BWW Review: Round House Theatre's HOW I LEARNED WHAT I LEARNED a Brilliant Celebration of August Wilson
When August Wilson died, many of us mourned the loss of both his voice and his loving vision of Pittsburgh's Hill District, where he had lived so much of his life. As was once said of Shakespeare's leading actor, 'He is gone, and what a world goes with him'.
The plays live on, of course, and will enrich the stage for many years to come; but as generations pass, it may become more difficult for new audiences to adjust their vision to Wilson's. Perhaps some of it will seem too bleak, some of it too fantastical, to be real.
Fortunately, we have a one-man show, originally conceived by and for Wilson himself, which serves as both a capstone and an introduction to his plays. How I Learned What I Learned, developed by Wilson with the assistance (and direction) of Todd Kreidler, was originally intended as a sort of victory lap, a way for Wilson to share the many colorful, real-life characters that informed his work as he completed the last play of his 10-play cycle, with the 1990's piece Radio Golf.
With Wilson's passing, others devoted to his work have stepped up to represent on his behalf; and Roundhouse is blessed that Kreidler has invited Eugene Lee, a veteran of many of Wilson's plays, to perform the master dramatist's own life story. With a dazzlingly decrepit scenic design by David Gallo, How I Learned What I Learned is in many ways a commemoration of Wilson's work, but it also opens the door to a future where his work will remain accessible and - if there is any justice - sustained popularity for years to come.
Gallo places Lee on a platform in an alley, complete with fill dirt and the bits and pieces of life jutting out from the ground, snatches of poetry included. The back wall, a glorious celebration of the writer's craft, is speckled with sheets of paper which receive the words that herald the beginning of each new episode I the evening's story. And given Wilson's deep love of African-American music, it is fitting that Dan Moses Schreier has selected some of the tradition's most memorable songs here to trigger the memory and illustrate profound truths about Wilson's journey.
Lee's delivery is colorful yet understated, the voice of a writer; but now that Wilson's piece is in the hands of an actor there is also room for Lee to embody the many people who shaped the dramatist's life; the junkies, the girlfriends, the lawyers (yeah, Wilson did spend a few days in jail), and best of all Wilson's determined mother all come to life here in ways that Wilson himself might not have attempted. This gives a special power to the performance, and a special resonance to Wilson's life story.
What bodes so well for How I Learned What I Learned is that over the years, Kreidler and Wilson amassed a wealth of material - enough to fill several evenings with vivid storytelling. As each actor approaches the material it will be possible for Kreidler to select and shape the show in unique ways. It's entirely possible that someone might come along, immerse herself or himself in Wilson's material, and memorize the corpus so that each night the performance will feature different material, differently ordered and delivered.
Wilson was a prolific writer and lecturer, and it is simply impossible to contain the man in a single script. He is much like another American icon, Mark Twain, whose material inspired HAl Holbrook to create Mark Twain Tonight, a one-man show so rich in material that no two performances were ever the same. If anyone deserves to live on in this way, August Wilson does. And the Roundhouse Theatre production of How I Learned What I Learned is proof that we have a writer for the ages.
Production Photo: Eugene Lee as August Wilson. Photo by Grace Toulotte.
Running Time: approximately 1 hour 45 minutes, with no intermission.
Performances of How I Learned What I Learned run through July 2 at the Roundhouse Theatre Bethesda, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD.
Tickets can be ordered by calling 240-644-1100, or by logging into http://www.roundhousetheatre.org/buy-tickets/calendar/.