30 December 2013

'How I Learned What I Learned'

In June 2005, when the Signature Theatre first announced its 15th Anniversary Season, a two-year celebration ending with productions of August Wilson plays, I was excited for two reasons.  The Wilson portion of the series, 2006-07, was to include a new, unnamed play and, most intriguingly, a solo performance by Wilson of something called How I Learned What I Learned, described by the New York Times as recounting “his experiences growing up in Pittsburgh.”  Then Wilson died at 60 on 2 October 2005, and the Wilson season at STC was, first, canceled and then reinstated in a different configuration.  Gone were the new play and, obviously, the monodrama.  Revivals of three of Wilson’s plays were scheduled at Signature, but How I Learned looked to be lost forever.  I didn’t even know if Wilson had written the monologue, and even if he had—who could perform it in his stead?   

But now, the Signature is presenting How I Learned, which began previews in STC’s Alice Griffin Jewelbox Theatre on 5 November and opened on 24 November.  (It was scheduled to close on 15 December, but it was twice extended for a week before it even opened and actually closed on 29 December.)  So, on the evening of 18 December, my friend Diana and I met at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row to catch this once-elusive performance I’d long given up on, a melancholic sidelight to the great loss of the playwright whose work had thrilled me every time I’d seen it, no matter on what stage.  (I’ve managed to see all but two of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle—also known, as it is at STC, as the American Century Cycle: Jitney, 1982, which covers the ‘70s, and Radio Golf, 2005, set in 1997.  There are ROT reports on two performances: Seven Guitars, 18 January 2013, and The Piano Lesson, 14 December 2012.)  Wilson’s stand-in, if that’s not too much of a put-down, is his frequent interpreter as a director, Ruben Santiago-Hudson. 

The actor shares Wilson’s personal stories about his encounters with racism, music, love, violence, and life-changing friendships as a young poet in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.  How I Learned What I Learned chronicles Wilson’s maturation in an antagonistic society while “becoming and defining” what it means to be a black artist in America.  Along the way, he reveals truths about his first jobs, a stint in jail, an early relationship, his first kiss, and the friends he’s had his entire life.  Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, who designed the costumes for the memoir, says, “How I Learned is about what the world held for [Wilson] once he stepped out of his mother’s house, what he found in his community, and what lessons he had to learn to become the future playwright.”  According to Santiago-Hudson, there was a lot of material on which to draw for the monologue.  “I build a lot of characters, I don’t just build him,” the actor reports.  “I build the people who surrounded him . . . .”  And set designer David Gallo, another long-time Wilson collaborator, asserts, “This piece exists on so many levels because of its origins, as its own genre with a unique theatrical approach and style that tells the stories theatrically and also autobiographically.”  In the New York Observer, Harry Haun quipped, “By any other name, the play is August Wilson: The Early Years.”

It seems Wilson had completed at least a version of How I Learned as much as a decade ago.  The solo piece premièred at Seattle Rep in May 2003, also under the direction of Todd Kreidler (who staged the STC version), in what turned out to be Wilson’s sole foray into acting.  Wilson was living in Seattle then and according to the Seattle Times, the playwright created How I Learned as a “kind of gift to the Seattle Repertory Theatre.”  Wilson, according to Kreidler, whom the playwright had met at Pittsburgh Public Theatre in 1999 when the director worked as Wilson’s assistant on King Hedley II, had a trove of stories he told “when asked to speak at an opening night or donor dinner.”  He was already talking about a solo show in 2002, and Seattle Rep artistic director Sharon Ott suggested, “Why don’t you develop it for our Hot Type Festival [of readings of new works]?”  Wilson called Kreidler to be his director.

Completed only weeks before the performance, the monologue had the working title of The August Wilson Project, and later, a more facetious name, I'm Not Spalding Gray.  The script went through a couple of more incarnations as the focus shifted, with titles such as Move Over Chris Rock, which featured Wilson telling jokes, and Sambo Takes on the World, with the writer “flipping” clichés such as making Little Black Sambo a figure of admiration, until Wilson began to get more personal and center on his life as a young poet.  (The original final title was something out of the ’60s: How I Learned What I Learned (and How What I Learned Has Led Me to Places I've Wanted to Go. That I Have Sometimes Gone Unwillingly Is the Crucible in Which Many a Work of Art Has Been Fired).  Santiago-Hudson asserts that the text is actually a transcription from an audio recording of one of Wilson’s early performances.)  At the time of his Seattle début, Wilson confessed, “I never wanted to be an actor. I don't like getting up on stage. I don't like people staring at me.”  The writer reportedly asked advice from veteran solo performer Whoopi Goldberg, who had starred in the Broadway revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in February and April of that year.  (She apparently told him not to look at the audience!)  Wilson had planned to perform the show around the country, including New York City, but never got the chance, as we know.

