PITTSBURGH (AP) — Fans of “Fences” may be disappointed that the film won just one of its four Oscar nominations. But a pilgrimage to playwright August Wilson’s hometown, Pittsburgh, might offer some consolation.
“Fences” is one of 10 plays that Wilson wrote chronicling African-American life. Nine of the plays are set in Pittsburgh and each play depicts a different decade. The city’s Hill District, where Wilson grew up, offers a rich map of places connected to him.
“I left Pittsburgh but Pittsburgh never left me,” he once said. “I have a fierce affection for the Hill District and the people who raised me, who have sanctioned my life and ultimately provided it with meaning.”
Denzel Washington, who directed “Fences,” filmed the movie in Pittsburgh and plans to film other Wilson plays. Washington, who portrayed “Fences” protagonist Troy Maxson, didn’t win the Oscar for best actor. But co-star Viola Davis won best supporting actress for a dignified portrayal of Troy’s wife Rose.
“Here’s to August Wilson who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people,” Davis said in accepting the Oscar on Sunday night.
Wilson lived with his mother Daisy and six siblings at 1727 Bedford Ave. from his birth in 1945 until 1958. Their two-room, cold-water flat was upstairs and around the back from a grocery store, Bella’s Market. In “Fences,” Troy says he’d rather shop at Bella’s than at a supermarket because the folks there treated him right. The building is now called the August Wilson House . It’s under renovation and expected to open in April 2018, according to Paul Ellis, the project’s executive director and Wilson’s nephew. Ellis’ mother Freda was Wilson’s sister.
Wilson’s play “Seven Guitars” is set in the building’s backyard. Photos from a production staged there last year can be seen in the home’s rear windows.
Freda’s daughter and Paul Ellis’ sister Kimberly Ellis, founder of the Historic Hill Institute and digital director of the August Wilson House, offers customized tours of the neighborhood. She describes herself as “a Wilson scholar who happens to be his niece.” A recent drive with her around the neighborhood included stops at Freedom Corner, an outdoor gathering site for civil rights activists; a school at 2250 Centre Ave. that once housed performances by the Black Horizon Theater, which Wilson helped found; and a former butcher shop at 2145 Centre Ave. adorned by the name “LUTZ.” In Wilson’s “Two Trains Running,” a character is cheated by a man named Lutz.
A colorful mural at 2037 Centre Ave. depicts Wilson and scenes from his plays. Kyle Holbrook created the mural with children from a local arts program . Holbrook says he could hear chatter from a nearby jitney station as he painted, “like a constant scene of one of August Wilson’s plays as stories are told.” Wilson’s play “Jitney” is currently on Broadway in New York.
Wilson attended Catholic schools. The Hill District’s Catholic church, St. Benedict the Moor, is topped by a black figure of the saint with outstretched arms facing downtown. Kimberly Ellis says Wilson was among those who wondered whether the saint’s arms were “welcoming, or does St. Benedict have his back to the Hill?”
No building exists at 1839 Wylie Ave., but the address appears in several plays as the location of Aunt Ester’s house. The number 1839 is significant as the year Africans mutinied aboard the slave ship Amistad.
A historical marker at a local baseball field honors Josh Gibson, the Negro Leagues player mentioned in “Fences.” Gibson, one of the greatest hitters of all time, was the second Negro Leagues player inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Troy’s character in “Fences,” also a former Negro Leagues player, is bitter that he, Gibson and other League stars ended up, as the play says, “without a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out” after the integration of Major League Baseball led to the Negro Leagues’ shutdown.
The Hill District is dotted by modest, well-tended homes, but there are also plenty of vacant lots and boarded-up buildings. It’s a legacy of an urban renewal program that tore down the neighborhood’s commercial heart in the 1950s. Promises of redevelopment never materialized. Riots following the Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1968 assassination led to further deterioration. The destruction unleashed by urban renewal is a theme of Wilson’s play “Jitney,” when the car service owner tells drivers the city plans to demolish their building.
Eddie’s Restaurant, where Wilson would sit, write and nurse a cup of coffee for hours after moving back to the neighborhood as a young man, no longer exists.
Elsewhere, the August Wilson Center, a performing arts venue, is located downtown. Through March 10 it hosts an exhibit of props and images from “Fences.” In the Oakland neighborhood, Pittsburgh’s main Carnegie Library is where Wilson continued his self-education after dropping out of high school. The Hill District Library branch later issued him a diploma, which now hangs in the August Wilson Room in the library at 2177 Centre Ave.
“We hope ‘Fences’ will help people see the value of the August Wilson House and the community,” Kimberly Ellis said.
If You Go…
AUGUST WILSON’S HILL DISTRICT: Online map: http://www.wqed.org/augustwilson/hill-district-map . Book published by Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation : “August Wilson: Pittsburgh Places in His Life and Plays.” Kimberly Ellis tours: http://historichill.org/tours/ .
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