Perhaps a more accurate title would be August Wilson's How I Learned What I Learned. Originally a one-man autobiographical show starring Pittsburgh's most famous playwright himself, the current production at the Pittsburgh Public Theater tries to capture Wilson's voice and spirit.
It doesn't, not quite. While actor Eugene Lee deftly relays the stories and the humor and the heart of Wilson's anger-fueled passion, he cannot suspend our belief that he is a narrator, not the poet. Long-time Wilson associate/dramaturg Todd Kreidler co-created and directed this production; he did the same for that first production (in 2003), and reworked it for a New York premiere last year. Learned is a tribute to and an examination of the life of Wilson (né Frederick August Kittel), who died too young at age 60 in 2005, shortly after the opening of Radio Golf, the final play of his Pittsburgh Cycle.
- Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater
- Eugene Lee in How I Learned What I Learned, at the Pittsburgh Public Theater
Covering Wilson's life from childhood to before his career took off, in the early 1980s, Learned covers a lot of familiar territory. I don't mean just the anecdotes that often popped up in interviews (e.g. his self-education at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh), but also the indignities heaped on every person of color. His specifics might vary, but the experiences — being suspected as a thief on sight, hassled by the police, disdained by random white people — are sadly not uncommon, even for the most professional and proficient African-American. Need I mention the vitriol spewed at POTUS and FLOTUS? Oh, what August could make of that situation.
And there are plenty of stories about Wilson's life on the streets of the Hill, his friendships and mentors, his sometimes very hard lessons about life. (For me, the most surprising revelation was that we shared a math teacher, though at different schools in different decades.)
Given recent events in Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island and elsewhere that belie the myth of "post-racial" America, How I Learned What I Learned is remarkably timely. There's plenty for the rest of us to learn, too.