Although it’s a generally little-known fact, the late, legendary Pittsburgh playwright/poet August Wilson (1945-2005) made a rare onstage appearance as himself in his autobiographical one-man show, “How I Learned What I Learned,” during its two-week world premiere run at the Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2003.
And now – although its 2022 summer run is almost over — there are still two weekends left for Humboldt County audiences to experience the remarkable performance of actor Steven Anthony Jones as he completely inhabits Wilson’s vibrant persona in his stunning, seamless portrayal of the playwright in Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s peerless production.
In OSF’s show, not only does Jones bear an uncanny physical resemblance to Wilson (whom he first played in a production of the same work in 2019), but from the moment he moves out of the shadows and into the light as his demanding one-man performance begins in OSF’s Bowmer Theatre, you never for a moment doubt who he “is.” And he brings Wilson’s essence to life, throughout an unbroken flow of fascinating memories (shared directly with the audience) about the many lessons that life taught him and what he finally learned.
Jones does so with a mesmerizing voice that deftly skips from one unrelated anecdote to another, recalling (from childhood and beyond) the daily struggles all Black families (and aspiring artists like himself) in his neighborhood endured in surroundings controlled by white landlords and business owners.
Wilson described “How I Learned” — which was co-created with Todd Kreidler — as, “The autobiographical story of a young Black artist’s journey through the hardships of growing up in the Hills District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, ultimately leading to his success as a writer.” (This description turned out to be an understatement of what he ultimately achieved as a world- famous playwright, considered by many to be the best and most influential of the 20th century.)
What he shares in this self-exposing piece is also an ironic mixture of wit, wisdom and pride that was instilled in him by his mother. She proved to him by example that, “Sometimes nothing is better than something” — if you take less than what you’ve been promised or deserve because of the color of your skin. Overcoming adversity to achieve success became his lifelong goal as both an individual and an artist.
In “How I Learned,” he uses wonderful words to spin a personal narrative about the people, places and events that collectively shaped the multi-layered artist he became: a poet and playwright who loved both the sound of the human voice and the music made by other Black visionaries like jazz great, saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker).
Wilson was always driven to speak out for the ongoing racial and cultural obstacles standing in his, and their, way. He searched tirelessly with hope and humor for creative pathways to explore the anger that bubbled bitterly beneath the surface of the lives of so many people he knew.
And, since they had no way to express unfulfilled dreams on their own, he gave them a soaring voice as they searched for answers, appearing as intriguing, recurring characters in his plays. He once said, “My plays are ultimately about love, honor, duty, betrayal.” And his works have been described by others as, “Exploring the heritage and experience of African Americans over the course of the 20th century.”
This is apparent in the 10 written for his Century Cycle, which were all Tony Award nominated on Broadway: “Gem of the Ocean,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (produced at OSF in 1992), “Seven Guitars,” ”Fences” (Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner), “The Piano Lesson” (Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner) “King Hedley II,” “Jitney,” “Radio Golf” (last play written before his death in 2005), “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (produced at OSF in 2005) and “Two Trains Running” (produced at OSF in 2012).
And, in 2022, there’s the ultimate personal piece that he shared about himself in 2003, “How I Learned What I Learned,” the one that gives OSF audiences a chance to get to know more about the “real” August Wilson, the playwright behind his plays.
Indeed, he now lives on through the brilliant performance of Jones in Ashland, Oregon. It’s a completely engaging, tour-de-force, one-man display of artistic skill and stamina delivered (without a pause for intermission) for close to two hours. Marvelous, moving and amazing.
And Wilson’s inspiring message of how he met and struggled to overcome the challenges faced by Black artists in America still resonates.
Beautifully guided with depth and understanding by revered director of Wilson’s works, Tim Bond, the show is also technically superb in every way.
Nina Ball’s striking, abstract scenic design is strongly visually enhanced by Rasean Davonte Johnson’s intricate, projection design. (Johnson’s sound design often underlines key moments musically asWilson memories lead you there.)
In addition, the exceptional, interesting lighting design by Xavier Pierce (assisted by Collin Hall) vividly enhances Jones’ mood-shifting transitions throughout, sometimes with startling flashes of intensity.
Other key behind-the-scenes support was provided by assistant director, Elizabeth Carter; voice and text director, Rebecca Clark Carey; lead producer, Donya K. Washington; production manager, Ben Jones; and production stage manager, Moira Gleason (assisted by Devonte E. Washington).
The production also has the honor of having Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero (executive director of the August Wilson Legacy, LLC), as an essential member of its creative team. She’s the costume designer, creative consultant and dramaturg, and her personal input was obviously invaluable in maintaining the artistic integrity of her legendary husband’s work.
And you still have the opportunity to see it for yourself. But remember, you only have this coming weekend, and Wednesday through Saturday the following week, to experience Wilson’s timeless words, so stunningly, and believably brought to life on the Bowmer stage.
This mustn’t miss show ends its run with a final, live performance on Saturday, July 30. So, even though it’s short notice to get there after this review comes out, make it a point if you possibly can.
“How I Learned What I Learned” is truly a once-in-a-lifetime chance to “meet” August Wilson, thanks to the unforgettable, performance of OSF actor Steven Anthony Jones!
For more information and tickets, go to www.ashland.org or call the box office at 1-800-219-8161. Masks are required and valid proof of a current, COVID-19 vaccination or negative test must be presented before entering the venue. So, be prepared. It’s worth it.
FYI: For links to videos, articles, interviews and further reading about August Wilson’s life, and more, go to osfashland.org/learned-deeper.
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