I'm not sure what the late Tony Award-winning playwright August Wilson learned in his twenties, and judging from the hasty and facile conclusion of How I Learned What I Learned, I'm not sure he did either. Rather, we are offered a riff on the Socratic idiom "The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing." Now making its New York premiere at Signature Theatre, this autobiographical solo show feels half-baked. Of course, it is missing the man for whom it was written: Wilson died in 2005. It does have the benefit of Todd Kreidler, who directed and co-conceived the world premiere with Wilson in 2003 at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Ruben Santiago-Hudson, director of last season's revival of The Piano Lesson at Signature, steps into Wilson's shoes for this well-acted, beautifully designed, but ultimately unsatisfying remount.
The author of the monumental ten-play American Century Cycle (one play for each decade of the 20th century), How I Learned What I Learned focuses on Wilson's early years growing up in Pittsburgh's Hill district. It's a loose collection of anecdotes told in no particular order. There's the story of the brand-new Speed Queen washing machine his sainted mother won in a radio contest and how the station tried to cheat her out of it when they discovered she was black. Wilson recounts in lurid detail the brutal murder he witnessed outside a bar when one man insulted another man's wife. (He also explains why nobody in the bar snitched on the killer.) We're given a whirlwind overview of the crappy jobs Wilson had in his early twenties and the racist bosses who made those jobs intolerable.
It feels like being invited into the mind of a master storyteller. David Gallo's gasp-inducing set features hundreds of sheets of paper suspended floor to ceiling. A wood-slatted floor stands over the stage, which is covered in dirt. Chapter titles project onto the papers, introducing each new section and topic.
Santiago-Hudson is a captivating storyteller. He draws you in and you quickly forget that you're listening to an actor, and not the original author of these words. While he's by no means doing an impersonation of Wilson, you get the sense that this is how the words would have sounded coming out of his mouth. In fact, you can go back and listen to any number of Wilson interviews and hear many of these stories as told by the author.
Wilson had a lot of opinions about race in America and he wasn't afraid to voice them. This should make for exciting and confrontational theater that challenges every member of the audience to reevaluate her own deeply held notions and convictions on the subject. It doesn't, unfortunately, because the passages on this subject are so flimsily constructed and presented without reflection. My BS detector pinged more than a few times while listening to these tropes.
For instance, Wilson insists, "We a people who crowd the popcorn counter. See, white people form a line." Are lines and politeness really the exclusive provenance of white people? He continues, "It's not like, you don't know how to go stand in line. But, it's like it's just against everything, because you a different people." That's all. There's really no rumination on why these inherent differences exist (I'm skeptical they actually do), just a stubborn insistence that they're real and immutable. Much of this sounds like an old Steve Harvey stand-up comedy routine, but a lot less funny.
Granted, the script is a transcription of an audio recording of Wilson performing an earlier incarnation of the show. Wilson never officially committed How I Learned What I Learned to paper and was known to change it nightly. It is very likely he would have highly revised and refined the text for the New York presentation were he alive today. Instead, we have a verbatim record of what Wilson sounded like in 2003. How I Learned What I Learned is a museum display of an unfinished work, an echo of a man and his words frozen in amber for all eternity. Go to remember August Wilson, but don't expect any prescient insights on race in modern America.