Directed again by long-time Wilson collaborator Kreidler, who co-conceived the original memoir, the one-man show runs a scant hour and 20 minutes.  Santiago-Hudson, director of the acclaimed Signature production of The Piano Lesson last season, has also staged Leslie Lee’s The First Breeze of Summer (2008) and Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! (2012; reported on ROT, 11 June 2012) for Signature and Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean for Princeton’s McCarter Theatre in 2005; he won the 1996 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his role as Canewell in Wilson's Seven Guitars.  The actor’s other Broadway credits include Wilson’s Jelly's Last Jam (1992-93) and Gem of the Ocean (2004-05) and Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly (2011-12).  Santiago-Hudson’s TV work includes Low Winter Sun, Castle, Law & Order, and Michael Hayes, among other shows.  In August and September of this year, he served as the artistic director for the readings on New York Public Radio and archival recording of all ten of the American Century Cycle plays.  Santiago-Hudson’s promised Wilson to bring Jitney, the playwright’s only work in the cycle not to have played Broadway or won a Tony nomination, to the Great White Way.  In the meantime, the actor-director staged a version of Jitney last February at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, which also commissioned his own play, Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine.  He’s scheduled to workshop the new play in March and then he hopes to mount a production at Two River next season before moving it on to New York, but in February 2014, he will direct The Happiest Song Plays Last, the final play in Pulitzer Prize-winner Quiara Alegria Hudes’s Elliot trilogy, at Second Stage. 

Santiago-Hudson began his enamoration with August Wilson’s work back in 1984 when he second-acted Ma Rainey at the Cort Theatre.  He tried to get parts in the next American Century Cycle plays as they came to New York and finally got to audition for Two Trains Running (1991).  He lost the part to Laurence Fishburne (who won a Tony for the part), but the next time around, Santiago-Hudson got a call for Seven Guitars, and his own Tony followed.  His personal association with the playwright began and after Seven Guitars, Wilson didn’t write a play about which he didn’t call Santiago-Hudson either to be in it or to just read it. 

Santiago-Hudson says he first heard Wilson deliver parts of How I Learned at a 2004 appearance at Boston’s Roxbury Community College, “A Conversation With August Wilson.”  In the writer’s presentations, the text “would change nightly,” the actor says, but since the stories aren’t his own life experiences, Santiago-Hudson, who’s three years younger now than Wilson was at his death, doesn’t “have the luxury of doing that.”  “[W]e took what we thought we needed to make this particular production,” explains the actor.  “I’m learning a word-for-word, if-and-or-but play,” he says.  Nonetheless, Santiago-Hudson says he feels Wilson taking possession eventually:

He takes the reins from me and eventually drives the show himself. . . .  We had a similar voice, and I don’t mean cadence—although we did share the rhythm of Northern colored people.  We had similarities—not identically, but we had a lot of the same thoughts about our people and our art, and that’s what made us kindred spirits: the revolutionary in me and the revolutionary in him, the vulnerable person in him and the vulnerable person in me, the mama’s boy in him and the mama’s boy in me.

Reportedly, though Wilson had originally written How I Learned for himself, he changed his mind and asked Santiago-Hudson to do it instead.  (The actor believes that “it was out of desperation to keep the play going that he chose somebody else to do it, and I was just blessed that he chose me.”)  He confirms that it was Wilson’s last request that he “do my play”; Wilson told Kreidler the same thing—to do the play with Santiago-Hudson.  After Wilson’s death, however, it took the actor almost eight years to gain the distance to attempt the performance.  We’ve put his death into perspective,” says the actor, “and now we want to honor him in this way.”  (Romero thinks “August would be getting impatient with us if we didn’t tackle it now.”) 

Although the actor recognizes that he and Wilson “had a lot of connections,” he insists that he’s not doing an impersonation of his playwright friend.  “I want this to be an experience of a man's life, told by someone who loves him,” the actor explains. “We had similar backgrounds,” notes Santiago-Hudson, including a family connection to Pittsburgh.  “The lessons we had been taught were taught by the same storytellers, the same people in the black community,” he adds.  For people who knew Wilson, those mentors and their stories were legendary: Wilson could cast a spell when he recounted them, and How I Learned is about Wilson telling his stories.  “I want people to have the kind of experience I had on all those street corners and hotel rooms” when the writer turned storyteller himself, says Kreidler.  The director admonishes, however, “I don’t want any pretense that we’re going to create this kind of spell,” then admits, “But secretly, between you and me, that’s what I want to happen.” 

