How does one become one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century?
The answer is not directly forthcoming in “How I Learned What I Learned,” the memoir written and performed by August Wilson in 2003, two years before his death at age 60, which is now being revived by masterful Wilson interpreter and devotee Ruben Santiago-Hudson at the Signature Theater. As Wilson, Santiago-Hudson tells us he dropped out of school at the age of 15, when, he implies, his education began in earnest – first in the library, and then, at age 20, in “the clutches of a group of poets and painters” in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. It was in the streets and bars of his impoverished but enriching hometown community that Wilson got the equivalent of his MFA.
But his route to dramatist is only implied. In one of the few explicit mentions of theater at all, Wilson talks about his seventh grade Christmas pageant, in which Sister Mary Eldephonse assigned him to play the cymbals. “A non-speaking role! I was outraged.” It was an experience most memorable to him – the point and the punch line of the story – because it was the first time he kissed a girl.
As it turns out, Wilson’s funny, pointed stories, his portraits of neighborhood characters and his mini-lectures about racism offer a random sampling of his power as a storyteller. Spoken in the cadences of the characters we know from his 10-play American Century Cycle, Wilson recalls his encounters with a murderously jealous husband; three days he spent in jail for breaking into his apartment that the landlord had padlocked because he was late with his rent; his experience listening to the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane with hundreds of other men on the street outside the club where the musician was playing – none could afford the cover charge.
“My ancestors have been in America since the early 17th century,” he says at the start, “and for the first 244 years, we never had a problem finding a job.” But he finds little humor in the slights and indignities that he and his mother experienced because of the color of their skin.
The costumes, by Wilson’s widow Constanza Romero, include a t-shirt we first see from the back, imprinted with the words “I Am An Accident This Did Not Turn Out Right,” and then, when he turns around, “I am Supposed To Be White.” The set by David Gallo offers an abstract feel of building blocks, against which he projects words that serve as chapter titles.
This allows for a discordant note at the end of the show, a final gesture that feels overly reverent, when the names of Wilson’s ten plays (“Fences,” “The Piano Lesson,” etc.) appear in starry lights, as Santiago-Hudson looks up at them as if in worship.
More in keeping with Wilson’s own down-to-earth poetry is a tale he tells of his older friend Chawley, a poet and a heroin addict, who slammed a fellow junkie against the wall for asking 20-year-old Wilson if he wanted to shoot up. “Chawley saw something in me. And Chawley didn’t want me to become a heroin addict like him… I realize that all of these years, I have worked to reward that thing that Chawley see in me.”
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August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned
At the Signature Center
In collaboration with Ruben Santiago-Hudson; performed by Santiago-Hudson; co-conceived and directed by Todd Kreidler; sets and projections by David Gallo; costumes by/associate artist, Constanza Romero; lighting by Thom Weaver; sound by Dan Moses Schreier.
Tickets: After December 18, $55
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
“How I Learned What I Learned” is scheduled to run through December 29, 2013