McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts
August Wilson, Great migration, Pittsburgh, Hill District, Redevelopment, Urban renewal
This project highlights the connections between August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle and the history of property, ownership, and housing in the real world Hill District where Wilson was raised and set almost all his plays. The project examines seven of Wilson's plays in relation to the history that provides important context to these texts. He avoids most of the iconic markers associated with 20th century black American history and instead emphasizes the local, offering a decade-by-decade snapshot of a single African American neighborhood. Culturally, the Hill Districts's heyday ran from the 1930s to mid 50s, when many of the greatest contemporary black jazz musicians, athletes, and other performers traveled to and through the Hill. Wilson, however, slides past these glory days and focuses on two eras in Hill District history: the Great Migration and Urban Renewal.
This project is divided into six chapters, each focused on a specific historical context relevant to at least one of the plays. This context is based on the characters' own history rather than the era depicted in the play. Fences, for example, is set in 1957 but the protagonist (and Wilson himself) points back to his southern youth in the 1920s and experiences as a migrant in the 1930s. King Hedley II is set in 1985 but the underlying historical event is 1950s urban renewal. At the end of the cycle, Radio Golf - set in 1995 - mimics the city's new redevelopment programs. The protagonist's discussion of property and neighborhood worth, however, echoes a decades-old debate over definitions of "blight."
Wilson's theme of ownership becomes vital in the process of establishing identity and he focuses on the link between character and location, the individual and home. I also argue that Wilson's increasing specificity of place corresponds to a growing emphasis in his work on the necessity of joining individual activism to collective identity and community support. As characters try to establish homes and businesses during these two eras of upheaval, Wilson examines the ways African Americans create and sustain identity and community when the social and economic context offers only fragmentation.
Jones, B. (2011). "This Is Me Right Here": August Wilson and Pittsburgh's Hill District (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/etd/709