In Steel City, A Showcase for Black Culture

Article excerpt

CULTURE

The scholar of American and Africana studies makes her way through the thousands clustered in the sun on Liberty Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh. It is late May, and the crowd is listening to live jazz and sampling the best photography, storytelling and theater in Pittsburgh. There is dancing in the streets. People are gathered to get a sneak peek at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

The scholar, Kimberly Ellis, is the niece of Wilson, the Pulitzer Prizewinning playwright for whom the center is named. She is beaming, pleased at the pride that Pittsburgh is showing in its native son and for the handsome new center raising its sail in the cultural waters of a new century.

She should be.

Not since the seeds of Harlem's Schomburg Center took root in 1926 has an institution named for an African American man been so ambitious about documenting the lives of Black people and their contributions to arts, science, business and more.

Now comes the August Wilson Cultural Center, the first such place in the 21st century to bear the name of a Black American. It opened on Sept. 17.

For more than 10 years, Pittsburgh's cultural leaders and its Black arts community have been pushing and fundraising for a $40 million center that would showcase the history and creative contributions of African Americans in western Pennsylvania and beyond. There have been setbacks: Delays in land purchasing and site preparation; cost increases and redesign. In May, the center's CEO, Neil Barclay, who had been guiding the project since 2003, announced he was leaving to head the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta. An interim president is in place while the center conducts a national search for a new leader.

Wilson's death from liver cancer in 2005 spurred an overwhelming sentiment to name the center in his honor. Designed by African American architect Allison Williams, the center's distinctive signature is its four-story metal and glass "sail," a feature inspired by the Swahili trading ships that carried the culture of East Africa to distant shores.

The building sits about a mile from Wilson's boyhood neighborhood, the same Hill District that is the soulful setting of nine of his 10 plays on African American life in the 20th century.

University of Pittsburgh history professor Laurence Glaseo has long studied the work of Wilson and Black life in Pittsburgh. He thinks the Wilson Center is poised to show the promise of America as a land quilted together of many people and cultures. …