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Culture Shock

Pittsburgh's commitment to black culture in the spotlight

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Say this for the August Wilson Center for African American Culture: Its plight proves why Pittsburgh is the perfect setting for so much of Wilson's work.

Unfortunately.

This is, after all, the city that spent millions to keep the Civic Arena running for half a century — despite years of resentment from Hill District neighbors, and not one but two bankruptcies of its principal tenant, the Pittsburgh Penguins. But here we are, on the point of losing a cultural center named in Wilson's honor ... after just half a decade.

Opened in 2009, the center is $10 million in debt: Late last month, court-appointed overseer Judith Fitzgerald was authorized to prepare the building for sale. While the center's financial problems have been no secret, many are stunned by how quickly the curtain is coming down.

"I'm surprised at the speed" of the bankruptcy process, says Pittsburgh Public Schools board member Mark Brentley, who convened a Jan. 31 meeting on the center's future. "We thought there would be a few more months to work on this."

Fitzgerald has written that she hopes to find a buyer who "will agree to sustain and help implement the mission of [the Center]." But Pittsburgh being Pittsburgh, it's not hard to find people who are willing to abandon that mission — if only because they never liked it.

On line or on the talk-radio airwaves, someone is bound to fault the center for being a "black venue" that can't hope to attract whites. That will no doubt come as news to the white audiences who've attended events there, and to white performers like jazz guitarist Joe Negri, who have played on its stage.

In fact, as far as local jazz trombonist Hill Jordan is concerned, the center's leadership often lacked the very thing that made Wilson great: a profound, poetic connection to Pittsburgh's black community.

When Jordan spoke at Brentley's gathering, he had high praise for the center's in-house roster of talent — including theater director Mark Clayton Southers and the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra. But otherwise, he said, "African-American artists never really set foot in that place." Talking with reporters later, Jordan noted that one of Pittsburgh's black jazz legends — guitarist Jimmy Ponder — died last September without ever appearing on the Center's stage. "How do you let Jimmy Ponder die, and he never played there? That's shameful."

That may not prove the worst mistake made by the center's board of directors: State Attorney General Kathleen Kane has demanded financial records. But as City Paper's Rebecca Nuttall reports elsewhere in this issue, arts groups have been drafting their own proposals for the center. Brentley, meanwhile, favors using it to expand the school district's hugely successful Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) program. Jordan favors running the center as a kind of artists' collective, with more hands-on involvement from black arts groups.

What's at stake here isn't Wilson's artistic legacy, which has been elevated beyond our ability to screw up. (And consider that when Downtown's O'Reilly Theater opened in 1999, its inaugural performance was the world premiere of King Hedley II.) What's at stake is whether we're more receptive to today's black artists than we were back in 1978, when Wilson left Pittsburgh for good.

Back when the center was being planned, some argued it would be better off in the Hill ... or in Homewood, where Brentley and others championed a proposal to build a black museum during the late 1990s. And now that we have Penn Avenue arts crawls and performance spaces thriving in East Liberty, a Downtown zip code seems less essential. Maybe the Center's desire to stand alongside elite cultural institutions helped to keep some audiences away. As Southers told The New York Times last November, the center seemed isolated from the working-class communities that inspired Wilson's plays. "You can't build it and they will come," Southers said. "Not when you're trying to work with a community that is not traditional ... cultural consumers."

But the stage has been set Downtown. And Wilson's best work spoke truth to every audience, without ever forgetting the community whose voice spoke in his plays. With the final act about to begin, we'll see if Pittsburgh can duplicate that performance.

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