By Elana Spivack
Kenyon students would probably not be surprised to hear that yet another building on campus is haunted. On Monday, the currently vacant Bexley Hall came alive with the spirit of playwright August Wilson through an interactive presentation titled “The Ghosts of Wylie Avenue.” Eleven first years presented this capstone project for the seminar August Wilson and Black Pittsburgh, taught by Professor of American Studies Peter Rutkoff.
A collaborative final project typically concludes this first-year course on the African-American playwright. Past years’ projects have been performance-based, such as a cabaret from last year’s class, but have also included art installations.
The idea of housing their final projection in a figurative haunted house on campus sprang from this attraction to ghostliness. Bexley seemed ideal because of its remote location and looming presence at the northern end of Middle Path. “Bexley came up because we were all thinking, ‘What’s a creepy building nobody goes in?’” Herbie Dittersdorf ’19, a member of the class, said.
This year’s students had four weeks to prepare the collaborative project, including Thanksgiving break. They had to agree on a theme they thought best represented Wilson’s plays and cultural significance, incorporating his works Jitney, Fences, The Piano Lesson and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. The theme of ghostliness struck them, since ghosts appear figuratively and literally in all of these works. The class also drew on the knowledge they gained during a three-day class trip to Pittsburgh in October, on which they toured various neighborhoods and haunts Wilson depicted in his plays.
“There’s a feeling that the cultural heyday of this neighborhood is a ghost from the past that we can look to,” Dittersdorf said of the Hill District, a Pittsburgh area central to Wilson’s work.
While Bexley may not be a typical haunted house, a sense of abandonment pervaded the space during the presentation. Six rooms on the third floor embodied locations central to Wilson’s life and works.
The first stop was Wilson’s study. A desk showed a notebook with notes jotted in it, illuminated by a single desk lamp. Placards on the wall described different artists who inspired the playwright. A recording of Wilson speaking played, creating a sort of vocal phantom in the study.
Another dimly lit room acted as a graveyard with a wall-mounted headstone for each deceased fictional character in the four Wilson plays. Each visitor received a handheld lantern to read the headstones, which described each character’s story behind their unsettled spirit.
Other rooms explored real sites from which Wilson drew, such as Greenlee Field, where Negro League baseball teams played, and vivacious jazz locale the Crawford Grill. In the final section of this walkthrough presentation, photos pinned to the wall showed these sites in the present day; many of them are now desolate.
The students put together this project by breaking into four groups. With funding from the provost’s office via Rutkoff, the class used $250 of equipment and props, plus technology borrowed from the Olin and Chalmers Libraries including three video projectors.
“I like the way they caught the spirit of the plays which were manifested concretely in these different spaces,” Rutkoff said of the project, calling it impressionistic. He noted that its success came from capturing the soul of the various places rather than from recreating them. During the hour-long presentation, about 50 students came through the space to see their hard work.
For some in the course, the tableau creation has been not just a final project, but also a learning experience.
“It reminds me of a maxim I heard about teaching is the best way of learning,” Cameron Messinides ’19, a member of the class, said. “Thinking about it as a form of teaching has helped us learn it in a better way than we had before.”