In an interview, Santiago-Hudson mused about what he looked forward to in these performances:

I’m just excited about having a date with my friend again, you know?  Every night I can come to work and hang out with my buddy.  And  I can never imitate him but I can tell his stories.  I don’t want to impersonate him.  Because that would be like everybody’d be watching an impersonation and that’s not right.  But what is right is that a man who was dealing with his mortality looked at a friend and said, “I’m gonna trust you with my stories.  Tell them.”
Indeed, this is what made How I Learned something of an odd experience in the theater.  Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed this intriguing and funny-moving performance, but it’s still odd.  Santiago-Hudson does not, in fact, imitate his friend—this is not an impression of August Wilson in any way like, say, Hal Holbrook doing Mark Twain or James Whitmore impersonating Harry Truman (or for the film-oriented, the more recent Daniel Day-Lewis doing Abraham Lincoln).  And yet, the actor is presenting the playwright.  These are Wilson’s stories and Wilson’s words, and Santiago-Hudson refers to himself as “August” (or, once, “Freddie Kittel,” the playwright’s birth name).  He names people who were real figures in Wilson’s life, real places in the Hill district where Wilson lived and grew up, actual incidents from his history.  But Santiago-Hudson wasn’t doing Wilson’s voice or his walk and he wasn’t wearing August Wilson make-up (in fact, Santiago-Hudson has no beard, which Wilson always wore, and is shaved bald).  Except for possibly the T-shirt the actor wore at the start of the play (I’ll get to this shortly), he didn’t seem to be dressed as Wilson, either.  “I think I’d do a disservice if I try to be him,” asserts Santiago-Hudson.  “You’d come in and do a study of my impersonation as opposed to listening to a man’s life and journey.”   

What I say happened on stage at the Griffin was that Ruben Santiago-Hudson was playing a character who’s name is August Wilson.  The stage persona the actor developed for this character was wholly invented by Santiago-Hudson, the way he might have created Canewell in Seven Guitars or Captain Roy Montgomery in ABC-TV's Castle.  “I put you in the hands of a very familiar person . . .,” says Santiago-Hudson, “I get you comfortable with me.”  Except for the words he said (and maybe a few personality traits—after all, Santiago-Hudson and Wilson knew each other pretty well for a long time), the character the actor played wasn’t the iconic dramatist with whose public persona most of us around the theater were familiar.  What Santiago-Hudson says is: “I’m witnessing for him.”  That’s not “being” Wilson, but it’s a sight more than just playing Hamlet or even Troy Maxson (which the actor longs to do).

But, of course, it was Wilson.  It was the playwright’s stories—both what he lived and witnessed and the words in which the writer composed them, the amazingly poetic prose that’s the language Wilson’s characters speak in his plays—that the actor was telling.  It was Wilson’s experiences that Santiago-Hudson internalized to create the character he played on stage.  August is in me,” declares the actor, “and he will reveal himself.”  So where are we?  Ruben Santiago-Hudson was playing a character called August Wilson but wasn’t that August Wilson—but was that August Wilson.  (I’m so confyooooosed—which, if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it . . . well, twice.)  Well, I did say it was odd.

As mind-boggling as this situation is (at least to me, anyway), it turns out to be an advantage.  What we got is the magnificent storytelling and prose of playwright August Wilson, who wasn’t an actor regardless of how good a raconteur he may have been, and the superb acting of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, certainly one of the best we have on our stages right now.  Yes, it’s unfortunate that Wilson had to die for this alignment to occur (though apparently the playwright had wanted to turn the memoir over to Santiago-Hudson anyway), but the result is that we got two outstanding artists contributing the talent that’s uniquely special to each of them.  Unlike Burton doing Hamlet or McKellen doing Lear, this playwright-character-actor relationship is much more intimate and personal—and we benefitted from that.  “I approach it with the tools that God gave me,” says Santiago-Hudson.  Drawing an analogy to conducting a piece of music, the actor asserts, “If you release it to me, let me have it and let me be the conductor, then I’ll play the symphony.”  Wilson composed the symphony, but now Santiago-Hudson got to interpret it.

