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North Hills Monthly

August Wilson African American Cultural Center Honors Playwright’s Legacy

Jan 27, 2020 02:27PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

photo by Rick Southers

August Wilson was a prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who was born and raised in the Hill District neighborhood of Pittsburgh. He also won numerous other awards for his body of work, which include Fences and Jitney. The August Wilson African American Cultural Center (AWCC), located in downtown Pittsburgh, honors his legacy as well as those of other notable African American artists. We spoke with the nonprofit’s CEO and President Janis Burley Wilson about the center and its contribution to the cultural heritage of Pittsburgh.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What type of impact did August Wilson have on the arts?

Janis Burley Wilson (Burley Wilson): August Wilson is known internationally for the importance of his work in documenting the African American experience throughout the 20th century. Every one of his plays is set in a different decade of the 20th century, and all are set in Pittsburgh with the exception of one (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). He is considered to be one of the most important playwrights in history.

This building is named for him and we present art and culture in a variety of genres, all with the intention of celebrating his legacy of telling the stores of the African American experience and the African diaspora.

NHM: Can you tell me about the building and what it contains?

Burley Wilson: The building opened to the public in 2009; we celebrated 10 years last April with our first gala. The building was owned and operated by another nonprofit that closed; the new board and organization were formed in 2015. I've been in this role since September 2017. The center has a dance studio, art galleries, theater, and common spaces, and we present a variety of art forms, including music, theater, dance and visual arts. 

The building is 66,000 sq. ft. with more than 8,000 sq. ft. of gallery space. The theater has 492 seats, and if you drive past the structure, you can see that there is a lot of glass and stone in the building. The sun shines in and on to the artwork. It’s a really beautiful building, right at the gateway to the Cultural District.

NHM: What is the AWCC’s mission?

Burley Wilson: The official mission statement is “To own and operate a home for the arts, storytelling, learning and exchange around the African American experience and the rich culture of the African diaspora.” We are guided by the enduring truths and essential values evident in the work of August Wilson.

NHM: Why is a center like this a significant part of Pittsburgh’s cultural legacy?

Burley Wilson: When we think about all of the contributions of African Americans to American culture, we can go on and on and on. It was determined that it was very important for this city to have a place for celebrating African American culture in history, so a group of community leaders came together to develop a plan for an African American cultural center. The city, the local corporate community and the foundation community came together to build this magnificent building designed by Allison Williams, who is an African American architect. It opened to great fanfare in 2009. August Wilson passed away in 2005, so he never got to see it, but he was aware of the plans for the building, and he also was alive when they asked for permission to name it after him.

Other than the Smithsonian Museum for African American History in Washington, DC, we are for the most part the largest culturally specific African American cultural center in the country, with probably the widest, broadest programming.

NHM: Let’s talk about your art galleries first.

Burley Wilson: We have large galleries that include works by Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Amani Lewis, Ben Jones, and Peju Alatise, among others. These are all changing exhibits. We are working on a dedicated August Wilson exhibit that shares information about him, his life, and his work. That will be a permanent exhibit that will open in late spring or early summer. The galleries are always free and open to the public.

NHM: What types of performances have you held here, and what’s coming up?

Burley Wilson: Every year, we perform How I Learned What I Learned, a one-man August Wilson monologue that was written by him about his life. We’ve had his play, Piano Lesson here, and we are hoping to bring the touring production of Jitney here. In February, we will have jazz musician Joshua Redman, as well as scholar, writer and activist Dr. Michael Eric Dyson. There will also be a theater performance for young people and families called Tubman. All community performances are very low in cost so people can come with their families, friends and youth groups. Tarana Burke, the woman that started the #MeToo Movement, will be here in March for Women’s History Month.

NHM: Do you have any signature events?

Burley Wilson: On April 24, we will host our annual fundraising gala, and we are really excited because we will have the renowned dance company, Philadanco, performing. We also have the 10th anniversary of the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival in June.

NHM: Do you also offer educational programs?

Burley Wilson: Yes, we have a summer writing workshop every June. We also have visual arts school tour programs, where we provide transportation for school groups to come into the center and view exhibitions, and we have a curriculum designed for each gallery exhibition. When we have dance companies, we provide master classes and workshops associated with the performances.

NHM: What does the future look for the AWCC?

Burley Wilson: The future is extremely bright. Our programming is extremely high quality, and our audiences are growing and have doubled in the last few years; we had 100,000 people come through our doors in 2019. We are diversifying our funding; we have an individual giving program now, and our corporate sponsors have grown tremendously in the last two years. We are about to build out a catering and demo kitchen in the building, and we are working on this permanent August Wilson exhibition.

August Wilson’s legacy is that he committed his life, career and artistic efforts to telling the stories and celebrating African American life in every decade of the 20th century. We are honoring this by presenting the best and brightest who are doing the same thing—telling the African American experience. We welcome everyone in the community to come and enjoy the art and culture. It’s an open and welcoming place.

To learn more about the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, visit https://aacc-awc.org.