Liza Zulick | Staff Writer
A $5 million fundraising effort, led by actor Denzel Washington, took place on Sept. 26 at the August Wilson House in the Hill District. Efforts were organized for the renovation of the playwright’s childhood home. Duquesne University President Ken Gormley joined Washington in a groundblessing ceremony before the celebration began.
Since 2011, Duquesne’s Honors College has partnered with the Daisy Wilson Artist Community to accomplish the dream of Paul Ellis, Wilson’s nephew, to renovate the home. This is the first fundraising effort to take place for the renovation.
“The fellowship is highly important to my family because it aligns directly with our mission of uplifting and supporting artists,” Ellis said. “For many years, I watched my uncle create opportunity after opportunity for aspiring artists, helping them reach the next level in their professional development, deepening their inspiration and drive. I think it’s appropriate that a central focus of his legacy includes identifying and nurturing deserving artists.”
According to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Washington said, “It is a privilege and an honor and a responsibility … and a joy to play a small part in keeping him alive.”
Washington had starred in the Broadway revival and film version of Wilson’s “Fences.”
Some big-name donors for the event included Oprah Winfrey and actor Tyler Perry, who both donated $1 million. Producer Shonda Rhimes, actor Samuel L. Jackson and director Spike Lee also contributed.
During the event, Gormley introduced the first Duquesne University August Wilson House Fellow, poet Natasha Trethewey. She is a Pulitzer Prize recipient, just like Wilson.
Trethewey, who is currently on a board of trustees and an English professor at Northwestern University, created a PBS NewsHour poetry series, named “Where Poetry Lives,” during her second of two terms as the 19th Poet Laureate of the United States. She has also published her volume Native Guard Received, the 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner and another book called Monument: Poems New and Selected, which was longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award.
During the celebration, Trethewey read her poem, “Pilgrimage.” This included performances from Wilson’s work by student Jamaica Johnson and Wali Jamal, a local Pittsburgh actor.
“These fellowships will allow gifted artists and scholars of color to live on Duquesne’s campus and work right here on this site and in the community, enriching the creative, literary and cultural vitality of the Hill District, the city and our entire region,” Gormley said.
The fellowship, which was first created in February 2018, aims at allowing scholars and artists of color to advance their work in joint interests of Duquesne University and the community. It is designed to bring artists and scholars from the community into collaboration with Wilson’s Hill District and other educational institutions. Although Trethewey was already a named artist, Gormley plans on supporting unknown artists in the future.
Ellis seconds this plan, hoping to assist future artists.
“The August Wilson House is aware of the depth of talent in underrepresented communities — the fellowship is a means to support prospective artists, assist with technical support, and provide them with an opportunity to showcase and further develop their work,” Ellis said.
Gormley believes that financial support was important for the start of Wilson’s career, which is why Duquesne University raised over $100,000 for the fellowship and will continue to raise more.
“Our next goal toward the renovation is laying the foundation for our anticipated capital campaign and coordinating with our local and national supporters,” Ellis said.
Washington is also producing nine more of Wilson’s plays in the future. These will be the rest of the 10 plays in the playwright’s Century Circle.
“I will do everything I can to keep this structure alive and sound; a place for us all to grow from,” Washington said. “I’m thankful. I’m grateful. I’m humble. I’m hopeful, and I’m determined.”