How I Learned What I Learned;
An Evening With August Wilson.
By Megan Grabowski
The Pittsburgh premiere of How I Learned What I Learned introduces today’s generation of theatergoers to 1960’s Black America and pointedly offers Pittsburgher’s an intimate moment with Wilson, listening to him tell the tales of growing up poor in an urban ghetto. Yes, I claim to heave heard Wilson himself speak- his mannerisms; linguistic style and body language channeled on stage through a great medium, actor Eugene Lee.
A satisfying continuation of the commemorative 40th season, Pittsburgh Public Theater (PPT) has once again stroked the spirt of Pittsburghers. How I learned What I Learned, August Wilson’s final drama is running for a full month of performances.
The one-man show is an enhancement of Wilson’s stories about growing up and coming of age in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood. The stories are reminiscent of the types of stories you hear in the corner bar or at parties and I imagine many anecdotes were often shared with his family and friends - but these biographical accounts were not fully conceived in dramatic form until Wilson requested the assistance of Todd Kreidler. Collaborating with Kreidler, Wilson created a collection of stories for the stage, which mimic many themes commonly threaded throughout his other works. He addresses social, economic, racial and familial subjects while simultaneously encompassing an audience with the art of storytelling. How I Learned What I Learned was intended to be performed by Wilson himself. After the shows initial run in Seattle, Wilson became ill and passed away before having a chance to tour the country as actor. PPT’s performance of How I Learned What I Learned is directed by Todd Kreidler, bringing an emotional depth to the stage that carries on a legacy which will move the audiences at their core.
It appears to me, native Pittsburghers typically maintain a unified essence of their city, claiming ownership to all things Pittsburgh: Andy Warhol, Fred Rogers, Heinz Ketchup. Wilson too fits in this list of notables, yet his characters and stories are indicative of you and me; the average guy, living day to day, striving to survive.
The great prodigious energy of August Wilson, pours from the lips of actor Eugene Lee, on stage at the O’Reilly Theater behind a backdrop of 8.5x11 sheets of paper. He sits on a platform, covered in detritus and litter, perhaps a simulation of the stoop outside Wilson’s basement apartment in the mid-1960’s. As Lee enters, the sounds of a typewriter, tap, tap, tapping, spell out the first chapter of the show, ‘My Ancestors’. For more than 90 minutes Lee stands sits, paces and dances to the tales of Wilson’s life, his only props being the stoop, a stool, a desk and a glass of water. The set is simple yet significant; each story is introduced on the sheets of paper and the ambiance enhanced by lighting changes. Sometimes music is added to complement a particular subject. Lee speaks Wilson’s stories- his experience with autodidacticism by way of the Carnegie Library, memories of his mentors, recollection of members of the Hill Art Society and frequently his drive to stand toe-to-toe with racism whenever and wherever he is confronted by it.
The show is racially charged and should it be. Wilson’s account reflects upon a time in America when blacks were struggling to move past our nation’s verbal and physical brutality against their race. Wilson, intellectually understood humanity despite all of the injustices and insults, and does not cast blame. The message Wilson conveys to his audience is matter of fact. These are stories about growing up black in America in the 1960’s. The way Wilson tells it; that’s just how it was. How did he cope? How did his friends survive? How did they overcome? How did some, inevitably succumb? We hear about his first few jobs, his time in jail, his friends, the women he loved the music that healed and moved him and the community where he lived. It is the culmination of these experiences that shaped his art. Each chapter title is typed letter by letter onto the sheets of paper hanging above the stage, ‘Jail’, ‘Coltrane’, ‘Hill District 1965’, and in conclusion, ‘How Do You Know What You Know’.
How I Learned What I Learned completes what is commonly referred to as “The Century Cycle”. Wilson penned one play for each decade of the 20th century, 9 of them set here in Pittsburgh. As a play, How I Learned What I Learned is different. Lee, incredible in his interpretation of Wilson, never struggles with a lack of energy, despite his 1.5 hour monologue, nor is there dearth in representation of character. He appears to have resurrected the playwright, granting Pittsburgh a moment in time with August Wilson.
How I Learned What I Learned runs through April 5, 2015. Ticket information is available HERE
Income Maintance Caseworker at State of Pennsylvania Department of Human ServicesPositively Pittsburgh Good News Reviewer, Professional writer, Social-Media Junkie, Community Fundraiser and Pittsburgh Enthusiast.