Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

How I Learned What I Learned
Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's review of The Sound Inside

Steven Anthony Jones
Photo by Jenny Graham
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival staged its first shows way back in 1935. It wasn't until 1951 that they expanded beyond the Bard's canon, producing Antigone. For most of the 1950s and 1960s, however, it was all Shakespeare. The 1970s saw OSF opening up to a greater variety of works–and adding the Angus Bowmer Theatre and the Black Swan to increase capacity. (In 1974, in my first visit to the festival, via a high school field trip, I saw Twelfth Night and Waiting for Godot.) That trend has continued over the intervening years to the point where Shakespeare's works represent only a minority of the plays and musicals produced by OSF.

Up until this millennium, the Festival has produced works that were mostly created by dead white men of European descent. But the last decade has seen a marked increase in the inclusion of more diverse viewpoints, including the hiring of Nataki Garrett as artistic director, and committing to offering live American Sign Language translation at some performances, descriptive audio, and closed captioning. In other words, serving up more diverse work to a more diverse audience.

In How I Learned What I Learned, the august August Wilson takes the audience on a journey to a place I wager none of us had ever been: the streets (and the bars and the apartments and the workplaces) of Pittsburgh's predominately black Hill District. This solo show–first performed by Wilson himself–recounts some of the moments in his young adulthood that formed him into the artist he became. With no references to his much-lauded canon of work (save for a moment in a story in which he speaks of taking a jitney), Wilson instead focuses us on the years long before he became a produced playwright. We hear about the local poets who inspired him, the junkies who had lessons to teach young August, the numerous times he quit jobs where he didn't receive even the base level of human respect, and the time he feared for his life.

As Wilson, Steven Anthony Jones is brilliant; his performance seems to honor both Wilson's hardscrabble beginnings and the well-read, sophisticated weaver of words he became. Jones expands his chest and booms out the rougher elements of his stories, then–in an instant–transitions to a subtler, more contemplative posture when musing on the lessons hard times revealed to him.

The stories are sometimes harrowing, sometimes funny, always engaging–but connected primarily by the time and place in which they happened and the person they happened to. Jones makes use of very few props, but still manages to recreate onstage the milieu in which Wilson's artistry was formed.

But perhaps most impressively, Steven Anthony Jones has such skills at projection that even in the quietest, most reflective moments he can still be clearly heard, unamplified, all the way to the back rows of the 601-seat Angus Bowmer–thanks in part to its excellent acoustics.

If you were raised in a neglected inner city district in the 1950s and 1960s, you will likely find much to identify with in How I Learned What I Learned. But because we have all loved and lost and yearned for more and sought respect, you will still find much to identify with, whether you grew up in a penthouse or on a farm or in the depths of suburbia. Because, like all the best artists, August Wilson manages to transform his specific experience into works that connect with audiences at a deeply human level.

How I Learned What I Learned plays through July 30, 2022, at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Angus Bowmer Theatre, 20 E Main St., Ashland OR. Check the calendar at for specific dates and times. Ticket are $35-$75 and can be purchased at the same website.