I mustn’t fail to add that director Kreidler contributed hugely to the outcome of this performance.  Aside from his obvious staging services, which worked to keep Santiago-Hudson in motion in a way that never seemed artificial and arbitrary nor hyperactive, the closeness to his subject and his material, probably every bit as intimate as the actor’s, clearly helped select and shape the performance text, including both the words and stories, and the approach Santiago-Hudson presented to us.  In Kreidler’s eyes, How I Learned didn’t require an actor but a “special storytelling sensibility,” which the director saw in Santiago-Hudson, as evidenced, he noted, in the actor-writer’s own autobiographical one-man play, Lackawanna Blues (Public Theater, New York, 2001; broadcast as an HBO movie in 2005).  “[I]t’s Ruben’s voice” Kreidler insists we heard in the Griffin, though Wilson “showed up in the rehearsal room.”

Constanza Romero, as the costumer for the one-man performance, had an interesting, if personally daunting task.  She describes her job here as dressing Santiago-Hudson as August Wilson “within this show,” which I take to mean that the costume had to fit not only the play’s circumstances and the actor’s physiognomy, but Santiago-Hudson’s sense of the character called August Wilson.  “I have a duty to be as truthful and accurate as I can be,” says Romero.  “But, you know, this is also my husband.”  As I said, I didn’t see that Santiago-Hudson was outfitted to look like the playwright, but he was correctly dressed for his “character,” a considerably older man than the one in the stories, now having gained some prominence and public stature, looking back.  For the most part, that meant a plain pair of dark trousers; a black, open-collared shirt, a sports jacket which he removes or puts on from time to time; and a brown snap-brim fedora (the real Wilson favored either a flat cap or a dark homburg).  When he arrived on stage, Santiago-Hudson sported a black T-shirt, one which Wilson apparently also wore (I’ve seen photos of him in it) with white lettering that read I Am An Accident / This Did Not Turn Out Right on the back and, when the actor turned around, I Am Supposed To Be White across the front.  It became a watchword for the performance—because, as “August” explains, the facts of his birth were not an accident.

David Gallo’s unit set was dominated by the back wall of the Griffin stage.  Completely covered with manuscript pages, resembling a 2004 photo (by David Cooper) of Wilson standing in front of just such a wall.  Onto this background, titles are projected letter by letter as if a giant, invisible typewriter were in use (accompanied by the sound of typewriter keys being struck), to identify the episodes of “August’s” tale.  (Gallo also designed the projections and the sound effects were courtesy of designer Dan Moses Schreier.  The lighting, which subtly established the shifting locales of Wilson’s stories and shaped their moods, was designed by Thom Weaver.)  The action of the performance took place on a raised platform in the center of the Griffin’s acting area (which has a removable raised stage, not used in this production) so that Santiago-Hudson moved about the platform from the coat rack up right, to the desk—really a wood plank set on two stacks of crates—up left, to the steps to the floor down right (where the actor occasionally perched on the top level).  Santiago-Hudson looked back to the projected titles and even dismissed one “August” decided wasn’t appropriate.  (At the end of the performance, the ten titles of Wilson’s American Century Cycle plays were “typed” onto the manuscript wall as Santiago-Hudson looked up in admiration, as if to say, This is what the life you’ve been hearing about led to.  Black out.)

How I Learned What I Learned is a storyteller’s memoir—the playwright was a great raconteur in real life, engaging listeners for hours during rehearsal breaks or standing at a street corner.  It’s not a play, strictly speaking (though, as I said, Ruben Santiago-Hudson plays a character).  It has a great deal in common with monologist Spalding Gray’s work—which is apt considering that Wilson first chose to model his piece on the performance artist’s elaborate stories.  As I reported, the first title of Wilson’s work-in-progress was I'm Not Spalding Gray.  Wilson’s voice is still distinct, but the remnants of Gray’s influence could be seen in the meandering, free-flowing structure of the stories Santiago-Hudson related, which aimed at a conclusion, but took their sweet time to get there.  One principal difference in Wilson’s piece is that, first, it’s made up of discrete episodes, separate stories announced by those projected titles, whereas Gray’s monologues ebbed and flowed, wandering off into sidings, but seldom changed track blatantly.  A second difference is, as I noted, Wilson’s prose, which is uniquely his. 

