How I Learned What I Learned is August Wilson’s last play, one that he performed himself in 2003 in Seattle, a couple of years before he died. It’s a portrait of the artist as a young man in the Hill District, structured as a loose collection of stories, some delivered in a blunt, direct, and at times expletive-laden manner, others told with flights of lyricism that capture Wilson’s poetic aspirations and achievements. Over the course of about two hours we hear about Wilson’s first kiss, his financial struggles, and his early love affairs, as well as about the rich cultural life in the Hill midcentury and the many and various forms racism took (and continues to take). The individual stories are beautifully crafted, showcasing Wilson’s skill as a storyteller in top form. But their organization as a whole feels haphazard, and as a result the performance leaves an overall impression of being caught in the company of a beloved uncle who’s holding court entertaining the young’uns with tales of the old days. Jetlagged as I was after my return from Zurich I found this a bit taxing, but my theater companion was captivated and enthralled, so I don’t know whether my reaction to the structural formlessness of the script was due to my fatigue or its meandering. (I have a vague recollection of having been told that Wilson never finished this script, and a little googling seems to confirm that no “final” version of the text was ever nailed down, so it would be unfair to take Wilson to task on a play he was never able to finish in any case).
Eugene Lee is absolutely terrific as that “beloved uncle,” bringing the right touches of irony, cynicism, anger, and sentimental nostalgia at all the right moments. How I Learned What I Learned is both a funny play that will get you to laugh at yourself and a serious one that demands reflection on how race impacts us all. Lee’s dry “seen-it-all, done-it-all” delivery makes room for that reflection and invites us to share his (that is, Wilson’s) umbrage at the ways in which the color of his skin predetermined so much of his experience.
David Gallo has designed a gorgeous set that refers simultaneously to the detritus of Wilson’s (and Pittsburgh’s) history (in the bits and pieces strewn in the dirt beneath the stage on which Lee stands) and to the stories Wilson crafted from that history (in the hundreds of pieces of paper hanging as backdrop to the stage). Projected scene titles are cleverly “typewritten” onto those pieces of paper, perpetually reminding us that writing is a form of making and remaking, a labor of imprinting ideas onto the world. Writing – storytelling – was the labor to which August Wilson devoted his life, so that – one must presume he hoped – there would come a time when others would no longer need to learn what he learned. Funny as it is, the play is also a sober reminder of how much labor remains to be done in that respect.