A Tale of Two Cities: August Wilson was born in Pittsburgh but loved Seattle

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August Wilson is recognized nationally as an award-winning playwright whose work captivated the nation with authentic storytelling that brought to life characters who depict the lives and experiences of 20th-century African Americans.

His play Fences, starring James Earl Jones, won a 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 2016, Denzel Washington produced, directed and starred in an Oscar-nominated film adaptation.

In early August, Wilson’s childhood home in Pittsburgh’s historic Hill District opened as a community center. The August Wilson House serves as a cultural center for artists, offering residencies, meeting spaces, and programs focused on nurturing the next artists to emerge from Wilson’s former neighborhood.

This project illustrated Wilson’s impact on black actor culture.

“Denzel Washington and a number of his colleagues are our primary benefactors,” said Denise Turner, executive director and chairman of August Wilson House. “He raised $5 million for this project. We have Denzel and Pauletta Washington, Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Samuel L. Jackson and his wife LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, Antoine Fuqua and Shonda Rhimes… These are the benefactors who have allowed us to really get this project off the ground bring to .”

As Pittsburgh celebrates his native son’s legacy and dedicates his former home to the emerging artists in their community, we must remember that Wilson had an additional home, a second city that was influenced and uplifted by his work – Seattle.

Wilson moved to Seattle in 1990. The American Century Cycle – Wilson’s famous series of 10 plays, which detailed and chronicled the experiences of black people in America in each decade of the 20th century, was primarily set in Pittsburgh. But a lot of those plays were written in Seattle.

“So much of his life really took place in Seattle,” said Constanza Romero, who was married to Wilson from 1994 until his death in 2005. “That’s where we had our daughter, that’s where we set up our house, and that’s where our basement is. He wrote so many of his plays.”

During the 15 years that Wilson lived in Seattle, he developed a deep connection to the Seattle Rep. When Wilson wrote his plays, they were produced by the Rep and people in Seattle got a chance to see those plays before they made it to Broadway.

But Wilson was more than just a writer who landed in Seattle to work. He was a resident, parishioner, and friend.

“We would discuss anything that happens in America,” said longtime UW professor and novelist Charles Johnson.

Wilson and Johnson were best friends.

“With Black America, with the arts, with our families, with our agents and with our representatives, and, you know, time would literally melt away,” Johnson recalled.

Johnson met Wilson after a performance of “Fences”. After the show, he said he reached out to Wilson, who had just moved to Seattle. The two decided to meet for dinner at the Broadway Bar and Grill. That first dinner sparked a friendship that lasted well over a decade. The two would often meet for dinner at 7 p.m. and chat until they were asked to leave the restaurant at 2 a.m. They then went to the IHOP in Madison to continue their talks into the early morning.

“You know, he was a brotha,” Johnson said, describing Wilson. “If I could just put it that way, you know, he was an upstanding brother who cared about black people. Black America. And, you know, that’s part of his legacy from the late ’60s, you know, in the black arts movement.”

Johnson wrote “Night Hawks,” a collection of short stories that includes a story about the nights he spent with Wilson. In this story, the cover story of the book, Dr. Johnson points out that both he and Wilson inhabit a specific space in African American history where they “belong to an in-between generation that remembered segregation but also bridged the post-civil rights era and beyond.”

The importance of the era that produced Wilson is manifested in his connection to education and his journey to becoming a writer. According to Johnson, Wilson recalled attending a recently integrated school as a youngster, where he was once sent home in a cab after being beaten for just his existence, and in those moments he never quite understood why. Then, in ninth grade, Wilson was accused by a black teacher of plagiarizing a 20-page essay entitled “Napoleon’s Will to Power.” Wilson refused to apologize for the false accusation and dropped out of school.

After that, Wilson spent his days in the library reading because, for him, he “dropped out of school, not life.” It was in this library that Wilson decided to become a writer. He once told Johnson, who eventually wrote in “Night Hawks,” that a prostitute said to Wilson, “If you want to be a writer, you better learn how to write about me.” And he did just that.

Wilson’s upbringing in the late ’60s had a strong influence on his work. Benjamin Moore, executive director of the Seattle Rep when Wilson was producing plays, ponders why Wilson moved to Seattle in the first place.

“It was always an odd decision, given a lot of his writing about race and blackness and his fierce quest to protect a movement in the country that was being challenged in terms of African-American theater,” Moore said.

But there was a simple reason why Wilson chose Seattle.

In Seattle, Wilson was able to blend in in a way that New York and Los Angeles couldn’t. In these cities he was often recognized. While living on Capitol Hill, Wilson was able to spend time sitting unobtrusively in public places and listening to real people having natural conversations.

Moore recalls joining Wilson in one of his favorite writing spots.

“I was sitting in one of his cafes. And he told me about “King Hedley”. And he wrote it then,” Moore recalled. “And he talked about how he pays attention to the characters that he writes. And this process was somewhat enigmatic. It’s a bit like what people do painting landscapes. It’s layer by layer, and what comes out of it comes out of the artist’s mind and sort of shows up on the surface of the canvas. And that seemed similar to what August described.”

Somewhere while writing award-winning plays, spending days at cafes and nights at restaurants, Wilson also found time for a real pastime in Seattle.

“He loved grilling meat,” said his wife Romero. “And we said, ‘This isn’t going to be a good day for a barbecue because it’s raining.’ And you know, by the fourth day or so, we were basically like, ‘Damn, you know, it’s always going to rain in Seattle. So, we’re going to have a barbecue now.” And you know, who cares? We grill in the rain.”

Pittsburgh is the birthplace of Wilson. But Seattle is the place he has chosen as his home.

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