In fact, I think How I Learned isn’t so much about the stories Wilson tells, but the way in which he tells them.  It’s the insight, the perspective, which reveals a remarkably sensitive mind and heart, but more than that, it’s the diction, the language.  Young Frederick August Kittel, Jr., was an incipient poet, but the mature August Wilson was a poet of the theater, who used language on so many levels that it made even the most mundane, generic experience soul-soaringly unique.  For Wilson, language was action: to think is to be, but to speak is to do!  (Drama is from the Greek to act or to take action.  It means an act, a deed, a thing done.)  A third difference between How I Learned What I Learned and the monologues of Spalding Gray is in the content—or perhaps intent—of the stories.  Gray’s were almost entirely personal tales with little impact beyond his own life.  They may speak to us, but his experiences filming Apocalypse Now (related in Swimming to Cambodia) or struggling over his first novel, Impossible Vacation (the subject of Monster in a Box), are not really experiences most of us will ever share—but they amuse and intrigue us from a distance.  Wilson’s stories are about experiences lots of people, especially minorities and African Americans in particular, will have seen first-hand and many others will have had friends or colleagues who have.  As Diana observed, some of the stories are almost generic—but Wilson, unlike Gray, is speaking for everyone in his community, so it’s not the experience the details of which he communicates so pointedly that’s significant, but his perception of it, his insight, the lesson he took from it—and the words he uses to relate it.  (Santiago-Hudson and Kreidler know this and that’s part of the reason, I think, that they didn’t try to develop an impersonation of Wilson but to focus on telling the stories for maximum impact—in Santiago-Hudson’s own voice, not a borrowed one.)

There’s another difference between Wilson’s stories and Gray’s.  Wilson’s are more pointed, angrier, more painful.  He’s made them into art, which is what an artist does, of course, but the bitterness is there and palpable.  Another alternative title for How I Learned could be The Angry Black Man in America.  Right after revealing the sardonic T-shirt, “August” declares:

My ancestors have been in America since the early 17th century, and for the first 244 years, we never had a problem finding a job.  But since 1863, it’s been hell.  It’s been hell because the ideas and attitudes that Americans had toward slaves followed them out of slavery and became entrenched in the nation’s psyche.

That sets a tone for the performance, though it does lighten up a bit.  (There’s considerable humor, sometimes dark—I won’t say “black” because Wilson has serious problems with that metaphorical use of the words ‘black’—outrageously wicked, dishonorable, connected with the devil—and ‘white’—outstandingly righteous; free from blemish, moral stain and impurity—reading the definitions from Webster's Third New International Dictionary—but it’s not a comic piece.)   Wilson’s anger is righteous, but there’s also an element of being a hammer and seeing everything as a nail—all bad behavior from white America, every slight and insult, is not only racial, but malicious.  (Believe me, I know where that comes from because I’ve been there in a slightly different context.  Encounters with racism leave a bitter legacy; so does anti-Semitism.)  If Wilson hadn’t leavened his anger and resentment with considerable humor (or had Santiago-Hudson not had such a light touch—what USA Today characterizes as “a mix of indignation and cheek worthy of an expert standup comedian”), the evening could have quickly become oppressive.  It’s a testimony to the special talents of the writer, the actor, and the director (who’s white, by the way) that this didn’t happen even as Wilson and Santiago-Hudson hit their marks squarely. 

The music that opened the show was the theme from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, beneath Santiago-Hudson’s entrance until he hung up his jacket Fred Rogers style.  This struck me as ironic at first—the relentlessly cheerful Rogers and his children’s show juxtaposed with the gritty and often mean streets of Wilson’s Hill District—until, that is, Santiago-Hudson related that Wilson encountered Rogers, both Pennsylvanians, and the TV personality told the would-be writer, “You’ll always be welcome in my neighborhood.”  This launched the story of the neighborhood Catholic church where the monsignor announced one Sunday that African Americans would hencefsorth be welcomed in their congregation, only to see that on the next Sunday, the pews were empty.  (That monsignor, Santiago-Hudson informed us, was fired by the Vatican.)  This set up the dichotomy of Wilson’s life: the world where he wasn’t welcome, where he was suspected, hated, vilified, and the one where he was embraced, nourished, and nurtured. 

The stories in How I Learned What I Learned show how Fred Kittel, who took his mother’s name as an adult, learned from his neighbors and mentors how to become the writer August Wilson who could make plays about the world he knew with both perspicacity and generosity.  How I Learned is about growing up—one man’s very special growing up.  Not just a boy growing into a man, but a wannabe becoming a distinguished artist.  The lessons he learned in the Hill District, that “amalgam of the unwanted,” included Something is not always better than nothing, which his mother taught him; Don’t try to push your spirit out through a horn that you don't know how to play, which he learned from his friend, would-be jazz saxophonist Cy Morocco, and which convinced Wilson to learn his craft; and the final lesson, How do you know what you know?  That’s the question Wilson’s exploring here, and he takes us along in his search.

