How I Learned What I Learned Review: August Wilson’s Portrait Of The Playwright As A Young Man

How I Learned What I Learned Signature TheatreHow 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.”

Click on any photograph to see it enlarge

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


Fantasia! Julie Taymor! Daniel Craig! Dr. Ruth! The Week in New York Theater


Fantasia in After Midnight; Kathryn Hunter as Puck in Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Debra Jo Rupp as the dimunitive sex therapist in Becoming Dr. Ruth

“After Midnight” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” opened during the week in New York theater: We are clearly in the middle of the theater season. I reviewed these shows as well as “Becoming Dr. Ruth” and “Betrayal” with Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz. Also below, news about Ewan McGregor and Carol Lawrence, Stephen Sondheim and Tony Kushner, August Wilson, another way to celebrate Wicked’s 10th anniversary on Broadway…and Tracy Lett’s 10 Rules For Being Creative.

The Week in New York Theater

Monday, October 28, 2013

Top ten stage shows that did NOT win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama

Top10showswithnoPulitzerFun Home by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori has been extended at ‪The Public Theater until December 1st.

The Irish Rep is reviving It’s A Wonderful Life (the 1946 radio play adapted from the Frank Capra movie). When? In December of course.

Tale of two  (really three) Shakespeares: Romeo and Juliet sold only 42 percent of its seats last week; Twelfth Night and Richard III sold 97 percent!

To celebrate its tenth anniversary on Broadway, Wicked becomes a category on Jeopardy


American Songbook 2014 at Lincoln Center:  Patina Miller, Jonathan Groff, Ann Harada, Taylor Mac, Norm Lewis, etc. 

 36.7 million saw shows at non-profit theaters, which contributed about $2 billion to U.S. economy, reports Theater Communications Group.


My review of Becoming Dr. Ruth

funny, touching, lovely solo show about the celebrity sex therapist’s remarkable life story ….Debra Jo Rupp is able to communicate Dr. Ruth’s humor and warmth and inspiring resilience in a way that only seems possible on a stage. And, though Rupp is a full seven inches taller than Ruth Westheimer, she even manages to convince us that she’s as physically short as the larger-than-life woman she is portraying.

Full review of Becoming Dr. Ruth



Carol Lawrence, original Maria in West Side Story, plays Israeli grandmother in new play Handle with Care, which opens December 15th at Westside Theater

The 46-year-old Puerto Rican Traveling Theater Co. is merging with 34-year-old Pregones Theater


"The Impossible" - Los Angeles Premiere - ArrivalsEwan McGregor will make his Broadway debut in The Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, Oct.2014

Stephen Sondheim attended the musical “Fun Home” at the Public Theater, which prompted Michael Schulman to observe: “The score, by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics), is rich and troubled and psychologically nuanced, in a way that seems inescapably Sondheimian. Starting in the nineteen-seventies, Sondheim ushered in a new way of writing show tunes, one that favored liminal states—ambivalence, regret—over toe-tapping joy.”

Tony Kushner is writing “a screenplay and an opera libretto about Eugene O’Neill.”

Trey Graham ‏@treygraham A Tony Kushner opera about Eugene O’Neill. That’ll be brisk.



Miss “The Raisin Cycle” documentary on PBS, about Raisin in the Sun & its sequels? Full show here for a limited time

November 1, 2013


Q and A with performance artist Cynth Von Buhler, creator of Speakeasy Dollhouse, combination immersive theater and gin joint


New Play Exchange

Like many playwrights, Gwydion Suilebhan has long been frustrated by what happens after he has written a play.

“The task of figuring out, among the thousands of theatres across the United States, which ones might be both right for a given play of mine and interested in considering new work at any given moment in time,” he says, “falls somewhere between onerous and impossible.

That’s why Suilebhan is delighted by the idea of a national database of new plays—an idea, in fact, that promises to be coming soon to a theatre near you. Indeed, Suilebhan was hired this past summer as the director of the New Play Exchange, an online tool being developed at the National New Play Network, aiming to be fully operational by 2015.

Full article on New Play Exchange


My review of Betrayal

Director Mike Nichols takes liberties.  The alcohol pours freely, designer Ian MacNeil’s sets glide aerodynamically into place, the actors shed British reserve to shout and grab and, instead of staring, kiss…and couple.  This is a more external, more explicit, production of what is already Pinter’s most accessible play. For me, what’s lost in subtlety is gained in clarity…

While many have been drawn to this third Broadway production of Betrayal for reasons other than, say, a love of Pinter, the three main actors (there is a fourth who plays a waiter in one scene) deliver arresting performances on the stage. These are not slumming screen stars. We see the characters transform (backwards) before our eyes: Daniel Craig’s indifferent attitude unravels into anger, resentment, hurt; Rachel Weisz’s reserve collapses into a naivete that makes her an easy target; Rafe Spall guilt turns to puppy-doggish enthusiasm  and then to a drunken sort of mercenary aggression.

Full review of Betrayal


A dozen videos from the Howlround conference on Latino theater


My review of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

There is something terrifically apt in director Julie Taymor, so loved after creating The Lion King, and so hated after Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, inaugurating a beautiful new theater in Brooklyn with Shakespeare’s play about the fickleness of affection.

There are echoes of her previous work in Taymor’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center – the lovely delicate animal costumes that the ensemble occasionally wear recall The Lion King, the breathtaking use of parachute-size sheets and aerial acrobatics seem taken from the Spider-Man playbook. But Taymor’s inventive staging has the feel of something new, ironically because she is in a way revisiting her past  — she first worked with Theatre for a New Audience in 1984, when she was an experimental theater artist known only to the cognoscenti. Her Dream returns her to a relatively intimate scale (and lower budget) and is better because of it. It is time to love Julie Taymor again.

