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In honor of Black History Month, the August Wilson African American Cultural Center is proud to present, Pittsburgh’s Black Art Scene: Past, Present & Future.
From theatre to jazz, Black art in Pittsburgh enjoys a history as rich and dynamic as the city itself. The birthplace of some of the country’s most acclaimed talent, Pittsburgh is home to a vibrant local art scene and an incubator of exciting new voices.
In celebration of Black History Month, we are thrilled to showcase the remarkable history of the National Negro Opera House, award-winning playwright, and director Mark Clayton Southers, and the young virtuosos of the funk-jazz collective, Funky Fly Project, representing the past, present and future of Pittsburgh’s dynamic art scene.
National Negro Opera House
The National Negro Opera Company (1941–1962) was the first African-American opera company in the United States.
Organized in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, under the direction of Mary Cardwell Dawson, the company was launched with a performance at the local Syria Mosque. The star was La Julia Rhea, and other members included Minto Cato, Carol Brice, Robert McFerrin, and Lillian Evanti. During its 21-year run, NNOC also mounted productions in Washington D.C., New York City, and Chicago.
The company disbanded in 1962 upon Dawson’s death.
Although the company toured nationally, its offices and studios were housed in a three-story Queen Anne-style house at 7101 Apple Street in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood. Constructed as a private residence, it was purchased by William A. “Woogie” Harris (brother of the famous photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris) in the 1930s. The NNOC moved to Washington, D.C. in 1942, but the company continued to use the third floor as a local guild office and studios until the company disbanded.
After the Opera departed, the building transitioned into a social hub and boarding house known as Mystery Manor, often hosting visiting celebrities and athletes who were excluded from the local segregated hotels.
In 1994, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission designated the NNOC’s house on Apple Street a historic structure; it became a Pittsburgh City Historic Landmark in 2008. In 2003 and again in 2013, the Young Preservationists of Pittsburgh included the building on their “Top 10” preservation opportunities.
Purchased in 2000 by Pittsburgh residents Jonnet Solomon and Miriam White, after years of plans to transform the historic building into a museum and arts center, it remains dilapidated.
In 2020, the National Trust for Historic Preservation added the building to its annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
Pittsburgh Playwright Theatre
Mark Clayton Southers
Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company was founded by Mark Clayton Southers in 2003. We began as the resident company of Garfield’s Penn Theater, and moved to a 75-seat space at 542 Penn Avenue in the downtown Cultural District in January 2005. In October 2011 we moved again, into the penthouse at 937 Liberty Avenue. In 2020, we’re moving again, to a new space at 819 Penn Avenue. Thanks to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust for finding this exciting new space for us!
Our Mission: Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company is committed to developing and showcasing the works of local playwrights; from accomplished masters like August Wilson and George S. Kaufman to promising new talents. We seek to nurture a racially and culturally diverse community of playwrights, directors, actors and technical specialists to hone their craft and to network creative opportunities. Finally, we support a racially and culturally diverse management staff and board of directors who, together, promote audiences that reflect the rich variety of our Pittsburgh community. Through such sharing of talents, resources, perspectives and experiences we aspire to provide artistic enlightenment that will strengthen our civic community.
Funky Fly Project
The Funky Fly Project is a funk and jazz group operating out of Pittsburgh, PA consisting of Winston Bell, Henry Schultz, Brandon Terry, and Eric Dowdell Jr.
A powerful combination of skill and virtuosic playing, you would never know by listening, that each member of the project is less than twenty one years old. Developing a sound well beyond their age, the quartet fuse classic jazz styles with contemporary funk to create a unique sound that leaves listeners in awe.
The Funky Fly Project flaunts the soloistic skills of the players while showcasing the group’s inspiring ability to write original compositions with unmatched style and grace. Pulling together an arsenal of different styles and techniques, each track on their debut CD “Deja Vu” is laden with the fresh excitement of youth and expertise rarely found in today’s world of pop music.
Each player gains inspiration from a number of different influences and their combined sound has been described as “spectacular”.
The complex sound of the Funky Fly Project is made up of four equal yet distinguishing parts; Winston Bell on saxophone, Henry Schultz on keyboard, Brandon Terry on drums and Eric Dowdell Jr on bass.
Each member of the project shines with complex chord changes, difficult rhythms and jaw-dropping solos while harnessing the finesse of veteran jazz legends. A band to watch in coming months and years, it’s easy to imagine where this level of talent might take this group — whether it’s the main stage at jazz festivals or spotlight performances in clubs — the Funky Fly Project will perform as many nights as their studying allows. Having already performed at a number of clubs and nationally publicized events, the group grows leaps and bounds with each new gig they conquer.