In 2009, a gleaming performing arts space opened to great fanfare in downtown Pittsburgh.
Named after renowned playwright and native son August Wilson, it was meant to be a hub for African-American theater, art and education.
Today, the August Wilson Center is for sale, unable to pay its bills. But many wonder why it was allowed to get to this point.
August Wilson grew up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the 1940s and '50s. He met Sala Udin in parochial school.
“I was one of the wild crazy kids running around, wrestling,” Udin said. “That wasn’t August. August stood back and kind of watched, always with a kind of amused smile on his face.”
That intent observation, as well as his deeply conflicted feelings about the city, formed the backbone and marrow of Wilson’s plays.
“August loved Pittsburgh, and he hated Pittsburgh," Udin said. "He hated the racism, he hated the poverty, he hated the brutality of the police. There was a lot to hate about Pittsburgh, the place that we loved. And you’ll see that throughout all of August’s plays.”
Wilson is best known for his cycle of 10 plays, known as the Century Cycle, which depict issues facing the black community across 10 decades. Two of the plays won Pulizer Prizes, and though Wilson eventually left Pittsburgh for Minneapolis and then Seattle, his legacy as a product of Pittsburgh.
Plans for a black cultural center had been in the works since the late 1990s, and when Wilson died in 2005, Udin, a former city councilman and one of the center’s founding board members, said they decided to name it after Wilson.
Standing on Liberty Avenue, downtown artist Vanessa German studies the distinctive $42 million August Wilson Center for African American Culture. The design for the triangular building was chosen through a competition, and it pulled inspiration from the sails of Swahili ships and the vibrancy of the surround streets.
“The corner of the building looks like the sail of a ship made in glass and stone and metal,” German said.
German was thrilled to be among the institution’s inaugural group of fellows, but the euphoria dissipated when the money and technical aid for their projects were either late in coming or nonexistent.
“The support that we were promised didn’t come through,” she said.
The center’s ability to function was crippled by debt stemming from construction cost over-runs, unrealistic revenue projections and mismanagement. Financial records went missing or were never created. Vendors and staff went unpaid.
Last year, the August Wilson Center stopped paying its mortgage, and Dollar Bank moved to foreclose. Retired Judge Judith Fitzgerald was brought onboard as conservator. Her job was to try and find a path to sustainability for the Center. She went to the foundations, corporations, local lawmakers and city officials.
“Essentially every door that we tried to open was not available to us,” Fitzgerald said.
Without the money to move forward, and carrying a debt of $9.5-10 million, Fitzgerald recommended liquidation.
Some in the black community ask why the center has been allowed to fail while other institutions are aided by the city and its deep-pocketed philanthropic community. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has dipped in and out of the red for years, and the Heinz History Center stumbled when it first opened. But the August Wilson Center, devoted to black culture, is on the brink of dissolution, and there is no help in sight.
German said she stopped following the news about the center. She said it was painful to read racist comments linking the center’s downfall to the black community. She also felt let down by a city that has a history of rooting for the underdog.
“Where was the voice and the person who was pointing at the center, saying yes! No matter what, yes! On no — liquidation? No, we’ve got this, that’s who we are,” German said.
Udin said Wilson would have looked at the fiasco through the eyes of a playwright.
“There are so many plays contained in this story! He would have a field day! Tragedy, disappointment, betrayal — that’s the stuff of August Wilson’s plays!” Udin said.
He said the legacy of August Wilson will endure. Whether the gem on Liberty Avenue can survive is an open question.