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'This Brilliant Light': Pittsburgh Artist Vanessa German Reflects On Chadwick Boseman's Too Short Career

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KDKA's Ken Rice asked a well-known Pittsburgher who knew Chadwick Boseman well to reflect on his all-too-brief career and what made him stand out.

Video Transcript

KYM GABLE: Honors over the weekend for a made in Pittsburgh movie.

STACY SMITH: "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," filmed here and based on the play by Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson, won three NAACP Image Awards, among them Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture, awarded posthumously to Chadwick Boseman. His widow accepted the award and used the moment to raise awareness of colon cancer, which is what took Boseman's life.

SIMONE LEDWARD BOSEMAN: Black people in this country are 20% more likely to be diagnosed with colon cancer, and 40% more likely to die from it. The age for a routine screening has recently been lowered to 45. So if you are 45 years of age or older, please get screened. Don't put it off any longer. Please get screened, this disease is beatable.

STACY SMITH: Ken Rice asked a well-known Pittsburgher who knew Boseman well to reflect on his all too brief career and what made him stand out.

KYM GABLE: The story is new tonight at 6:00.

- I'm just a ball player.

KEN RICE: Years before he portrayed Jackie Robinson, and the Black Panther, and starred in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," Chadwick Boseman, fresh out of college, came to Pittsburgh to direct a play that he'd written for the former Kuntu Repertory Theatre.

VANESSA GERMAN: He was, like, this brilliant light, this brilliant spirit.

KEN RICE: Boseman cast Vanessa German in the lead role, and they bonded, truly bonded.

VANESSA GERMAN: I loved him immediately and everybody knew it, everybody in the cast. He was one of the first really openly demonstrably loving, tender Black men that I met in the art world. I wasn't shy about the love and the respect that I had for him because I knew that he was an exceptional and exceedingly rare and special human being.

KEN RICE: Many in Pittsburgh regard Vanessa German similarly, not only an actress, and poet, and activist, but also a sculptor and creator of The Art House in Homewood, where anyone is welcome to come in and create. The friend she calls "Chad" died of cancer before "Ma Rainey" was released, having kept his illness private. Vanessa German says watching her friend's final performance was heart wrenching.

VANESSA GERMAN: I saw his craft. I saw the pureness of his talent coming through his body that had to be exhausted. I can't just see "Ma Rainey," I see Chad. And I know that he was sick, and-- and I think about what it is-- where he gathered that magnificent energy to deliver a performance that is so, like, brutal and glorious. But I saw it through the lens of grief.

KEN RICE: As did so many. As for The Art House, fire badly damaged the home on Valentine's Day. But here's all you need to know about how much that house and Vanessa German are valued in this community-- she says an online fundraiser for repairs reached its goal in two days and has now almost doubled. And she tells me it'll soon be back and better than ever.