August Wilson’s dramatized autobiography, thanks to the magnificent actor Eugene Lee, is a stirring experience.
How I Learned What I Learned, by August Wilson. Co-conceived and directed by Todd Kriedler. Staged by Huntington Theatre Company, BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA, through April 3.
By Robert Israel
Playwright August Wilson, who died at age 60 in 2005, is best known for plays that chronicled the African-American experience in America during the 20th century. He forged his works, to borrow a phrase from Herman Melville, with the “fine hammered steel of woe.”
How I Learned What I Learned is a product from that same anvil. Pounded and shaped into vignettes that accumulate into a memoir of the playwright’s life, the one-man show takes us on a journey from his boyhood recollections in Pittsburgh to young adulthood. Along the way, we meet characters that left imprints – and imparted hardscrabble lessons — that enriched his art.
The result of this dramatic autobiography are stirring. Thanks to the magnificent actor Eugene Lee, who gives a bravura performance, and director Todd Kriedler (who also co-conceived the original show that starred Wilson at Seattle Rep), the Huntington Theatre Company production provides a stellar experience.
How I Learned What I Learned did not satisfy my craving for just one more of Wilson’s powerful scripts, however. There is no way it could: Wilson died too young, and I got hooked early, having met him at Penumbra, an African-American troupe in St. Paul, Minnesota in the late 1970s. We used to chat after shows where he shared several of the stories found in this production. At that time, Wilson had not yet written a play. He considered himself a poet, not a dramatist. In How I Learned What I Learned, he refers often to those early literary aspirations. While he doesn’t tell us how he found a way to combine poetry and drama, we know that’s what finally happened, and that it was a direct byproduct of those early lessons that seeped into his consciousness, helping to form the creative core of his theatrical achievements.
Chief among his early influences was his mother, who loomed large because of her obdurate insistence that “something is not always better than nothing.” She refused to settle for second best. We meet various hangers-on: heroin addicts, alcohol-fueled raconteurs, and sundry wayward souls that frequented Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood. In 1965, when Wilson was coming of age, he tells us that there were “147 bars, and only one food market.” In one of those bars he witnesses a brutal murder. In another bar, a double-barrel shotgun is aimed at his head. In still another, a heartbroken husband of a woman he has been carrying on with in an extramarital affair places a revolver on the bar’s countertop.
Music was an important influence in Wilson’s life, and it was during his coming-of-age years in Pittsburgh that he listened to recordings of the legendary blues shouter Ma Rainey for the first time; later he fictionalized her struggles in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. He describes listening to saxophonist John Coltrane outside a bar and being “stunned into silence by the power of art.”
Wilson shares with the audience – and reminds himself in the process – that he has lived a remarkable life, despite its consequent downturns, entanglements (including a stint in jail), and potentially debilitating traumas. He wrestled with poverty, having left school at age 15, and never graduated high school. Instead, he discovered the Pittsburgh library. He read everything he could, absorbing facts and details and, especially, learned to make connections between ideas and various disciplines. During this period, in order to pay his rent, he took a series of trivial manual jobs, all of which ended soon after they began. Yet those tasks taught him how maintain his dignity by refusing to kowtow to racism, in much the same way his mother taught him not to accept anything less than excellence.
One of the chief lessons we learn from this inspiring production is that Wilson never flinched when he encountered racism. He was interested in understanding, and shaping, its cruelties; hatred enriched his artistic curiosity. He was always restless, always searching, never satisfied. In How I Learned What I Learned he tells us that he hopes to live to a ripe old age. That one wish was denied him. Yet what Wilson accomplished as a dramatist in his meteoric career will endure.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel, and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.