Monday, March 14, 2016

Huntington Theatre Company Presents August Wilson's "How I Learned What I Learned" - A Rare Window Into The Soul Of An American Master

I have long enjoyed the plays of August Wilson.  His Century Cycle - ten plays each depicting a different decade of the Twentieth Century in Pittsburgh's Hill District - is one of the great achievements in drama in the past century.  The Huntington Theatre Company has championed these plays, presenting seven of the ten in Boston before they went to Broadway.  So it is fitting that this memoir of Wilson, co-conceived and directed his longtime dramaturg, Todd Kreidler, should appear on the Huntington stage.  The role of Wilson is played, appropriately enough, by the magnificent Eugene Lee, a friend of Wilson and an actor who has appeared in many of Wilson's plays.

The set by David Gallo is deceptively simple - sheets of what look like manuscript paper hung haphazardly from vertical wires across the back of the stage.  To signal the beginning of a new section of the play, the sound of a manual typewriter could be heard (Sound Design by Dan Moses Schrier), and individual letters would be projected onto the sheets of paper, spelling out the title of this section of the play.  It had a striking effect.  The set also featured a square raised platform - about the same dimension as a boxing ring, a coat rack, and a few scattered buckets and other detritus. Costume and Creative Consultation is by Constanza Romero and Lighting is by Thom Weaver.

Eugene Lee in "How I Learned What I Learned"
Huntington Theatre Company
Through April 3, Avenue of the Arts / BU Theatre.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
As Mr. Lee moved about the set and meandered from topic to topic, I began to realize that we were being led on a tour through August Wilson's Memory Palace.  He would recount incidents from his life that turned out to be the raw material and fodder from which he had constructed his poems and his plays. It was like taking a tour through Thomas Edison's lab and mind. Particularly poignant was the story of how Mr. Wilson learned the importance of keeping his mouth shut when he watched a man being stabbed to death at a bar because he had said something disrespectful to the assailant's wife.

Also deeply affecting was a vignette told near the end of the evening of Wilson having been paid by a theater in LA.  The white woman serving as the bank teller initially refused to cash the check, even though Mr. Wilson has showed proper ID and the check had been written on an account from that same bank.  It took a manager to clear things up, but it was clear that this woman did not believe that a black man had any legitimate reason to possess a check in that large amount.  Once the cash had been counted out, August asked for an envelope in which he could carry the bills. "We don't have envelopes at this bank!"  In a subsequent trip to cash another check, Wilson encountered a more friendly teller who promptly provided him with cash  - and with an envelope.  But that first encounter, as insignificant as it may have seemed on the surface, ratcheted up the volcano of rage that simmered in his soul for much of his life.  It was that volcano that fueled his genius and his artistry, and Mr. Lee captures it all with vibrancy and artistry and dignity.

My companion at the theatre that evening was a young African-American professional who had never seen one of Wilson's plays performed.  He was mesmerized and moved, and as we were leaving the theatre, he said to me, "I need to get the manuscript of what we just saw.  I need to think about all these things."

In light of all that is happening these days in the political boxing ring in our nation, we all need to think about these things. The issues of racism that peppered Wilson's life and informed his plays about the century now past still rear their head in this present century - at every Trump, in the all-too-frequent displays of police , in quotidian looks of contempt and the absence of civility.  Although August Wilson is no longer with us, the lessons provided by his life and life's work still speak eloquently to the work that we still need to do to come together as a nation and as a community. Through this memoir, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Lee are offering us an envelope in which we can carry the currency of understanding that we need to spend to truly make a difference in this world.

This play will run through April 3rd.

Huntington Theatre Website



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