Eliza Gonzalez had been offered an opportunity some high school students might only dream of: a chance to work on a public exhibit culled from August Wilson’s archives, now housed within the University of Pittsburgh Library System.

But the 18-year-old senior at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School had a confession to make last fall: She knew nothing about the late renowned playwright and Pittsburgh native. So before she touched any of the 450 boxes the library has of his materials, Eliza read every one of his plays. In decade order, she stressed, not the order in which he wrote them.

Then Eliza was ready. And with the help especially of Diael Thomas, Pitt’s August Wilson outreach and engagement curator in its Archives and Special Collections, she started to curate items for the exhibit. It opened Monday with a public reception in the City-County Building’s Grand Lobby and marked the start of the governments’ Black History Month celebration.

Attendees look at exhibits during an opening night celebration for the “Highlights From the August Wilson Archive” display at the City-County Building, Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, Downtown. The monthlong display features photos, playbills, handwritten notes, play materials and other memorabilia from playwright August Wilson’s life and career. (Alexandra Wimley/Union Progress)

Eliza called Wilson a “titan of literature” who described himself as a struggling writer. She said the exhibit and items selected from the archives will give everyone “the essence of August Wilson’s identity.”

Ten posters — one for each of his Century Cycle plays, all based in Pittsburgh except for one — stand near the exhibit’s five display cases. Thomas said the majority are organized by the order of plays and their themes, including one filled with guitars. Another contained his artwork, another some unpublished plays, and one included his Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh diploma. The exhibit includes many photographs of Wilson at different stages of his life and career.

The first display case of the exhibit — focused on “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” — contains playbills, set designs and more, including a 1982 letter from Lloyd Richards of New York’s Eugene O’Neill Theater Center telling Wilson that his play was under consideration. It became his first play to debut on Broadway. The production also established Wilson’s relationships with Richards, who directed many of his works.

For the exhibit, Eliza knew she wanted something from each play. But keeping in mind her own lack of knowledge of Wilson, she wanted to be sure anyone who didn’t know his work would get an understanding not only of the plays but also their cultural impact.

Eliza also pointed to the intersectionality of the characters she found in the plays. “Not only are they black characters, but they’re poor, [and have] suffered the repercussions of slavery,” she said.

She met Thomas in October and started working on the exhibit in November. The sheer number of items, which Thomas said included hundreds and hundreds of the notepads Wilson wrote on to develop his plays, was daunting.

“Diael was just amazing in the process,” Eliza said. “She gave me pointers, told me where to look and what to look for” in all those 450 boxes. “She made it a wonderful experience.”

She added that this was key because there was a time crunch to get the exhibit ready for February.

Diael Thomas, the August Wilson outreach and engagement curator of the University of Pittsburgh’s Archives and Special Collections Department, speaks during an opening night celebration for “Highlights From the August Wilson Archive.” (Alexandra Wimley/Union Progress)

Eliza came to the attention of Thomas because of a connection through the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp.

Judy Lubarski, a youth coordinator with its College and Career Readiness Program for 11th and 12th grade students, made that happen.  Eliza has been one of her students for several years.

“She is artistically inclined. She is just amazing,” Lubarski said.

This was the first time Thomas worked with a high school student on an archive project like this. Some high school students have come to the archives to do research, and Thomas knows there will be more. Three students from University Preparatory Milliones are working now on an August Wilson exhibit set to open in April. The plan is to keep students from that school working year-round and then expanding it to all city schools. Thomas also wants to stay in touch with Lubarski for future possible projects.

Keeping young people involved in the archives, which arrived at Pitt in 2020 and took two years to process and prepare for public use, and other efforts in Pittsburgh to honor Wilson’s legacy are important to his family. Paul Ellis, Wilson’s nephew, noted at the opening that it had dawned on him that young people born when his uncle died in 2005 are just turning 17 or 18.  So not only might they not know about his work but also his contributions to culture and their connections to Pittsburgh.

It is very important to him that the archives are here in Pittsburgh, where he said they belong and are open to all, and Wilson’s Hill District home has been renovated and reopened as a cultural arts center. Ellis said this is the result of partnerships with many components — city and county governments, foundations, universities, other cultural organizations — working together.

“Something very powerful happened here,” he said Monday, and this should be an inspiration to young people as well as aspiring writers that a high school dropout could become such a celebrated and revered playwright.

Exhibits are on display during an opening night celebration for the “Highlights From the August Wilson Archive” display at the City-County Building. (Alexandra Wimley/Union Progress)

Jake Wheatley, a former state representative now serving as chief of staff to Mayor Ed Gainey, presented Ellis with a proclamation declaring Feb. 6 as August Wilson Archive Day in Pittsburgh. He reminded everyone Black History Month needs to be more than just learning dates and names.

“He told the story of Black Pittsburgh,” Wheatley said of Wilson, noting his writing depicted the real-life experiences of people “who were not represented and often were misrepresented.”

Eliza said after being such a “newbie” to Wilson’s plays, she has a tie between two as her favorite: “Gem of the Ocean” and “Two Trains Running.”

“I read ‘Gem of the Ocean’ first,” Eliza said. “I can’t wait to see it live. It was very poetic. It reads like a poem.”

She found the characters in “Two Trains Running” very compelling. “The story is heartbreaking in places. [It’s] just so beautiful. A lot of it is very sad,” she said. “The characters come out of it stronger. They’re flawed and make mistakes.”

The daughter of Diego and Kathryn Gonzalez of Squirrel Hill, Eliza had completed two internships prior to this, one at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and the other at Carnegie Museum of Art. At CMOA, she did an independent research project to help the museum better communicate to families on how to properly visit museums (don’t touch, don’t sit on the exhibit chairs, etc.). At Manchester, she worked with a design teacher, creating samples for her arts classes and chaperoning some field trips.

These experiences are helping Eliza with her next big decision — deciding what to do after graduation this spring. Some of it depends on the responses she gets from the colleges she has applied to, although she is mulling a possible gap year.

“I don’t want to jump into things but be more thoughtful about my choices,” Eliza said, adding there are three different majors she’s considering: education with the goal of being an art teacher, art history and anthropology. “I just love history.”

Residents can visit the monthlong exhibit at the City-County Building, 414 Grant St. Online content, available until Feb. 28, features a series of interviews with individuals who knew the playwright personally and professionally, photographs, and highlights of the memorabilia on display Downtown.

The University of Pittsburgh Library System will celebrate the opening of the August Wilson Archive with a weeklong series of events, beginning Feb. 24 and culminating in a grand opening celebration in Hillman Library on Friday, March 3, from 6-8 p.m. Pitt Theatre Arts will present “Seven Guitars” from Feb. 17-26 among other events and experiences.

Eliza Gonzalez, a student at Allderdice High School who curated the display, speaks during an opening night celebration for the ÒHighlights from the August Wilson ArchiveÓ display at the City-County Building, Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, Downtown. The monthlong display features photos, playbills, handwritten notes, play materials, other memorabilia from playwright August WilsonÕs life and career. (Alexandra Wimley/Union Progress)

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.