Huntington's "How I Learned What I Learned": An August Performer

Eugene Lee in "How I Learned What I Learned"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Theater at its most sublime requires first and foremost a remarkable storyteller. Playwright August Wilson, in his intimate relationship with Huntington Theatre Company, was such a man. The unique form of theater that is a solo dramatic performance demands a similar quality of an actor, that he be a raconteur extraordinaire. Memorable one-person shows are few, but when the subject of a piece of theater is as legendary as Wilson and a vessel of his work is as commanding as actor Eugene Lee, it's a truly unforgettable experience.

For the first 244 years, we never had a problem finding a job; but since 1863, it's been hell.” So begins the verbal saga of Wilson in Huntington Theatre Company's production of How I Learned What I Learned, his final theatrical work. It's a portrait of a poet as a young man, co-conceived by Wilson (with his friend Todd Kreidler) before his untimely death at 60 from cancer in 2005. Featuring Lee as the playwright and numerous characters in his life, it's a 100-minute bravura display, not in imitation of the late renowned playwright, but a loving attempt to “conjure his essence”. It's not unlike discovering you've invited to your party the perfect guest. How we have learned what we've learned from his body of work is the at the center of this play. And what a marvelous coda to Wilson's and Huntington's shared history it turns out to be.

Anything in the author's past is grist for his mill, from his life in the Hill District of Pittsburgh (where most of his plays take place) to the dissection of the meanings of the word “black” in the dictionary, not merely its definitions, but its connotations as well. He also tackles his Mother Daisy and a washing machine as a symbol of pride, as well as her wise words such as “something is not always better than nothing”, and his realization of the “limitations of (his) instrument.” In 2003 Wilson himself performed this piece in Seattle, noting that reading his poetry was a solitary act, whereas a theatrical audience is a communal experience. He asked about what his identity was and how it could forge his path to the future; he dealt with lessons that were learnable only through human interaction. His view was that all art is political in the sense that it serves someone's politics, and theater particularly was a “collected mythology, celebrating a common humanity”. Throughout this play, the issue of respect, and how Wilson expected and demanded it, is at his core.

This work was last seen in 2013 off-Broadway, and is quite an appropriate choice for this company, as Huntington has staged all ten of the plays in his Century Cycle, eight of them as world premieres. Even the intriguing set by David Gallo (who also did the Projection Design) serves as a reminder of his output, cluttered with detritus (such as a mangled trumpet or a golf club) that echoes his works from Gem of the Ocean, taking place in the 1900's, wherein 285-year-old Aunt Ester redeemed souls, to Joe Turner's Come and Gone, in the 1910's, set at a boardinghouse where folks looked for lost family members, to Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, in the 1920's, about recording a musical heritage amidst racial strife. The remaining plays in the Century Cycle include, chronologically:The Piano Lesson (the 1930's, in which Boy Willie wishes to sell the family piano and his sister Bernice opposes him since the family's history is carved upon it), Seven Guitars (the 1940's, wherein Floyd Barton needs the fare for a bus ticket), Fences (the 1950's, with jealous Troy Maxson ruining his son's sports career), Two Trains Running (the 1960's, in which Sterling Johnson tries to put his life together post-incarceration), Jitney (the 1970's, about cabbies who go where most cabbies won't), King Hedley II (the 1980's, where King and Mister sell stolen refrigerators) and Radio Golf (the 1990's, when Aunt Ester's house is slated for destruction).The technical team also includes Creative Consultant and Costume Designer Constanza Romero (Wilson's widow), Lighting Designer Thom Weaver and Sound Designer Dan Moses Schreier. All have worked in tandem to produce a wondrous encounter with Wilson, especially with the use of typing sounds and projected words on a wall of blank pages, an ingeniously coordinated collaboration.

The charming Lee performs so smoothly and effortlessly that one is barely aware of the passing of time. It's as though Wilson himself has returned for one last opportunity to share. It's a reminder of the playwright's tremendous gifts given over his all-too-brief career. As enacted by Lee, this is a warm, wise and witty farewell from a truly august playwright, and an exceptional piece of theater. In preparation and execution, it's easily the finest theatrical work of the season.

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