Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

How I Learned What I Learned
Huntington Theatre Company
Review by Nancy Grossman


Eugene Lee
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Storyteller, raconteur, icon. We know August Wilson to be all of those things, as well as the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who authored the acclaimed Century Cycle, a ten-play chronicle of 20th century black America, dramatizing the lives and experiences of characters from the Hill District of Pittsburgh. The Huntington Theatre Company and Wilson collaborated for nearly twenty years until his death in 2005, producing eight of the ten plays in Boston before they went to New York, and eventually staging the entire series. It is fitting that his final work, the autobiographical memoir How I Learned What I Learned, has been brought to the BU Theatre, under the direction of Wilson's friend Todd Kreidler and featuring Eugene Lee, a veteran of numerous Wilson productions.

Kreidler co-conceived the solo piece with Wilson, and the latter's widow Constanza Romero serves as both creative consultant and costume designer for the Huntington production. Informed by his long association with Wilson, Lee slips comfortably into the role of the playwright as a young man. The stories stem from Wilson's escapades as a 20-year old poet, a high school dropout who left his mother's home and learned quickly what it took to survive. He worked a series of jobs to make rent money, but often left them for reasons of principle. He suffered the indignities of young black men in his neighborhood and found himself spending time in jail, but he was unscathed by violence he encountered. Throughout it all, Wilson was learning lessons that enabled him to write poetry and plays that told his story and spoke truths that resonate with a wide audience.

The program describes the setting as "the Crucible in which many a work has been fired," and scenic/projection designer David Gallo drives home the volume of Wilson's art by hanging reams of paper as a vertical backdrop to a raised platform where Lee holds court. To introduce each story, projected scene titles appear letter by letter, accompanied by the clacking of a typewriter. Sound designer Dan Moses Schreier enhances some of the anecdotes with music—honky tonk piano, the strains of saxophonist John Coltrane, even the theme song from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." The mood is changed frequently with a range of colored lights reflecting on the sheets of paper (designer Thom Weaver), and Lee stands under a spotlight for some moments of emphasis.

There is a rhythm and flow to How I Learned What I Learned that comes from Wilson's singular abilities as a writer and storyteller, but Lee's relaxed, conversational delivery cannot be discounted. He is immediately engaging as the purveyor of the playwright's persona and personality, and is equally adept at conveying some of the characters who are featured in Wilson's reminiscences. Although he is not attempting to imitate Wilson, Lee's performance can make you forget that you are watching an actor and not the actual person who lived through these experiences.

Knowing that Wilson compiled the stories for the memoir, it was his choice to focus on the early part of his career. However, it seems odd that there is barely a mention in the script of his becoming a playwright. A handful of the anecdotes feel repetitive and perhaps could be trimmed in service of showing how he transformed from poet to playwright. The production is undeniably a labor of love by Kreidler et al, and it is a fitting coda that, at least at the end, the titles of his plays are "typed" onto the backdrop, one by one.

How I Learned What I Learned, performances through April 3, 2016, at Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org.

Co-conceived and Directed by Todd Kreidler, Creative Consultant Constanza Romero; Scenic & Projection Design, David Gallo; Costume Design, Constanza Romero; Lighting Design, Thom Weaver; Sound Design, Dan Moses Schreier; Production Stage Manager, Carola Morrone LaCoste; Stage Manager, Jeremiah Mullane

Featuring: Eugene Lee


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