By SUSAN JONES
August Wilson’s coming home — sounds like the title of one of the eminent playwright’s works, like “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” But this is no work of fiction.
Pitt announced on Oct. 29 that it had acquired the August Wilson archive from the writer’s widow, Constanza Romero. Wilson live in Pittsburgh from his birth in 1945 until 1978, and although he spent much of his adult life in Seattle, his plays were squarely centered in the city of his youth.
His most well-known works are 10 plays — called the American Century Cycle or Pittsburgh Cycle — chronicling the Black experience throughout the 20th century. Nine of the plays are set in Pittsburgh. The tenth, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” is set in Chicago, but the upcoming movie starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman was shot in Pittsburgh. All 10 of the plays have had Broadway productions, three have been made into films and two earned Wilson the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
“August’s words are as true now as they were then, when he penned them over several decades,” said Ed Galloway, associate University Librarian for Archives & Special Collections. “And I think this collection speaks now more than ever. It’s really an opportunity for not just us in Pittsburgh to be reminded of August’s words, and the importance of social justice and trying to bring us together and not tear us apart.”
“This archive deftly puts the experiences of Black Americans beneath an intimate magnifying glass and unpacks themes of injustice and inequity that are just as relevant today as when Wilson’s first play debuted,” Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said in a Pittwire story.
The 450 boxes from the collection have been at Pitt since August 2020. A team led by William Daw, curator of the Curtis Theatre Collection, is sifting through the material, which includes scripts and production materials of his American Century Cycle plays, Wilson’s personal library and music collection, artwork, poetry, unpublished work including non-Cycle plays, speeches, essays and interviews.
There are hundreds and hundreds of yellow legal notebooks, and “each one of those is its own individual mystery, because not a lot of them have dates,” Daw said. “You might see segments of things and if you can recognize the characters, then you can connect that to one of the plays and then maybe from that get a ballpark of what date it’s from.”
While Daw is taking the lead on processing the boxes now, Galloway said they plan to hire a project archivist early next year to focus solely on the collection. That person also will coordinate student assistants and interns from the School of Computing and Information and elsewhere to help catalog the material. “It can be an incredible opportunity for students, not just to work with the materials on the early stages, but then with exhibits that we plan on doing,” Galloway said.
Already, there is a display of materials related to “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” on the new third floor Archives and Special Collections space in Hillman Library. Galloway said the earliest the materials will be open to researchers is 18 months, but it will take two to three years to process the entire collection.
A three-year process
Galloway credits Kornelia Tancheva, director of the University Library System, as instrumental in bringing the collection to Pitt. In interviews, she has called the August Wilson Archive “the most significant archival collection the University of Pittsburgh has acquired to date.”
Tancheva, who has a Ph.D. in American drama and theater from Cornell University, “was mindful of August Wilson and his stature and importance, not just in Pittsburgh but as an American playwright,” Galloway said. “And she will tell you that from the very beginning she was interested in exploring that and since the collection had not been awarded or given to another institution, that we were as good as any to compete for that.”
After Tancheva started at Pitt in 2017, she started building relationships with people associated with the Wilson archive to try to get it for Pitt.
“The August Wilson Archive supports our mission of preserving and making accessible the cultural heritage of the region, the country and the world, and specifically our focus on underrepresented voices and the cultural production of African-American artists,” Tancheva told Pittwire.
Daw said in his work with the theater collections in Archives and Special Collections, “It was apparent to me that we had this gap in our collecting area where we didn’t have a lot of documentation on African-American performing arts in the city.” He said they would get asked frequently about materials on Wilson and on Kuntu Repertory Theater, which staged Wilson’s “Homecoming” in 1976 — his first play to be produced by a theater company. Wilson also directed a Kuntu play in 1977.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, Wilson was an active part of Pittsburgh’s Black performing arts community and partnered with several people who would go on to teach at Pitt. Kuntu’s founder Vernell Lillie was an associate professor of Africana Studies at Pitt. Wilson and Rob Penny, who later became a Pitt professor, founded the Black Horizons Theater in 1968 and went on to form the Kuntu Writer’s Workshop. Bob Johnson, also on the Pitt faculty, directed the premiere of “Jitney” in 1982 for the Allegheny Repertory Theatre. Pitt’s Archives & Special Collections also houses the Kuntu Repertory Theatre Collection and the papers of Lillie and Johnson.
Building an international reputation
The addition of the August Wilson archive to the University Library System comes about a year after the George Romero Collection came to Pitt. The Romero archives form the foundation of a first-of-its-kind Horror Studies collection, which is receiving international attention.
Galloway said they are already talking about building on the Wilson archive with material from fellow playwrights, actors, musicians, technicians and choreographers who he influenced. But, for now, they’re concentrating on figuring out how to organize the collection — by play seems the most likely way.
The ULS also has hired an outreach librarian, Megan Massanelli, who will be promoting the Wilson and Romero materials, along with other library assets, both on and off campus for research and display. Galloway envisions having traveling exhibits of August Wilson materials that could be displayed where his plays are being produced.
“(Tancheva) wants us to be not just a regional, for sure, but a nationally known, if not internationally known, Archives and Special Collections destination for scholars and researchers the world over,” Galloway said. “The only way to do that is to acquire these types of collections and then build upon them.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 724-244-4042.
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