August Wilson from epic to portrait in Marin Theatre’s ‘How I Learned What I Learned’
In the hands of other playwrights and actors, “How I Learned What I Learned” might sound like a lot of “… and another thing.”
August Wilson’s autobiographical one-man show doesn’t build toward a single climax. As the narrator recounts his formative experiences in Pittsburgh’s Hill District — the site of many of the works in Wilson’s extraordinary 10-play Century Cycle — there isn’t one grand revelation or a rising and falling narrative line. Scenes weave in and out of gunpoint (the double barrels of a hunting rifle are “hubcaps” when they’re pointed at you), in and out of his mother’s house as first attempts at adulthood founder, meandering toward ownership of his identity as a writer and artist who’s just as aware of his flaws as he is of the principles he will never bend.
In Seattle in 2003, the Pultizer Prize- and Tony-winning playwright performed the show himself, just two years years before he died. Now, veteran local actor Steven Anthony Jones embodies the writer for the show’s Bay Area premiere, which opened Tuesday, Jan. 15, at Marin Theatre Company, before it moves to San Francisco’s Buriel Clay Theater under the auspices of Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, winding up at Berkeley’s Waterfront Playhouse and Conservatory courtesy of Ubuntu Theater Project in March.
The script hopscotches from adamant righteousness to bemused comedy to youthful earnestness — from all the jobs Wilson walked out on, instantly and sans qualm, because of a racist boss; to Wilson’s friend who papers the neighborhood in advertisements for a concert when he can’t even play an instrument; to the seventh-grade crush that led to a botched cymbal crash during the school Christmas pageant.
But in Wilson’s singular voice, as summoned by Jones under the direction of Margo Hall, “How I Learned What I Learned” never feels like a disconnected series of anecdotes. Jones makes each change in subject and shift and tone as natural and inevitable as a law of physics.
On opening night, though, he was still shaky with the text, calling for a line once and seeming to search for them often, especially at the beginning of the show. In a few instances, he hadn’t yet wrestled sense out of Wilson’s loop-the-loop syntax and virtuoso vocabulary: “Years later, I would have to travel through the province of unsettled schoolboys searching for the fleshy comforts of conquest, the wild, exclamatory music of sorority girls in full surrender and secret knowing of riotous muscle.”
But more often, you bask in Jones’ masterful elocution and intonation — the way he relaxes into a vowel; crisps a consonant; divines, for each syllable, a one-of-a-kind way to make it important by singing it, stretching it, clipping it, landing on it with a mighty thud. Jones has an inborn kingliness of manner that he dispenses benevolently to Wilson’s subject matter and his audience alike. “Here,” he seems to say, “there’s room on my regal coattails for all of you to ride on.”
And who but nobility could proffer such wisdom as Wilson? To have your mother die is to learn “that allthem years you been living on your mother’s prayers and now you’ve got to live on your own.” “If you go through life carrying a 10-gallon bucket, you always going to be disappointed. ’Cause it ain’t never going to be filled.”
The great project of Wilson’s Century Cycle was to write black life, history and culture into what had too often been a monochromatic American dramatic canon. In “How I Learned What I Learned,” Wilson paints a portrait that’s just as wide and deep, but of a single man — one who demands, and earns — respect with each utterance, who can build a world with a turn of phrase, who can bring the same eloquent, compassionate honesty he brought to Pittsburgh’s Hill District to himself.
— S. F. CHRONICLE Read full review