August Wilson Center adds feather to cap of Cultural District

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Close to 800 people came out to witness the world premiere of The August Wilson Center for African American Culture on Sept. 17. The $39.5 million multi-faceted facility is dedicated to the memory of playwright August Wilson, who grew up in the Hill District, a mere mile from where the center now stands.

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GRAND OPENING—Delroy Lindo and Anna Marie Horsford open the World Premiere Tribute Ceremony in the August Wilson Center Theater.

“It was indeed a labor of love for me and it was one that gave birth to a community asset that builds upon the legacy of excellence that is art, culture and history, that is African-American culture, that is American culture,” said Neil Barclay, who served as the center’s president and CEO from 2003 to 2009. “I hope that if you don’t appreciate it on this day, that you will come to appreciate how extraordinary a gift this kind of facility is to the community and the region of Pittsburgh.”

“The commitment of so many incredible leaders, celebrities and the community itself to the creation of the center’s permanent home is a testament to the significance of African and African-American culture,” said Marva Harris, the center’s interim president and CEO in a press release. “Our stages, exhibit areas and community outreach will bring these contributions to life. The dazzling array of creative work will appeal to diverse audiences now and into the future.”

The event marks the official emergence of the center in Downtown Pittsburgh’s Cultural District, more than a decade since the project’s inception.

“The center belongs to the Pittsburgh community and other supporters from around the nation who believed in what we were doing here and believed it was important that we complete this work,” said Oliver Byrd, chairman of the August Wilson board of directors.

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NEIL BARCLAY,  former president and CEO, speaks at the grand opening.

The evening’s co-hosts were actors Delroy Lindo and Anna Maria Horsford, who are members of the August Wilson Center’s National Advisory Council. Another council member in attendance was actress Phylicia Rashad.

“This is my first time in Pittsburgh and I have to say the only thing I knew about Pittsburgh were from the plays of August Wilson,” said Horsford. “The eyes of the country’s cultural community are focused on the city of champions, but not because of sports. We’re here tonight to celebrate another sort of champion.”

Lindo received Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations for his role as Herald Loomis in Wilson’s, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” He said this role was one of the most influential of his career and has left a lasting impression on him both professionally and personally.

“That fact that August examined what it means to be a person of African descent in this culture, the fact that he examined it in the way that he did through this 10 play cycle, the kind of depth the breadth the magnitude of that achievement, gave us all something to reflect on in terms of what our realities are, what they were what they continue to be,” Lindo said. “I think that aside from giving generations of actors some wonderful parts to work on from a historical and cultural point of view, it gave us something of depth to examine and to reflect on in terms of our own experiences.”

Other honored guests included family and close friends of the late Wilson, including his wife Constanza Romero Wilson, who was one of the event’s honorary chairs.

“I am honored to be back in Pittsburgh again. I came here frequently with August. Every time we walked through the city he would make many otherwise unremarkable places come alive for me,” said Wilson. “Before he passed August knew that Pittsburgh planned a project of great scope with his name attached, but this beautiful building, the magnitude of this project, this city’s championing of African-American culture would have made his heart simply dance with pride and joy.”

The evening’s entertainment included a performance of “Take the ‘A’ Train” by The Harlem Quartet; Billy Porter singing “I Believe I Can Fly;” a collaboration of the August Wilson Center World Chorus, soloists Anita Levels and James Zeigler, instrumentalist Sean Jones, and the August Wilson Dance Ensemble; and the Sphinx Chamber Orchestra. Also throughout the evening, stationary models from Utopia Model Agency showcased garments and creations by Fashion AFRIKANA.

The center features seven exhibition galleries, a 486-seat theater, an education center, a café and gift shop, and multipurpose spaces for community programs and events.

“The building is meant to be a neutral and flexible stage that allows the center to take on issues that surround our culture through art, music, politics, theatre and dance,” said the center’s architect Allison Williams.” It’s a new icon, a new landmark. It has an importance, a movement and influence beyond the site.”

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