note: entire contents copyright 2016 by Daniel Gewertz
"How I Learned What I Learned" is inspirational, sad, funny, and laden with life wisdom, much of it learned, by August Wilson, on the 1960s streets and saloons of the Hill District of black Pittsburgh. Yet though the words are all written by Wilson, and August Wilson is surely the name of the character on the Huntington stage, this one-man show does not feel like a recreation of the late playwright. It feels more like one of Wilson's colorful characters has taken over his story. (Which is not such a bad thing!)
If you know Wilson from "The Ground On Which I Stand," the recent, and wonderful, PBS "American Masters" documentary, you will recall a quiet, intellectual sort, a very light-skinned African-American with a grey beard and a probing, philosophic bent. One theatrical cohort who met Wilson early on felt shock when he first saw Wilson: he expected a big, tough black man, a man who had survived the roughest streets in Pittsburgh. Instead, he met a reserved young man, possibly a college-boy. That quiet, considered fellow is not apparent on the stage of the Huntington, though many of the life wisdoms that spark the show are pure Augustisms.
The one-man show is taken from autobiographical work Wilson was writing during his last couple of years, a time which coincided with Todd Kreidler's employment with Wilson as dramaturg. "The Gem of the Ocean," which played the Huntington before Broadway, was among Kreidler's projects with Wilson. "How I Learned What I Learned" was organized and shaped by Kreidler after Wilson's death in 2005; Wilson's widow, Constanza Romero, consulted. The star of the Huntington production, Eugene Lee, is a veteran of several Wilson plays, including "Gem of the Ocean," both at the Huntington and on Broadway.
Wilson dropped out of high-school at 16 and spent the next four years in the public library, an autodidact. Many of his early-life episodes are covered in "How I Learned," but the focus is on street-learning, not library book-learning, and the energy and manner Lee gives Wilson is far different than how Wilson came across in later life. Lee is unflaggingly energetic, often comical, and resounding when the subject turns, as it often must, to the despicable treatment African-Americans suffered in the America of the '60s and '70s.
The gentle-voiced, pondering, intellectual Wilson is nowhere to be seen or heard. Lee is very good. He does an admirable, funny, often explosive job, and it's no mean feat to carry this one-man show. It's a truly winning performance. Lee is able to explore a funny bit about the awkwardness of adolescent befuddled lust or the surprising pleasure of a first marijuana cigarette, and then quickly – as the audience's laugh is still echoing – counter it with a startling, deadly earnest anecdote, often about how it feels to be dismissed as something less than human. Several tales are about facing what seems to be imminent death, and Lee is able to get the harrowing darkness and the daffy slapstick beautifully tangled together.
The play begins very oddly with a hokey, comical bit with tee-shirts, and a mention of Justin Bieber, which is not only bizarre but impossible: Bieber was 10 years old when Wilson died. The show actually begins with a joke. To paraphrase: For the first few hundred years in America my ancestors never had any trouble at all finding work. After 1863 it's been a bitch. It's a beginning that gets the audience guffawing. And then the show has to work hard to capture the real Wilson style and potency – gem-hard, sad, unwavering truths with frequent natural humor to leaven the wisdom. After all, Wilson doesn't want any audience, especially a white audience, to think surviving life in racist America is a hoot.
Most of "How I Learned What I Learned" is about Wilson's teenage life. His beginnings as a playwright isn't part of the picture here, though there is some talk of his budding "career" as a poet. (Much of even that anecdotal material is about how to survive as a young black man, not how to mature as a poet.) There are some great episodes centering around his first jobs, his first sex, his first apartment. (He can't pay the $25 a month rent, and goes to back to his momma's house.) There is no talk about the O'Neill Theatre Center, the place he was born as a playwright, or his longtime mentor and cohort in drama, director Lloyd Richards. There is much talk about a street-poet and heroin addict named Chawley Williams, a man Wilson sometimes feared, but who ultimately was his angel of the Hill District. (Chawley yells menacingly at one druggie who'd offered young Wilson a needle of heroin: "That is August! August! Never, never give no drugs to August!"
"How I Learned," is, ultimately, an inspiration. A lot of the stories about bars, poolrooms, drugs, women, musicians, money and poetry are beautifully evoked. The show doesn't have a play's structure, and it can meander at times. But ultimately, it works not just as a piercing view of black life in America, but as a celebration of the work of a masterful playwright. The Huntington put on all 10 of Wilson's "Century Cycle," seven of them before they went to Broadway. This show works as a valentine to the playwright. One might wish for more, or at least some, words about playwriting. One might imagine another theatrical memoir altogether with a calm, considered, middle-aged August Wilson onstage instead of a flamboyantly energetic Wilsonian character. Does "How I Learned" black-up Wilson's persona? Maybe that's too harsh. The truth of it may simply be this: August Wilson adored writing loud, juicy street-savvy characters so much that he turned himself into a Wilson character in his own memoir.