August Wilson Comes To Life in Huntington’s ‘How I Learned What I Learned’ (5 Stars)

by Mike Hoban

 

‘August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned’ – By August Wilson; Co-conceived and directed by Todd Kreidler; Scenic Design and Projection Design by David Gallo; Costume Design by Constanza Romero; Lighting Design by Thom Weaver; Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company at the Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston through April 3.

 The Huntington Theatre’s spellbinding production of ‘August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned’ should not to be missed by anyone who sincerely appreciates the art of storytelling. What makes this one-man show so fascinating is that it barely makes mention of the playwright’s Pulitzer Prize (and Tony Award) winning works, but instead focuses on his life growing up in the racially segregated Fort Hill District of Pittsburgh. It’s like attending an art exhibition comprised entirely of the early sketches of Picasso, where even though none of the masterworks are on display, the brilliance still shines through.

Long time Wilson collaborator Eugene Lee plays Wilson (who originally performed the one-man autobiographical play himself) and thoroughly owns the character, from the just-below-the-surface seething at the humiliations doled out by his white bosses to the loving impressions of the influential characters in his life. Lee weaves a tapestry of vignettes from his early boyhood through his development as a poet, but stops short of his writing career. Each of the stories, entertaining in their own right, teach a larger lesson that would shape Wilson’s thinking. But there is no soapbox in sight, just a series of heartfelt and poignant anecdotes that need no embellishment to paint a stark portrait of black life in a northern American city in the 1960’s.

Lee does open the show with something of a (very dark) joke, however. “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 says to nervous laughter, before dropping the hammer of truth. “But since 1863, it’s been hell. It’s been hell because the ideas and attitudes that Americans had toward slaves followed them out of slavery and became entrenched in the nation’s psyche.”

But that’s pretty much where any sermonizing on racial injustice ends. That powerful statement serves only as a device to ground the audience in reality, and when we catch our breath following the bleak reminder, Lee launches into a series of stories about the people who influenced Wilson during his late teens and early twenties. Each new scene is announced by the tap-tap-tap of an old manual typewriter, forming words spelled out on a backdrop composed of hundreds of individual sheets of typing paper in David Gallo’s imaginative set.

So we see a quote from his mother, “Something is not always better than nothing” appear on the pages, which leads to a story about how she taught him (by example) to maintain his dignity, even if it meant postponing the immediate gratification he could achieve by settling for less. That lesson shows up later when he is treated as a second class citizen by his bosses, and he decides to walk away from jobs despite desperately needing the money. And while he hurts in the short term, the building blocks of character are being put in place. That same attitude shows up in the character of Troy Maxson in the Pulitzer and Tony Award winning “Fences”, as he becomes the first "colored" trash truck driver by not accepting that second class treatment.

Not all the lessons are moral ones, and there are several parables important for his survival – like how to keep your mouth shut in street society – and these make for the most entertaining stories of the evening. Wilson’s snatches of street corner/nightlife in some ways reminded me of the description of black life in the 40’s in the Boston chapters of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X (written by Alex Haley), except that the jukeboxes that blared Erskine Hawkins and Duke Ellington now played Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. There’s a tale about a man who insults another man’s wife (for which he pays the ultimate price) that perfectly exemplifies street justice and its own code of honor; and a story about Wilson’s well-intentioned introduction of his friend, junkie/poet Chawley Williams, to a famous white actor (and fellow heroin addict) which erupts in violence that nearly kills Chawley, and later, Wilson. And there are touching moments as well. After teasing the audience with the title “Oral Sex”, Lee switches direction and spins the tale of Wilson’s first kiss to schoolmate Catherine Moran during the Christmas pageant, and it’s very sweet.

At 100 minutes with no intermission, one would think the production would drag at times, but Lee’s engaging portrayal makes this show as awe-inspiring as the John Coltrane solo on “Giant Steps”. See it. For more info, go to: http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2015-2016/how-i-learned-what-i-learned/