Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
In this instance, the storyteller is August Wilson, one of America's most respected playwrights, whoas portrayed by the magnificent Steven Anthony Jonestakes us on a journey through his youth in Pittsburgh's Hill District, an historically African-American neighborhood that was established in part by policies of segregation, and pushed into disrepair by an ill-planned effort at redevelopment in the years after World War II. Nonetheless, it was a center of black culture, and a magnet for jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and John Coltrane. It was into this Hill District that August Wilson was born, spent his formative years, and where he set nine of his "American Century Cycle" plays.
How I Learned What I Learned focuses almost exclusively on Wilson's life before he achieved any measure of fame or renown. (Though there is one memory of the quiet pain of everyday racism at the hands of a bank teller when cashing a check from the Mark Taper Forum.) This being Wilson, the stories he tells are suffused with the rough poetic energy and hard-luck, street-wise (or foolish) characters that populate his plays.
The staging (set design by Edward E. Haynes, Jr.) puts Wilson in, as the program puts it, "the crucible in which many a work of art has been fired." There is a desk and chair, a stool, and a few steps and a bit of railing that suggest a Hill District stoop. Upstage is a backdrop of yellowing sheets of paper. Like laundry drying on a line, they suggest a task only partially finished andlike writingone that is never-ending.
Steven Anthony Jones does marvelous work here. It's easy to forget just how much effort it takes to deliver the intensity of a personality like August Wilson'sespecially when Jones pulls it off with such relaxed ease. It feels breezy and organic, but there's a core potency that clearly requires all the skills Jones has developed through his years on stage. Margo Hall directs with a light touch, letting Jones and Wilson's poetry work their magic.
How I Learned What I Learned is being produced as a partnership between Marin Theatre Company, Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, and the Ubuntu Theater Project, and will play at both of those theaters after its run at MTC concludes. This gives you multiple opportunities to enjoy the partyand the entertaining character at its center.
How I Learned What I Learned, through February 3, 2019, at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m.. There is an additional "Perspectives" matinee on January 24 at 1:00 p.m.. Tickets range from $25-$70, and are available at marintheatre.org, or by calling the box office at 415-388-5208.