It’s a shame August Wilson is no longer with us; 2015 is shaping up to be a great year for the late playwright, especially here in Pittsburgh. In January, the August Wilson Center for African American Culture reopened its doors. In February, a documentary about his life, “The Ground on Which I Stand,” debuted on PBS. This month, “How I Learned What I Learned,” August Wilson’s auto-biographical play opened at the Pittsburgh Public’s O’Reilly Theater.
“How I Learned What I Learned” is the final play in the ten-play “American Century Cycle,” and the last play Wilson wrote. It’s a meditation on the playwright’s early years living in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
In Seattle in 2003, Todd Kreidler and August Wilson came together and collaborated on “How I Learned What I Learned.” Wilson was going to star in the play, but it had to be reimagined with an actor in the role of August Wilson (the playwright died in 2005).
Eugene Lee portrays Wilson as a feisty, funny, but very human man. Wilson doesn’t impart wisdom, he tells you what he doesn’t know, and by so doing, we learn his true wisdom. There are a few moments of humblebrag, but mostly it’s the story of a modest, modern genius who uses his righteous indignation and humor to come to grips with society’s ills.
The author was self-taught. He is the only person to be given a high school diploma from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, where Wilson learned much of what he learned. The rest he learned on the streets of Wylie, Centre, Bedford and Crawford. His anecdotes and musings flow from haphazard recollections into a story of self-actualization. It is sheer poetry, and Lee inhabits the role gracefully. He commands the stage.
Its clear Kreidler is co-conceived the project, because it is an intimate portrayal. The one hundred minute play whisks by speedily. The play is not a collection of facts about the artist, but about his humanity. Luckily, if you’re yearning to know more about August Wilson, there is the aforementioned documentary, The Ground on Which I Stand,” to guide you.
Lighting Designer Thom Weaver, Scenic and Projection Designer David Gallo and Sound Designer Dan Moses Schreier created a workspace for the play that is both grim, gritty and yet simultaneously joyous and hopeful, a flower poking through a cracked, city sidewalk. Scheier must know that the clickety-clack of the typewriter makes every writer’s heart pitter patter. Gall even picks a nice Courier font for the words projected on the wall.
Not to spoil it, but sound and visual arts come together at the end of the play. It is a moving tribute to the playwright and his work.
The Pittsburgh Public is halfway through their season, and, like two trains running, they’re picking up steam. Skip your piano lesson, and grab a jitney for “How I Learned What I Learned.”
HOW I LEARNED WHAT I LEARNED plays through April 5th at Pittsburgh Public Theater, www.ppt.org