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How I Learned What I Learned

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

How I Learned What I Learned
Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Photo by Joan Marcus.
“How do you know what you know?” This question isn’t asked explicitly until the final minutes of How I Learned What I Learned, which just opened at the Pershing Square Signature Center, but it’s the overriding theme of this absorbing, if predictable, play about one of the most acclaimed playwrights of the last 30 years: August Wilson.

Wilson, who died in 2005 at age 60, is acclaimed for his Century Cycle, which across ten plays documents the African-American experience through each decade of the 1900s. But this speedy, satiating evening, which he completed just before his death, and which stars Ruben Santiago-Hudson and was co-conceived and directed by Todd Kreidler, reminds us that no man accomplishes anything in a vacuum.

For Wilson, inspiration was found in the place where most of his plays were set: the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where he was raised and lived most of his early adult life. That’s where he first developed views on family (his working mother would sacrifice everything for her family except her dignity), love (from seventh grade onward, Wilson was smitten with women), racism (too many instances to count), and the suggestion that art — in the form of poetry and later theatre — could elevate him and others beyond the everyday financial, social, and spiritual poverty in which they were mired.

Santiago-Hudson, playing the playwright, recites each of these lessons and more, progressing through Wilson’s slave ancestry and the northward migration that reshaped the racial makeup of the country following the Civil War to his skyrocketing career in the 1980s. And though most of his tales follow a generalized pattern — he dreams, abuts against the reality, stands up to the (usually prejudicial) obstacle, and emerges with his sense of self (if nothing else) intact — they do indeed help the show live up to its title by demonstrating where Wilson derived the influences and ideas that gave his plays their unique style and sound.

Though the stories vary greatly in specific subject, ranging from the scintillating model of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane to the time Wilson spent three days in jail to how he fell in love with the theatre to the ways racism affected him even after he made it big, they’re all briskly composed and awash in the sense of music — if not quite the symphonic sweep — of the epic monologues that defined Wilson’s writing. And if Santiago-Hudson does not attempt a straight impersonation of Wilson, there’s a tangible physical resemblance (enhanced by the costumes of Constanza Romero, Wilson’s widow) and a broad, laughing baritonal cadence that beautifully captures the angry humor of this dynamic, tireless warrior.

How I Learned What I Learned is terrifically lean for a bio show (80 minutes), but it can’t avoid all the usual traps of this kind of outing. Despite Santiago-Hudson’s unflagging energy, the actor can’t keep each subsequent scene from feeling like a rewind of what’s come before: Kreidler’s staging is simple and static, making similarly flat use of David Gallo’s set and projections from beginning to end (words outlining each new chapter “type” themselves on floating pages lining the air above the stage), and Thom Weaver’s lights veer between flattering library highlighting and outright messianic illumination. Wilson wasn’t afraid to reveal his warts, but too often, especially towards the end, you may as well be spinning in the middle of a white-hot hagiography.

But even when there’s little question what you’ll get or how you’ll get it, it’s tough not to love Wilson and the world he created, which blazes through the walls of the expected here as though they’re made of plastic wrap. Wilson, like so many of the most important artists, explained himself with his works, but to hear his actual voice given form here is to take that personality and insight to another level that, ultimately, is no less vital an exploration of identity than, say, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone or Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Never is Wilson better articulated than through a late-show section in which he describes a man who walked into the A. Leo Weill Elementary School auditorium while Wilson was rehearsing plays, sat down at the piano, and created “incredible” sounds from the keyboard that no one had ever heard before. Until, that is, he stopped suddenly and began screaming, “Limitation of the instrument! Limitation of the instrument!” A consummate if unknown artist, the man had traveled as far as manmade music machines could take him.

“I think that’s where every artist wants to go,” Wilson says — not flighty or fantasy-propelled but matter-of-factly. “That’s where I want to go.” Whether Wilson believed he ever attained that goal is something we can’t know. But the incomparable dramatic saga he left behind, and the tutorial How I Learned What I Learned provides of its creation, make a compelling case that he did.


How I Learned What I Learned
Through December 29
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Signature Theatre Company, 480 West 42nd Street between Dyer Avenue & 10th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: signaturetheatre.org