capturing a century of Pittsburgh life, and in particular Black history, with a touch of August’s own fiction and magic thrown in.
- 1900s – Gem of the Ocean (2003)
- 1910s – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1988)
- 1920s – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984) – set in Chicago
- 1930s – The Piano Lesson (1990) – Pulitzer Prize
- 1940s – Seven Guitars (1995)
- 1950s – Fences (1987) – Pulitzer Prize
- 1960s – Two Trains Running (1991)
- 1970s – Jitney (1982)
- 1980s – King Hedley II (1999)
- 1990s – Radio Golf (2005)
Cathedral of St. Benedictine the Moor
The tour began at St. Benedictine the Moor Catholic Church, which marks the start of the Hill. Huge controversy has surrounded the statue atop of the Cathedral, since the open-armed Saint faces downtown and away from the Hill. Rawson remarked, “I like to think of it as a welcome.”
Center Avenue/Freedom Circle
The construction of “The Igloo” (Civic Arena) meant the destruction of the Lower Hill, what Hill residents thought of as another Downtown, as Downtown Pittsburgh often ostracized them. When developers wanted to further gentrify and develop the Hill, residents met at Freedom Sqaure and stood in a barricade along Centre Avenue, demarcating the boundaries of both their home and the point at which they would stand no more.
August Wilson’s Childhood Home
Back when August was growing up, the Hill was enormously multicultural. In addition to being a historically Black neighborhood, it was also where immigrants came to live. In fact, August’s own home was a three-family building representing the three major communities living in the area; the building housed a Jewish family, a family of European immigrants, and August’s African-American family.
August Wilson’s Backyard
Many of August’s plays take place in a yard – and standing behind 1727 Bedford Avenue, you can see why this was the hangout. Not only is there a sweeping view of the North Hills, there are passages into alleys for a young kid to cause mayhem in, and the sun and trees certainly must have been a welcome escape from the cramped apartments.
Aunt Esther’s House
Perhaps the most stunning thing Christopher Rawson has added to the legacy of August Wilson’s world is the “home” of Aunt Esther (or “ancestor”), a wise woman who reappears in August’s plays. The address of Aunt Esther’s house was invented by August to correspond to the 1839 Amistad Revolt, not an actual location. Chris tracked down where her house would have been, and there happens to be an empty plot with a twisted old tree overlooking the city. The actors took turn taking photos with “Aunt Esther” (the tree).
The Jitney Station
The jitney station from the play Jitney (the station for “gypsy cabs”) still exists; in fact the phone number appearing in the play is still the same. Jitney stations provide an important service since many cab drivers won’t go to the Hill and there is no local supermarket.
Chris went ahead to make sure it was okay for us to peek around. We were greeted by a smiling cabbie and an older man playing cards and deftly working through a bag of pistachios.
The pay phone rang and rang and rang, waiting for a driver to pick it up, just as in the play. The actors said, “That must be August. He’s here.”
Back to the Cathedral
When once asked why he never wrote about Pittsburgh while he was living here, August replied, “Leaving Pittsburgh made the Hill vivid for me.” The landmarks of August Wilson’s life appear like places you would drive on by if you didn’t know their weight. A huge thank-you goes to Christopher Rawson for making them vivid for us.
Christopher Rawson is currently working on two book about August Wilson, and we look forward to their arrival.