Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

How I Learned What I Learned
Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati
Review by Rick Pender | Season Schedule

Also see Scott's review of The Book of Mormon

Photo by Ryan Kurtz
August Wilson's one-man autobiographical monologue, How I Learned What I Learned, has often been characterized as an epilogue to his 10-play Century Cycle about Black lives in America across the decades of the 20th century. But I have to disagree: This piece is the very foundation of Wilson's life experiences that were the inspiration and training for his majestic stage writing.

Currently being presented by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, featuring "ranney," the singularly named Texas actor who has become a local favorite (he just completed a run in The Amen Corner at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company), How I Learned What I Learned is a collection of anecdotes, poetry, rants and vignettes that Wilson compiled with director Todd Kreidler and performed for several years before his untimely death at 60 in 2005. It's now a script that ambitious theaters such as ETC are undertaking as timely productions that explore current social issues.

Wilson, initially an aspiring poet, dropped out of high school at 15 and undertook his own education via a public library in Pittsburgh, where he grew up. In that city's Hill District, where all but one of his plays are set, he met people of color who encouraged him, inspired him, and sometimes threatened him. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, he experienced racism in many forms and situations, described vividly, ironically, and often with a wry sense of humor–sometimes belying the deeper damage caused by those encounters.

We first meet him wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "I AM AN ACCIDENT THIS DID NOT TURN OUT RIGHT." When he turns around the message adds "I AM SUPPOSED TO BE WHITE." Noting that Americans were "victims of a linguistic environment," he cites a definition from Webster's Third New International Dictionary, published in 1961, characterizing the color black as "outrageously wicked, dishonorable, connected with the devil, menacing, sullen, unqualified, violators of public regulations, and affected by an undesirable condition." He describes an encounter with a man who told him, "Mr. Wilson, you know I don't see color." His response: "Why, since you don't see color, why of all the people in the room"–all of whom were white–"did you walk up to me and say that?"

Wilson recalls a string of dead-end jobs that he needed to pay rent ($25 every two weeks) that were laced with racism–a toy shop owner who warned him about stealing before he even began to work, a lawn service guy who acquiesced to a woman who didn't want a Black teen cutting her grass–and his responses to each: "I quit." He relates the story of his mother winning a brand new washing machine in a radio contest. When it was learned that she was Black, they offered her a gift certificate to the Salvation Army for a used machine. She said "No," explaining that "Something is not always better than nothing." Dignity comes with such attitudes.

"ranney" handles this material masterfully, perhaps the best solo performance I've seen in years. As Wilson, he deftly switches from bemused to angry, from awed to frightened, from jocular to profoundly serious, from lighthearted to deeply emotional as he describes people he learned lessons from, intentional or not. With able and insightful direction by Torie Wiggins, another Cincinnati theatre regular, "ranney" is constantly in motion, animatedly moving around the stage's pair of round platforms, one with a cluttered desk backed by a stuffed bookcase, the other a worn, leather-upholstered couch, a trunk, and a record turntable.

Scenic and lighting designer Brian c. Mehring has littered the apron of the platforms with dozens of pages of handwritten notes, essays, dialogue, and poems. The back brick tenement wall has a swath of plaster that becomes a projection screen for titles that appear to be typed, lines of poetry, and occasional images. (Becca Schall is the projection designer.) These images add breaths of visual fresh air to the one-hour 45-minute performance that might otherwise weigh down with nothing but talking. A window occasionally comes to life with silhouetted images of musicians, especially jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, whom Wilson recalls as providing him with a revelation when he witnessed 200 people outside a bar listening to the musician's "exploration of man's connection to the divinity. And the power of possibility of human life."

Wilson lived by a simple meaningful credo: "If you want to be a writer, learn how to write." That's what he taught others and what he practiced as he poured forth his powerful, insightful works for the stage.

"ranney's" stirring and entertaining delivery of Wilson's recollections imbue this production with powerful magic. Most fundamentally, he explained to some college students, was the importance of demanding respect, or rather "R-E-S-P-E-C-T." "Demand respect from everyone," he exhorts. "The government, your schools, your church, your parents, your lover, yourself. Demand respect." Watch the production and you'll not only understand how August Wilson learned what he learned, but you will come away with profound respect for this great man of letters.

How I Learned What I Learned runs through March 10, 2024, at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, 1127 Vine Street, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit or call 513-421-3555.