Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
How I Learned What I Learned
As the gentleman slowly climbs the steps to the stage to center himself behind a desk and face us, we realize that those words in many ways define the question that one of America's greatest playwrights, August Wilson, sought to answer in writing his monumental American Century Cycle, ten plays representing ten decades of Black history in our nation in the twentieth century. Before us stands the embodiment of that great man as TheatreWorks Silicon Valley presents in August Wilson's own words and writing, How I Learned What I Learned (co-conceived with Todd Kreidler), an autobiographical play Wilson wrote, which first premiered in 2002, three years before his death. In the hands of one of San Francisco Bay Area's most-celebrated, longest-career actors, Steven Anthony Jones, How I Learned What I Learned is a captivating, enlightening, and often wonderfully humorous must-see gem.
After his hat and jacket are carefully removed, the August Wilson in front of us reveals a t-shirt that on the back in bold letters says, "I am an accident; I did not turn out right;" and on the front, "I am supposed to be white." After the audience's laughter dies down, we soon learn that August Wilson in no way believes the writing on the shirt he now sheds. He reads from the mammoth "Webster's Third New International Dictionary" that Blacks are "outrageously wicked, dishonorable, connected with the devil" while whites are "notably auspicious, fortunate, decent, sterling." However, Steven Anthony Jones as August Wilson is quick to tell us in no uncertain terms, "We are not Black by accident of our births; our births are moments of profound creativity engineered by genetic muscle as it aspires toward perfection."
And thus begins a near two-hour gentle rambling and remembering of experiences, philosophies, and learnings in which Steven Anthony Jones is most believably, astonishingly August Wilson. Time and again his August uses humor to land a stark point about the reality of Black history in America. Noting his family arrived on these shores in the early 17th century, August wryly states that for the first 244 years, his ancestors had no problem finding work, but since 1865, "It has been hell." His mother became part of the "Great Migration" to the North in the early twentieth century, landing in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where he tells us with a smirk that in 1955 lived 54,997 Blacks and three old white ladies. Those three were the only parishioners who came back to a Catholic congregation the week after the monsignor announced that Blacks would no longer be welcome as worshipers.
The harsh reality of what it was like in the mid-1960s to be a twenty-year-old Black man in the Hill District comes home in several anecdotes that Mr. Jones relates of August Wilson's attempts to get a job. The young August does not last long at a series of positions, told upon hiring in a toy store's stock room, "If I catch you stealing, I will shoot you"; asked to stop mowing grass after the home's white owner screams, "Get him off my lawn"; and admonished severely for being twenty seconds late as a restaurant's dishwasher. In every case, the young man desperately in need of a job immediately quits, having learned from his mother, "Something is not always better than nothing."
We meet many of the Hill District's residents who often became prototypes for characters in Mr. Wilson's plays, people like Chawley Williams, Willa Mae "Snookie" Montay, and Barbara Peterson. Then there is the sax-playing Cy Morocco, "an African lost in America," who was surprised his love of saxophone did not mean he could just pick it up and play it with no practice. The young August learned that the same principle applied to his desired career. From knowing Cy, he learned one of several life lessons he relates to us during the evening–"You want to be a writer ... then learn how to do it"–inspiring the happy-go-lucky high-school dropout to take his love of reading and poetry and seek someone who could teach him how to write well. The flow of stories is full of such short portraits of the people who later populated the scenes and scenarios the playwright would re-create of his beloved Hill District.
Steven Anthony Jones gives no less than a tour-de-force performance as he embodies the almost larger-than-life persona of the aged August Wilson. His deep, gravelly voice hypnotizes the enrapt audience, a voice that also has the ability to produce a roller-coaster of low-to-high pitches and sounds as he imitates the people he has met in his life. But most profound is the actor's ability to punctuate his stories with verbal exclamation points as his voice rises in anger and indignation of how Blacks have been treated throughout August's lifetime. And when he makes pronouncements of his life learnings, one can hear the firm period placed at the end of the statement as we know well that we have just heard a truth worth remembering.
Former TheatreWorks artistic director and now in that position at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Tim Bond, returns to direct with much personal insight and inspiration this staged memoir of the man whom he personally knew and with whom he collaborated, August Wilson. Nina Ball has once again outdone herself in creating a massive set of over-lapping, giant walls that bring to mind the brick buildings of the Hill District but that also can be seen as the hundreds of stacked books that August Wilson loved to read and often now quotes during his verbal meanderings. She has also ingenuously incorporated in the stage's foundation and on its side objects that represent Wilson's ten plays, from a lone light pole to a twisted set of piano keys to an old fence lying in a pile of rubble.
Xavier Pierce takes advantage of the huge walls to design a lighting scheme that often employs colors one associates with Black America: green, red, yellow, along with rich hues of purple. Rasean Davonté Johnson has wonderfully created projections that capture images of the Hill District and has orchestrated a sound design that brings music to bear as part of the evening's narration. The widow of August Wilson, Constanza Romero, serves in the multiple roles of costume designer, dramaturg, and creative consultant.
For anyone who has ever seen even one of the great playwright's works, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's production of How I Learned What I Learned offers a myriad of new insights into the scenes and people relished from his plays. At the same time, there is so much to be gained about the experience of being Black in a white America even for someone who has never heard of the playwright or his incredible Pittsburgh Cycle. Finally, just to have one more chance to be in the presence of Steven Anthony Jones before he leaves the Bay Area and moves to the East Coast is a fine reason to grab a ticket and head to the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts for an evening sure to be remembered for a lifetime.
How I Learned What I Learned runs through February 3, 2024, for TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA. For tickets and information, please visit www.theatreworks.org, email email@example.com, or call 1-877-662-TWSV (8978) Tuesday - Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.