“August Wilson‘s How I Learned What I Learned” is elegant, tough, poetic memoir of racism

By Lucy Komisar

HowMy ancestors have been in America since the early seventeenth century. And for the first two hundred and forty-four years we never had a problem finding a job, he says with pointed irony. But since 1863 it’s been hell.

So begins August Wilson‘s elegant, tough, poetic memoir of his life in America. It is smartly created by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who knew Wilson and acted in many of his plays.

Todd Kreidler, who was Wilson‘s assistant, dramaturg and friend in the playwright‘s last six years, directs with such a sense of his mentor that you feel Wilson is looking approvingly over his shoulder.

This monologue is a backdrop, or maybe a concordance, to his American Century Cycle, a series of ten plays covering 100 years of black American life and culture, each occurring in a different decade of the 20th century and most set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

The set is composed of walls covered with tacked-on pages, with a few white letters describing the moment, such as “My ancestors.” They surround a brown wood platform with a desk, table, and stool that with a feeling of being closed in represents both the loneliness and interior richness of the playwright. (Design and projections are by David Gallo.)

Sometimes, when “Coltrane” is spelled out on the wall, his music wafts over. Wilson notes that Coltrane played at high volumes to reach fans who were standing outside clubs, because they couldn‘t pay the entrance.

HowWilson tells the story of his life, growing up the drug scene, working as a dish washer, quitting jobs when bosses insulted him with their racism, educating himself with books. It‘s at the beginning an underclass life. He tells about being jailed for not having the money to pay rent, about experiences with woman who was married to a heroin addict.

He is sharply attuned to the large and small impacts of racism. How the arriving Europeans killed Indians. How when Monsignor Connare of the Catholic Church in the Hill District announced that Negroes would be welcome to worship there, his next sermon was attended only by three elderly ladies.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson is soft-voiced, impassioned, beautifully sensitive and at the same time avuncular and cynical as Wilson.

I thought this production might be an interesting theatrical autobiography. It is much more than that; it is compelling theater.

August Wilson‘s How I Learned What I Learned.” Written by August Wilson; directed by Todd Kreidler. Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd St., New York City. 212-244-7529. Opened Nov 24; closes Dec 29, 2013. 12/26/13.

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