How I Learned What I Learned is a kind of stand-up memoir crafted by renowned playwright August Wilson. Steven Anthony Jones performs this one-man show to perfection, following the wandering storyline with passion and intensity that keeps the audience engaged even through some unexpected topic changes.
If you love August Wilson plays, like Fences, Ma Rianey’s Black Bottom, or The Piano Lesson, you’ll love this one too. TheatreWorks’ production of How I Learned What I Learned is expertly staged, beautifully lit and beautifully portrayed against a thoughtful and beautiful set. That stated, if you generally find Wilson’s shows a little slow or misogynistic, you’ll find this one no different.
How I Learned What I Learned has the same strengths and weaknesses as every other August Wilson play I’ve seen. The script is an exemplary exploration of the 20th century African American experience that is told with lyrical, haunting prose. It also drags in the second half and is solidly confined to a male perspective.
These are not flaws specific to Wilson. He is often compared to the likes of Tennesse Williams and Arthur Miller who are some of our greatest American playwrights and also have the exact same problems with their work. They are all male-focused and tend to slow down to a crawl before the ending crescendo. I have to state that I am not the target audience for these shows. I am a female millennial of European heritage, and though the play was written in 2003, it was written by an African-American man born in a poor neighborhood of Pittsburgh in 1945. The show’s casual sexism is understandable, but that doesn’t always make it easy to swallow. There is an inherent cognitive dissonance when someone eloquently speaking about respect and shared humanity utterly disregards the thoughts and emotions of the women he encounters. He obviously loves the women in his life, especially his mother, but none of the female characters in his story get anything close to the complex and empathetic storytelling that is afforded to the males.
Alright, so I didn’t unreservedly love the script. What about the rest of it?
TheatreWorks’ production of this show is perfect. This is the reason I come back to TheatreWorks time and time again, even if I don’t expect to like the show. Very much like their Christmas show, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the talent, staging, lighting and overall quality of the production is so good it greatly improves the experience.
Steven Anthony Jones’ performance is fantastic. An hour and 40 minutes is a long time to stand on stage alone, especially with such a carefully worded and lyrical script. Something about his performance, particularly when reading Wilson’s poetry, made me long to see Jones as King Lear. He has a commanding presence and easily shifts between comedy, intensity and righteous anger as the script demands. Wilson’s work can be difficult to do justice, as it shifts between topics quickly and just as often, it shifts from casual conversation to lyrical musings on the meaning of life. Jones navigates these turbulent waters so well that he makes it look easy.
The lighting and set design, likewise, are stunning. Jones performs in front of high, brick walls that, upon further inspection, turn out to be made of books. The very foundations of Wilson’s life and career are built up around him on stage and play an active part in the narrative. Scattered around the stage are records, shoes, broken piano keys and more urban detritus that are mentioned and highlighted throughout the show. Early on, a dictionary is pulled from the wall of books to highlight the systemic racism into which Wilson was born. Projections against the book walls help to move the audience between subjects and emotions. It is easily the most interesting and thoughtful set I’ve seen since before the Pandemic.
Ultimately, August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned isn’t for me. TheatreWorks’ production of the show is wonderful, but elements of the script had me leaving the theater feeling rundown and grumpy rather than interested, thought-provoked or primed for change. If you enjoy Wilson’s other plays, this is an exceptional production of his autobiographical one-man play. But if you’re a woman already unexcited by the name August Wilson, this show is one you can skip.
How I Learned What I Learned
By August Wilson, presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Through: February 3, 2024
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Tickets: theatreworks.org, (877) 662-8976
Photos courtesy of Jenny Graham.