Review: Santiago-Hudson Beautifully Recreates August Wilson in HOW I LEARNED WHAT I LEARNED
Ruben Santiago-Hudson's association with the plays of August Wilson includes winning a Tony Award for his performance in Seven Guitars, originating a role in Gem Of The Ocean and directing Sterling Productions of Seven Guitars and The Piano Lesson (for which he was awarded an Obie), so he seems a natural choice to portray the great playwright himself in Signature Theatre's captivating production of How I Learned What I Learned.
In fact, it was Wilson himself who made the selection. More of a collection of remembrances than a structured play, Wilson premiered the solo piece himself in 2003, just two years before his death. He had said to co-conceiver Todd Kreidler, who directed him them, that when the time came he would want him to mount the piece again with another actor, specifically Santiago-Hudson.
While those unfamiliar with the playwright's work can take in the 80-minute evening as simply the experiences of a young black American starting his adult life during the racially turbulent 1960s, the play has a much deeper impact for those who know his extraordinary dramatic achievement, The Century Cycle; a series of ten plays focusing on black American culture, each set in a different decade of the 20th Century and all but one taking place in Pittsburgh's Hill District.
While there are no direct connections between the action of his plays and his stories of life in that same neighborhood, How I Learned What I Learned provides audiences with a living portrait that is enhanced by the knowledge of what the young man will eventually create.
"My ancestors have been in America since the early seventeenth century. And for the first two hundred and forty-four years we never had a problem finding a job," he tells us with a sardonic glint.
"But since 1863 it's been hell."
Fred Rodgers once told August Wilson that he'd always be welcome in his neighborhood, but the notes tied to the bricks thrown through his family's windows didn't carry the same sentiment. The week after Monsignor Connare of the Catholic Church in the Hill District announced that Negroes would now be welcome to worship there he preached his sermon to a congregation consisting of just three elderly ladies.
The young aspiring poet struggled through a series of jobs because he would quit as soon as he spotted inequity in the way he was being treated; an attitude he learned from his mother during an incident involving a washing machine where she taught him that, "Something is not always better than nothing."
But more prominently featured than the details of his life is are his observations about how those of his race are treated differently, even by well-meaning white men who proudly shake his hand and assure him that he's "colorblind." He uses examples of culturally different behaviors in explaining how the habits of whites in America are considered normalities that blacks are expected to conform to.
As an artist, his admiration for John Coltrane goes unbounded, particularly in the way he intentionally played loud enough so that those standing outside the club, who couldn't afford entry, could hear his music. He speaks of watching a brilliant piano player break down in the middle of a flourish, frustrated that his talents were unable to extend beyond "the limitations of the instrument," and explains how he would stop writing if the limitations of his playwright's tools kept him from expressing more.
A maestro with the textured tones and rhythms of Wilson's writing, Santiago-Hudson's captivating presence and attention to verbal detail keeps the evening intriguing, despite its episodic nature. As a mellow, elder statesman looking back at his angrier, less sophisticated days, the role is a perfect vehicle for the fine actor.
Scenic and projection designer David Gallo and lighting designer Thom Weaver create striking visuals with a setting covered with typewritten pages that serve as screens for the titles of each section. The memoir concludes with the name of each play of The Century Cycle presented individually, typewritten letter by letter. Just the names, one by one, serve as a breathtaking curtain call.