Saturday, March 14, 2015

"How I Learned What I Learned" - A Look at August Wilson’s Formative Years

Eugene Lee in "How I Learned What I Learned"

It gives me a great sense of satisfaction to be able to say that I once got to meet August Wilson. It was in 1989 just after the opening night production of his "Joe Turner’s Come and Gone" at the Pittsburgh Public Theater when I went to the cast party and found him sitting quietly at a table with Roscoe Lee Browne, who starred in the production.
Sheepishly, I stepped up to their table and respectfully asked if I could have their autographs. Without hesitation, Wilson graciously signed my book as did Mr. Browne,. I have the revered book to this day securely tucked away for safekeeping.
Like many others, make that the vast majority of those living in Southwestern Pennsylvania, I’m all rah-rah for the Pirates, Steelers and Penguins. But as a theater lover, it gives me special pleasure to be able to say, chauvinistically, that one of the great writers in the world of live drama hails from Pittsburgh.
In 1989, the first and only time I met him in person, Wilson had already gained the respect of the theater world. "Fences" had won a Tony Award in 1987 for Best Play and captured a Pulitzer Prize that same year. But yet to come were five additional plays that would be grouped together with five he’d already written labeled "The Pittsburgh Cycle," a.k.a. "The American Century Cycle."
Each of the ten plays are set in a different decade of the Twentieth Century and chronicle the African-American experience over the span of a hundred years. What makes them even more poignant and personal is that nine of the plays are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, just blocks from the city’s Downtown core.
Now playing at the Public is a one-man show penned by Wilson in collaboration with Todd Kreidler, a Western Pennsylvania native who now resides in Vandergrift and directs the play. An autobiographical look at Wilson’s early years battling poverty and racism in Pittsburgh, "How I Learned What I Learned" is the playwright’s last play and unfolds in a series of short vignettes, not always in chronological order, that are sometimes humorous, often touching and deeply moving and surprisingly revelatory regarding Wilson’s character, especially what he calls "principles."
"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 writes in reference to slavery. "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."
The play debuted at the Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2003, two years before Wilson’s death at the age of 60. There, Kreidler directed the premiere with Wilson tackling the acting duties.
For the Public Theater staging, Kreidler directs veteran actor Eugene Lee,  who sports a Wilson-like beard and the same stout frame I recall that Wilson had when I met him 26 years ago. Lee maneuvers David Gallo’s deliberately tawdry and sparse set (an old wooden table on a wooden platform flanked by a pair of rusting filing cabinets), retelling stories of Wilson’s series of odd jobs that included washing dishes at Klein’s Restaurant in Downtown Pittsburgh, his brushes with landlords and the law, his association with fellow writers and amorous intrigues with the ladies both married and unmarried.
As Wilson, Lee tells most of the tales in the first person, but sometimes steps into other characters as well - friends, fellow artists and antagonists he encounters in the early stages of his life. Lee does a masterful job as a cogent narrator, making the daily trivialities of living as interesting and enlivening as the more serious and somber moments of Wilson’s life.
At times, the hurdles the young playwright had to master seem overwhelming, a balancing act of educating himself after quitting school at 15, writing, working at menial jobs, paying the bills with time left over for socializing and romancing.
One formative moment in the script comes when Wilson joins the crowd standing outside the famed Crawford Grill, a Pittsburgh jazz landmark, listening to John Coltrane playing sax for the paying customers inside. The event inspired Wilson to believe in the power of art as a way to deeply affect people’s lives and inspire them and spurred his own drive to achieve some sort of aesthetic perfection through his writing.
The roughly 95-minute long play is broken into chapters by projected headings typed on the back wall, itself plastered with single sheets of paper, symbols of Wilson’s prolific output.
Regarding the director, I was told by a Public Theater insider that Kreidler stayed true to the original Seattle production and didn’t try taking a different approach in the Pittsburgh staging.
As one who’s seen four of the Wilson’s ten plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle, I can honestly say "How I Learned What I Learned" gave me a better insight into the playwright’s body of work. Enjoyable and rewarding as a piece that stands on its own, it also added a new element to my bucket list -  a resolution to see all of the ten plays in the cycle penned by a fellow Pittsburgher and seminal, innovative author of contemporary American drama.
"How I Learned What I Learned" is at the Pittsburgh Public Theater through April 5. Phone 412-316-1600.

Eugene Lee in "How I Learned What I Learned"

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