National Reports

Portland by Francesca Piantadosi

August Wilson's house

Portland by Francesca Piantadosi

Regional reports are supposed to focus on the area we serve. I do realize that. And while there’s always a lot going on in Portland and so much to write about…playwriting groups, readings, productions, events like Banned Together (which was sponsored by the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund and presented at Artists Repertory Theatre on Monday, September 25, 2017), I’m choosing to write about something that happened in Pittsburgh. Why you ask? Because I believe August Wilson transcends regions, countries and, dare I say, perhaps even the earth.

I went to visit the house in the Hill District where he was born and expected to pay my respects to the great man. But, as usual, where Mr. Wilson was concerned, my expectations were exceeded.

The house looks in disrepair but it’s currently being renovated. There are bricks laying in piles in the yard and the earth around the house is speckled with tiny tidbits that could have been ground in when Mr. Wilson was eating his mother’s fried chicken on the kitchen steps. 

I was moved by so many things there but was particularly drawn to that pile of bricks. After all, they had been part of the house when August was a boy.

I picked one up, aware of the legacy I was holding in my hands. Then I did the only thing I could…I wept. And at that very moment, like one of the apparitions from The Piano Lesson, a car pulled up and a piece of August Wilson came out and greeted me.

His name was Paul Ellis and he serves as Executive Director of the Daisy Wilson Artists Community (who owns the house now). After introducing himself, he took the time to share details of the home’s history, including pointing out the relatively small part at the back of the house where the Wilson family lived.

He also spoke about the need for funding to finish the house. He mentioned all the events he’s scheduled to help with that goal. In particular, he mentioned the block party he throws every year in April for August’s birthday. He suggested I go to Facebook, enter “August Wilson House” and check out the information there. I decided right then to see what I could do to help spread the word about this worthwhile project.

I also couldn’t help thinking that in that moment, as I stood there and held that brick, that I represented every playwright on the planet…particularly those who didn’t have Mr. Wilson’s ability to transcend geography. It was then that Mr. Ellis shared one more detail with me…he was August Wilson’s nephew.

I was quickly transported back to a time when I met the famous playwright. It was a warm night in Portland and I was walking down Broadway on my way to see a play. My niece had just asked me who I wanted to meet in the theatre…someone I hadn’t met before. I said, “August Wilson” and he turned the corner.

I thought I was imagining things but it was him, there to see a play of Romulus Linney’s.

I’d like to say I was decorous but I was not. I grabbed him and hugged him. I told him I loved him. Embarrassing? Why, yes I was. I made a complete fool of myself and I’m so glad I did. He died a few years later.

Now I had his representative, a nephew in front of me and a brick in my hand that I held on behalf of all who couldn’t grab him on the street in Portland or drive to Seattle to see him in his one-man show or live for that moment in the rarefied air of the Hill District. I wanted to reach out and touch every single one of you and the only way I knew how to do that was the same way August Wilson did…with words.

We all need inspiration. Perhaps you get yours from a great play or your students or a remarkable peer. I have been lucky enough to get it from August Wilson in more ways than I can count…and whether you know it or not, as we held that brick together outside his house, you were right there with me.