note: entire contents copyright 2016 by Sheila Barth
Designer David Gallo’s sparsely-set stage is offset by an imposing, massive wall, papered with large notes, looming in the background. A man breezes on stage, chatting away, heralding the next easygoing, entertaining 100 minutes we’ll spend listening to him.
Actor Eugene Lee, who knew prolific playwright August Wilson, and starred in some of his plays here and nationally, is the sublime incarnation of Wilson, America’s chronicler of African-American life experience in this country. Wilson was well-known at Huntington Theatre Company, where eight of his plays premiered before they hit Broadway and earned him accolades, an avalanche of prizes and awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes. Wilson’s Century Cycle, or 10-play anthology of a century of Black America history, is legendary.
Although he dropped out of high school, Wilson earned multiple honorary degrees,Tony awards, and many others, including being inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame posthumously in 2007. Before Wilson died of cancer at age 60, in 2005, he and his younger writing partner-dramaturg, Todd Kriedler, conceived this delightful look back at Wilson’s earlier years, when Wilson was 20 years old or so, highlighting anecdotes about incidents, colorful characters and people closest to him then. Kriedler also directs this production,and Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, is creative consultant-costume designer.
The audience is rapt as Lee talks, switching from one tale to another. An unseen typewriter clickety-clacks in the background, beaming white letters, thus signaling the subject of the next story.
Wilson’s opening lines are deliciously tongue-in-cheek: “”My ancestors have been in America since the early 17th century. And for the first 244 years, we never had a problem finding a job,” he cracks, referring to his family history of slavery. He hearkens back to TV Fred Rogers’ Mr Rogers‘ Neighborhood- not exactly like Wilson’s Pittsburgh neighborhood, where he lived with his mother and six siblings. He dropped out of high school at age 15.
Growing up among junkies and other characters in the Hill District of Pittsburgh afforded Wilson much fodder for his stories and plays, which are never bitter, sad, nor angry. That’s just the way it was in the Hill. Sauntering around, he tells one story after another, of how he couldn’t - or wouldn’t - hold a job, and always ended back living with, yep, his mother. He cut grass, worked in a warehouse, unloading heavy stock, washed dishes, and spent three days in jail after being unable to pay his rent. He had an affair with a beautiful married woman, which didn’t end well, and had a brush with greatness, listening to incomparable jazz musician, John Coltrane.
There’s Wilson’s stolen first kiss in the seventh grade, when his math teacher’s back was turned toward the blackboard; his finding the love of his life; and a myriad of other homespun tales. He tells us about Chawley Williams, the poet,who encouraged him; Cy Morocco, the ugliest man alive, but with the most generous soul; Wilson’s wise, proud, honest mother, Daisy, and their encounter with racism when she won a washing machine in a radio contest, but it was rescinded when the sponsor realized she was black. He offered her a rebuilt one instead, which Daisy refused. She saved her money, and bought her own machine in later years.
Wilson’s “How I Learned What I Learned” is another slice of Americana - another American treasure. And Lee’s portrayal of the consummate storyteller is sublime.