Twelve years after August Wilson performed his final play, the Pittsburgh Public Theater presents the Pittsburgh premiere of How I Learned What I Learned. The play is an autobiographical look into Wilson’s life growing up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the 1960s, reflecting on his struggles with racism and trying to make it in the world as a poet.
The one-man play breaks down into a series of essays, chapters dedicated to specific lessons learned throughout Wilson’s life. Just as the title suggest, the chapters are filled with Wilson’s memories and stories that lead to him learning the lessons of life.
Eugene Lee is a very good storyteller. His demeanor is relaxed and natural and the audience feels as though he is speaking to each one of them. Lee is able to create scenes where there are no visuals and project the emotions of memories outward into the audience. Lee hurries around the simple stage, excitedly acting out his time in jail or one of many altercations, and then withdraws with a sort of nostalgic tone as he acknowledges the lesson, places one memory back on the shelf and picks up the next. The show was just under two hours long, quite a marathon for one performer, but Lee never loses the attention of the audience.
The set was made up of a raised wooden platform upon which rests a desk fashioned from two small filing cabinets and a door with a coat rack in the corner. The floor underneath is dirt with tire parts and crates poking out of the sand. Though the performance space is simple and dingy, the backdrop is what immediately captures the attention of the audience. Notebook paper of different sizes and orientations are suspended from the ceiling creating the illusion of a wall of floating pages. The titles of chapters and names of characters are projected onto the sheets of paper with the sound of an old typewriter snapping through the air. The quiet desolate setting with words glowing from the flock of papers frozen in space don’t seem representation of a place in reality, but of Wilson’s own creation of refuge for himself. I would have at least splurged on an armchair and a rug, but it’s not my mind temple.
Wilson was made famous by his works on African American culture and the greater picture of America’s struggle toward equality. This was Wilson’s last play, the only play he performed himself and very much has the feeling of a final teaching. It is nice to see this show come home to where it was conceived, giving us a intimate glimpse into one of the many lives of those who lived and struggled in a time growing ever more distant.
I would like to thank the Pittsburgh Public Theater for the complimentary press tickets. How Learned What I Learned runs through April 5th and tickets can be found here.
Director: Todd Kreidler
Scenic and Projection Design: David Gallo
Costume Design: Constanza Romero
Lighting Design: Thom Weaver
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier