BWW Review: HOW I LEARNED WHAT I LEARNED at Round House Theatre - Truly a Triumph!
If you are a fan of the late August Wilson, you must not miss HOW I LEARNED WHAT I LEARNED now playing at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda, MD. Even if you have never heard of August Wilson, you should not miss it for it is an exciting and remarkable piece of theater.
Eugene Lee stars in this solo show written by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright in which Wilson reminisces about his early life in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, his first jobs, his friendships, and his start as a poet. Co-conceived and directed by Todd Kreidler a longtime Wilson collaborator, this intermission-less 90 minute play flies by. I wanted it to continue to include Wilson's work as a playwright. Kreidler does a masterful job directing this one-man show.
The play was created and performed initially in 2003 at the Seattle Repertory Theatre starring the playwright. We learn about his many encounters with racism, his love of music (especially Ma Rainey and John Coltrane), his first kiss, his brief stint in jail, and why he always used to wear a sport coat. He was 40 years old when his first success as a playwright came with MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM. He died of liver cancer at the age of 60 in 2005.
The legacy of racism begins when the play opens: "My ancestors have been in America since the early 17th century, and for the first 244 years, we never had a problem finding a job. But since 1863, its' been hell. It's been hell because the ideas and attitudes that Americans had towards slaves followed them out of slavery and became entrenched in the nation's psyche".
He learned early on from his mother Daisy Wilson about insisting on "respect" and Wilson on numerous times quit his early jobs when he believed he was not getting any. Whether he was mowing grass, working as a stock boy at a toy store, or a dishwasher, he always demanded respect.
He mentions the Hill District was bounded by four streets which had nine drugstores, 82 churches, 147 bars and only one food market. It was the library where Wilson got his education. He left school at the age of 15 and never graduated high school.
Lee's performance is a tour de force. He is a consummate actor. His poignant performance is also quite funny at times. When he took his bow before a thunderous ovation, he gave out an understandable "whew"!
Wilson was known for writing his plays on a yellow pad and a pencil while sitting in bars. Scenic and Projection Designer David Gallo uses about 6,000 sheets of paper on a back wall to commemorate this. He also has capturEd Wilson's struggle by incorporating a large wooden platform which could double as boxing ring. The chapters of Wilson's life are shown on the back wall with the sounds of an old typewriter.
The stage is filled with material that could come from a junk yard. In the program, Gallo explains this: "The lunchbox references a painting the provided the inspiration for JOE TURNER...the ball made of rags harkens back to FENCES...and the bucket of nails...a crucial prop in GEM OF THE OCEAN." He calls the set "an archaeological history".
Thom Weaver does a superb job as Lighting Designer and Dan Moses Schreiber is the Sound Designer. One can hear every word!
This could very well be the highlight of this year's theater season. It is not to be missed.
I will never forget the honor I had to meet Wilson on the patio overlooking the Potomac during intermission at the Kennedy Center during KING HEDLEY II. When I told him I was from Baltimore and subscribed to Center Stage, he raved about it and its then Artistic Director Irene Lewis.
HOW I LEARNED WHAT I LEARNED continues to July 2, 2017. For tickets call 240-644-1100 or log onto www.roundhousetheatre.org.
Next season Round House presents in conjunction with the Olney Theatre Center the hit musical IN THE HEIGHTS, the World Premiere of I'LL GET YOU BACK AGAIN, THE BOOK OF WILL, HANDBAGGED, MASTER HAROLD AND THE BOYS, and THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA MCBRIDE.