MTC’s Exemplary Closing of How I Learned What I Learned
If you missed this production at MTC, it may have been because of every seat being taken! It was yet another fine representation of the caliber of shows we can count on at Marin Theatre Company. The House was riveted to every word, every smile, every grimace, and every action of the outstanding star, Steven Anthony Jones in this one-man show/tour de force, How I Learned What I Learned highlighting August Wilson’s artistic journey as a black American in the 20th Century.
For those of you who still wish to see How I Learned What I Learned, this marvelous one-man show starring Steven Anthony Jones, will be presented February 14 through 24, 2019, at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre (762 Fulton St., San Francisco CA 94102); and in March (dates to be determined) at the Ubuntu Theater Project (2020 4th Street, Berkeley CA 94710).
Directed by Margo Hall (winner of the 2018 San Francisco Bay Area Critics Circle Award for Best Direction and Best Production), Mr. Jones (veteran of 42 years in the performing arts) performed as August Wilson with superb presence, diction, and humor.
Imagine a clothesline hung with sheets of paper – various sizes, 8 ½” x 11″, 5″x 10″, 4″x 10″, etc. The back “wall” of this set was strung horizontally with 20 or more single wire-like lines, hung with writing paper – representing pages of August Wilson’s poetry and dimly back-lit (perfect Lighting Design by Stephanie Johnson) to barely show “something” on the pages. Throughout the performance, we could hear the typing of the pithy words and phrases shown on those lines of paper in large type for audience consumption, and each was commented upon by August. Jones wrung the nuances out of every word of this wonderful script with great nuance and forcefulness. The excellent Sound Design (by Everett Elton Bradman) included not only the prominent sounds of fingers tapping typewriter keys but also 1930s recorded jazz and blues music.
The set (designed by Edward E. Haynes, Jr., with Scenic Artist Jenny Yang and Carpenter Mike Ferrell) otherwise showed an impoverished, and barely functional writing space, including the yard’s chain-linked fencing at stage right and stage left. The set represented a part of the “wilderness of North America” in 1965, which was “the set/the hood where life played out” in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Along with the sparse, though indispensable props (by Properties Designer Rachel Hurado), Jones used part of his clothing as props with some hilarity (excellent costuming by Katie Nowacki), as well as the set (as staged by Liz Matos).
In this theatrical autobiography, Jones takes us through August Wilson’s pattern of “quitting” his first three jobs (starting at 20 years of age in the stock room of a toy store, then cutting lawns, then dish-washing) – always thinking “something is not always better than nothing” – especially when he was accused of something he didn’t do or otherwise dehumanized.
We learn how August learned about unintended consequences through his inability to pay rent, using his girlfriends, encounter with another girlfriend’s husband (in which he says to the husband to “shoot her, not me”), and living on his Mother’s prayers – then moving back to her home when he had no place to go. “Don’t try to push your spirit through a horn you don’t know how to play.”
We learn more about the power of art as we are taken back in time to 1966, listening to John Coltrane’s music, Art Tatum’s incredible piano skills – and the “limitation of the instrument” : our self! And, with that realization: the need to find another way to express our self. August learns about the wrong words said at the wrong time in the wrong place. He tells us, “You don’t know what you know until you know you know it!” We learned a great deal about August Wilson who, in turn, taught us that we’re all victims of history.
By Elle Alexa Simon and Flora Lynn Isaacson, Theater Critic, San Francisco Bay Area Critics Circle
COMING UP NEXT AT MTC will be The Who & The What by Ayad Akhtar and directed by Hana S. Sharif, opening February 28 through March 24, 2019, at Marin Theatre, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley 94941. See www.MarinTheatre.org for tickets, or telephone 415-388-5208.