by: Alix Cohen
A Spoonful of Humor Helps History Go Down
Originally performed by August Wilson in 2003, How I Learned What I Learned manages, in eighty engaging minutes, to give us a glimpse of historical and personal roots that shaped the accomplished playwright. Ruben Santiago-Hudson, an experienced interpreter of Wilson’s oeuvre as well as his friend, here ably assumes the role of raconteur.
At the start, we hear an erudite and slightly bitter man tell us that for his ancestors first 244 years, “we never had a problem finding a job.” Our audience laughs. The piece is written to evoke the kind of hindsight amusement with which Wilson felt comfortable – firsthand experience was likely far from funny. It’s a light touch which does nothing to diminish tales of deprivation and close escape, but rather makes it easier going down.
Wilson was raised in Pittsburgh’s Hill District “a third world country 4 minutes from downtown,” where Stay Out Niggers was a common sign. He assures us that good, honest Americans were undoubtedly responding to information disseminated by trusted sources. Webster’s Third International Dictionary described negroes as, among other things, “outrageously wicked.” The rest of the quoted passage is even more unconscionable. Years later, at a party, the playwright was approached by a stranger who proudly told him that he “didn’t see color.” Wilson asked why any one of the many white men in the room was not favored with the same announcement.
Youthful recollections are recounted in street syntax with Hudson adroitly playing varied characters. In those days the only opportunities granted neighborhood kids were: die an early death, steal something, or use drugs. Following the example of his proud and moral mother, Wilson quit a succession of jobs he could ill afford to lose when treated less than equal or with blatant bigotry. He was padlocked out of his home, spent time in jail for acting on the advice of counsel, and almost got shot on several vivid instances.
Adopted early on by The Hill Arts Society and the poet Charles Williams- a junkie who wouldn’t let Wilson touch the stuff, he hung with a group one might call Runyonesque but for the prevalence of drugs and weapons. We hear about girls and women- The Snookie story (no, not the one in New Jersey) is priceless, jazz and self-education. Lively, non-sequential chapters reflect lessons learned and shared. One overall message: We just do things differently; you’re misinterpreting. “I do not say that we African Americans are victims, but that we both, black and white, are victims of history.”
School children should be bused to this play in droves. An illuminating soft sell, it carries message as effectively as story. Adults may want to go back to August Wilson’s many powerful plays.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson seamlessly segues from lush, Shakespearean tonality to the language of the streets and back. His warmth, easy presence, and spot-on timing hold our attention from passage to passage with skilled control. The actor inhabits Wilson.
Director Todd Kreidler varies his thespian’s stance, movements and mercurial characterizations keeping the piece from at any time becoming static. Intimacy is created and maintained. Pacing is deft.
David Gallo’s Scenic and Projection Design are eminently appropriate, if not entirely original. Hundreds of blank pages create a textural backdrop on which Thom Weaver’s excellent Lighting Design is given play. Projecting chapter titles-with the look of a worn Remmington (to Dan Moses Schreier key sounds) is a splendid idea. The minimal set on a slatted wood platform surrounded by dirt and debris is telling. Musical choices and interjection, also under Schreier’s aegis, are evocative.
*Photos: Joan Marcus
August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned
In Collaboration with and Featuring Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Directed by Todd Kreidler
480 West 42nd St.
Through December 29