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August Wilson Center for African American Culture needs to play ball

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Friday, May 24, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Less culture, more sports emphasis.

That's the answer to the question of what ails the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

The Downtown facility recently laid off half its staff and is behind on payments on a $7 million loan. Foundations that have been the center's lifeblood are skittish about providing more money because the center hasn't completed a required audit or submitted a recent business plan.

Named for the famous playwright and Hill District native, the center has had a miserable operation since opening in 2009. There's less foot traffic around it than when businesses on that block of Liberty Avenue included a dive bar, strip joint and adult bookstore.

People don't seem to realize it's there.

The center's future appears bleak unless it can begin attracting visitors. In this town, the way to increase awareness about anything is to add sports components. That's why I believe these changes could increase the center's chances of survival:

• Out: The center's core exhibition, Pittsburgh: Reclaim, Renew, Remix

Sure, this impressive multimedia display allows visitors to create a unique visual collage of the region's history. But have you seen it? Didn't think so.

In: A new core exhibition: Pittsburgh: Those Super Bowl-winning Steelers

Add a multimedia display that allows visitors to relive the team's championship seasons. Throw in audio of the late Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope, and you'll have to turn people away.

• Out: Reading roundtables

Who ever thought people would flock to the center to hear local actors read the works of Wilson and “up-and-coming playwrights,” more commonly referred to as “maitre d's”? No one is clamoring to hear the works of unknowns, and Wilson's inventory isn't the draw it once was. Unfortunately, his 2005 death led to a prolonged creative lull — he hasn't completed a single play since.

In: Sports-talk radio remote broadcasts

Wilson won two Pulitzer Prizes but never claimed any of the prizes that Pittsburghers care most about: Super Bowls, Stanley Cups and World Series championships. Replace recitations of his plays with spirited sports discussions and traffic updates on the quarter-hour.

• Out: The August Wilson Center for African American Culture

Wilson's greatness as a playwright cannot be denied, but neither can the fact that his name isn't nearly the magnet that those who conceived the center thought it would be. What's needed is a moniker that would generate instant excitement, even if it causes confusion regarding the center's primary purpose.

In: The Mario Lemieux Center for African American Culture and Hockey Memorabilia

The place doesn't have to be flooded with replicas of jerseys that the revered Penguins' co-owner wore during his playing days. Adding the Lemieux name simply guarantees consistent foot traffic.

A Penguins gift shop directly inside the entrance wouldn't hurt.

Eric Heyl is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7857 or

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