Author Archive for: ‘CarolBenet’

August Wilson’s “How I Learned What I Learned” at Marin Theatre Company

August Wilson’s  “How I Learned What I Learned” at Marin Theatre Company

Carol Benet

“How I Learned What I Learned” just opened at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, California.  It is one-man show where the multi-talented Steven Anthony Jones

plays the part of the August Wilson in the playwright’s penultimate work. After its run in Marin it moves to the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in San Francisco and then to the Ubuntu Theatre Project in the East Bay.  It is so entertaining and edifying that It is worthy of all venues,

Wilson wrote a series of plays, each separated by a decade, about his neighborhood in Pittsburgh, PA.  In “How I Learned What I Learned” Wilson chronicles his life starting when he was a young boy and into adulthood.  It is organized by events and people that he met along the way and whose influence marked his development as the sensitive, intelligent and extraordinary wordsmith that he became.

He tells all of this in story format starting by informing us that his community, African Americans, has had trouble holding a job since 1863 when they were freed of slavery and its guaranteed employment.  Then he reads an entry in a thick “Webster’s 3rd International Dictionary” of 1925  where black people were defined as lazy, shiftless, undependable, criminal and all other attributes reminding us of the way that Trump characterizes Mexicans.

They are all bad.  And these words were actually printed in the 1925 edition of the dictionary.

Then he starts his story with his mother’s coming North to Pittsburg in 1937 from North Carolina.  She was the most influential person in his life as she taught him morals, practicality and all kinds of hints how to survive as a young black man.  Her sayings along with names of characters and events are typed and placed on the backdrop of the set, one cleverly created by Edward E. Haynes, Jr., with its wall of pages from which Wilson plucks some of his poems.

Poems:  Wilson was a poet so adept that he rivals Shakespeare in the way that he would describe his world and the larger concerns of the universe in beautiful poetic constructions that run through the play in between his factual and realistic descriptions of The Hill District. Some of his friends were junkies, others famous jazz musicians like John Coltrane or Art Tatum.  Pittsburgh was and still is one of the centers of the jazz world in which Wilson was a participant.

At times the show is organized by all the jobs that Wilson had, which he either quit or was fired from, when he was a young man.  Salesman in a toy store, dishwasher in a restaurant, grass cutter.  He stayed true to his principles and never took the offense that was handed him remembering his mother’s saying “Something is not always better than nothing”, meaning that you had to draw the line between useful employment and humiliation.

He talks about the crushes he had on a young girl in his school, the married woman with whom he lived, his wife (he had three of them but named one).  Whether all these facts that he tells us as he weaves his stories are 100% true is not important because Wilson is a storyteller above all and he is allowed to fudge the facts to make it a good tale.  You never even think about it — too much.  Whether the brand new Speed Queen Washing Machine that his mother won on a radio contest was really withdrawn when they found out she was black was really true does not matter.  It’s a good story that fits into the theme of the injustices set upon his people.

Margo Hall’s direction is faultless.  She has worked often with Steven Anthony Jones, acting in many plays together.  Jones who recounts this one-man, one hour 50 minute show without intermission is stupendous.  He holds the audience in his hands with his intensity and humor mixed with tragedy — all told as fascinating stories.  Liz Matos’ stage management is given credit along with Jones’ mention as cast member.  Stephanie Johnson’s lighting that accentuates and punctuates the different stories is especially effective.  Everett Elton Bradman’s sound design that brings in portions of Coleman’s and Tatum’s jazz places the play in a particularly rich era.

The audience is invited to attend the two other productions in San Francisco and the East Bay to see how it is an evolving work, one that seems almost perfect as it is.  “How i Learned What I Learned” runs at the Marin Theatre Company  through February 3, reopens that the Lorraine Hansberry February 14 and then again at Ubuntu in March 2019.

Tickets boxoffice@marintheatre.org or 415 388 5208.