Theater Review - How I Learned What I Learned (NY)

I have seen many plays and musicals this season, but they all pale in comparison to this one production, punctuated by David Gallo’s brilliant set design, pieces of paper lit like pearls by Thom Weaver.  August Wilson’s “How I Learned What I Learned” presented perfectly by one man, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, is a piercingly honest piece that translates into a theatrical experience of stunning memory and humor. If at the end I was crying, it was because I still miss August Wilson so very much.  This larger than life playwright was an important part of my formative and exciting years as a Connecticut theater critic.  It was that time when Lloyd Richards, Artistic Director of the Yale Repertory Theatre and Chair of the Yale Drama School, discovered August Wilson in the summer of 1983 at the O’Neill Center in Waterford.

Wilson, who was born Frederick August Kittel, was an African American, who wrote searingly and lovingly about African Americans. His first play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” opened at Yale; it continued its great success on Broadway the next year.  Meanwhile, Richards, a very patient and sweet man, encouraged Wilson to pare down his monumental scripts and identify each as the tenth part of a Century.  August Wilson went on to write 8 more plays, winning 2 Pulitzers, Tony awards and many others. In doing so, he brought a whole new audience to the theater and a number of gifted actors, directors and technical support to our consciousness. All of the plays except Ma Rainey took place in The Hill District of Pittsburgh.

In 2003, at the Seattle Rep, in collaboration with Todd Kreidler, he told stories about what and who inspired him to create these earthy masterpieces. In 2005, at the age of 60 when he learned he was dying, he passed the baton to Ruben Santiago-Hudson, an actor and playwright who had performed in and directed Wilsons plays.  Ruben Santiago-Hudson with Kreidler’s conception and direction has culled the best of Wilson’s tales and characters and brings them to life in 80 riveting minutes. He spans Wilson’s journey from the Hill District to Minneapolis, where he became a poet, to Seattle, and New York. At a young age, Wilson was a rebel, quitting job after job because he was mistreated. Being born black, he says, is not accident: accidents are bad. Being born black is the way to creative perfection, even though shockingly, the dictionary at one time described blacks as villainous and wicked.

I interviewed August Wilson the day that James Baldwin died. He wept as he acknowledged that that fiery author was a great influence on his writing. 

Ruben Santiago-Hudson should be commended for bringing August Wilson’s work to fruition. It will play through December 29 at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

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