This is not to say that hers is a perfect Dream…

Full review of A Midsummer Night’s Dream


Bruce Hallett, former president of Time and Sports Illustrated, has joined Playbill Inc. as its publisher, focusing on the print magazine.

Glen Berger’s book Song of Spiderman is an insider’s coroner report, says review Mark Harris. One line:  “Just watching it all disappear down the dream hole, huh?” Julie Taymor said to Glen Berger after tough Spider-man rehearsal.

Ruben Santiago Hudson

Ruben Santiago-Hudson has been taken with August Wilson since he saw Wilson’s very first play on Broadway, as he told me during the recent taping of all 10 plays of Wilson’s American Century Cycle — each one set in a different decade of the twentieth century.

“I was smitten, captured, put in a spell,” he says. “Nobody had represented me with such integrity; nobody seemed to have the love for me and the people I knew like August did.”

Santiago-Hudson is committed to putting the last of Wilson’s plays, Jitney, on Broadway. In the meantime, he is playing August Wilson in a solo show BY Wilson, How I Learned What I Learned



My review of After Midnight

Syncopated or synchronized; scatting, swinging or serenading; in white satin or black silk, the more than three dozen supremely talented entertainers of “After Midnight” – singers, dancers and musicians – thrill with an astonishing 27 musical numbers over 90 intermission-less minutes…

The first guest artist is Fantasia Barrino, the American Idol winner who floored Broadway audiences with her performance as Celie in The Color Purple. (Future guest artists already lined up after Barrino leaves the show in February: kd lang, then Toni Braxton and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds.) It is a different Fantasia – luscious, sparkling, dressed in celebrated fashion designer/first-time Broadway costume designer Isabel Toledo’s flattering ensembles – who floors us in a completely new way with her polished singing of the enduring jazz standards “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,”  “Stormy Weather,” and “On The Sunny Side of the Street,” as well as her fabulous scatting in Cab Calloway’s snazzy “Zaz Zuh Zaz.” But this is a show too rich in talent to have to depend on any one star. Even the orchestra is called the All-Stars …

There are two ways, however, in which Dule Hill’s use of Langston Hughes’ poetry as the sole spoken text of “After Midnight” strikes me as a missed opportunity..

Full review of After Midnight

Tracy Letts’ 10 Rules for Being Creative

Tracy Letts 10 ideas for being creative

August Wilson’s American Century Cycle Project begins at WNYC!

In his twenties, Ruben Santiago-Hudson saw “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the first play by August Wilson that appeared on Broadway, and “I was smitten, captured, put in a spell,” he says. “Nobody had represented me with such integrity; nobody seemed to have the love for me and the people I knew like August did.”
Three decades later, having performed in such August Wilson plays as “The Piano Lesson,” “Gem of the Ocean,” and “Seven Guitars,” for which he won a 1996 Tony Award, Santiago-Hudson returned last night to “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” directing the first of an ambitious project to record for radio broadcast all 10 of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle plays within the next month.
Santiago-Hudson, who will perform in “Fences” and “Seven Guitars” and direct three of the plays, is the artistic director of the project. It is the first given permission by the Wilson estate since Wilson’s death in 2005 to record all 10 plays, each set in one of the ten decades of the twentieth century. Each recording session will feature many performers who were in the original casts — the nearly 60 actors include Jesse L. Martin, Phylicia Rashad, and Leslie Uggams — and be presented in front of a live audience at WNYC’s The Greene Space. The video will be livestreamed on The Greene Space website, but only the audio will be preserved, in effect turning Wilson’s plays into radio dramas.
In the video, Santiago-Hudson explains his choices, and several of the performers for the first play, including Clarke Peters and Larry Gilliard Jr. (both from the TV series “The Wire”), as well as associate artistic producer Stephen McKinley Henderson, a consummate interpreter of the playwright who has performed in eight of his 10 plays, describe their love for his work.



Clarke Peters, Larry Gilliard, Jr. musicians and other cast of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the first of the recorded shows.

Clarke Peters, Larry Gilliard, Jr. musicians and other cast of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the first of the recorded shows.


August Wilson's plays. The left column is organized by when he wrote them. The right column goes chronologically by the year in which the play is set.

August Wilson’s plays.
The left column is organized by when he wrote them. The right column goes chronologically by the year in which the play is set.


Schedule at The Greene Space

The shows are sold out, but each will be presented live online at 7 p.m. at The Greene Space website

Monday, August 26
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Wednesday, August 28

Thursday, August 29
Talk: The Lloyd Richards Effect

Wednesday, September 4
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Thursday, September 5
Talk: August Wilson’s Women

Friday, September 6
Talk: Music and Dance

Monday, September 9
The Piano Lesson

Wednesday, September 11
Two Trains Running

Friday, September 13
Seven Guitars

Monday, September 16

Tuesday, September 17
Talk: Bringing Black Works to Broadway

Thursday, September 19
Talk: Religion, Spirituality and Africa

Saturday, September 21
King Hedley II (Matinee Presentation)

Saturday, September 21
King Hedley II

Tuesday, September 24
Gem of the Ocean

Wednesday, September 25
Talk: Reminiscences

Saturday, September 28
Radio Golf (Matinee Presentation)

Saturday, September 28
Radio Golf