Music, by the way, is important both to How I Learned and to Wilson.  He’s often acknowledged his sense of connection to the blues, a music that suffuses his plays both as subject matter (Ma Rainey) and as undertone.  A selection of blues or blues-influenced music preceded the show and there was a powerful anecdote at the center of the memoir about the playwright’s eye-opening introduction to the music of John Coltrane.  “It remains one of the most remarkable moments of my life,” Santiago-Hudson said for Wilson.  In a later anecdote, Wilson relates that when he was in a school auditorium rehearsing a play, a man came in and asked to use the piano.  The unknown musician sat down and began playing the most “incredible” music the stunned listeners had ever heard, then he stopped in frustration and screamed, “The limitations of the instrument!  The imitations of the instrument!”  “I think that’s where every artist wants to go,” “August” said: “That’s where I want to go.”  To make art until the “instrument” just can’t go any further, to reach the limit of human creativity.

The reviews of the STC production were generally excellent, which is unsurprising given Santiago-Hudson’s performance and Wilson’s eloquence.  Charles Isherwood of the New York Times called the show “a genial ramble through Wilson’s early days” but praised the portrayal of Santiago-Hudson, who “embodies Wilson with an ease surely born of longtime friendship.”  The Times reviewer states that the actor’s “silk-smooth voice and warm presence help animate the evening, so that even when the stories seem haphazardly assembled (or, on a few occasions, trivial), the flow of the narrative is held together by his focused, fully engaged performance.”  In USA Today, Elysa Gardner declared that How I Learned “reflects the generosity and wisdom of Wilson's writing” and that Santiago-Hudson’s performance “does evoke the humor, compassion, grace and righteous anger” of the playwright’s later work.  Describing the memoir as “a fascinating if rambling chronicle of a young writer’s coming-of-age” on the TV news channel NY1, Roma Torre said, “The material tends to come off as random, and from almost anyone else, it would seem disjointed.  But August Wilson is special.  And in the words of another great playwright, attention must be paid.”  Santiago-Hudson, Torre pronounced, “is an inspired interpreter.  He captures the many dimensions of this self-described rascal.” 

“The anecdotes [of How I Learned What I Learned] teem with humor and muted anger,” said the New Yorker in “Goings On About Town,”  “and Santiago-Hudson tells them as if they were his own.”  The actor, the unidentified reviewer wrote, “plays [Wilson] expertly, under the direction of Todd Kreidler.”  Adam Feldman of Time Out New York described the monologue as “an evocatively literary collection of detailed personal anecdotes, weighted by eloquent outrage at racial discrimination but lightened with folksy humor” which “is a worthy reminder of what we are missing.”  In How I Learned, we have been gifted what seems like a new Wilson drama [which] plays like an epilogue to the Century Cycle,” declared Entertainment Weekly’s Melissa Rose Bernardo.  The EW review-writer then warned, “Don't be surprised if you find yourself stunned into silence . . . .  Wilson's words have a way of doing that.” 

Among on-line reviewers, Andy Propst on AmericanTheaterWeb described How I Learned as a “freewheeling, episodic glimpse of life in the 1960s and 1970s in Wilson's native Pittsburgh that's laced with poetry” which “pulls back the curtain on some of the experiences that informed” the American Century Cycle.  Santiago-Hudson, wrote Propst, “delivers the monologue with grace and charm,” and with the direction of Kreidler, “keeps at bay” the “bitterness and anger” that are an expected part of the evening, “a feat,” the cyber reviewer insisted, “that only enhances the show's overall power.”  On CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer called the memoir a “scattershot cross between lecture and comic riff” which “falls short of being completely satisfying.”  Nonetheless, the director “couldn't have wished a better actor than Santiago-Hudson” who Sommer observed maintained a “rapport” with the audience from his first entrance through the 80 minutes of the show, or “a more perfect set than David Gallo's.”  Calling her complaints “quibbles,” Sommer acknowledged that the memoir “does give audiences a picture of what shaped Mr. Wilson's beliefs and the brilliant cycle of plays.”  More of a collection of remembrances than a structured play,” said Michael Dale of How I Learned on BroadwayWorld.com, the presentation was “intriguing, despite its episodic nature.”  “Santiago-Hudson's captivating presence and attention to verbal detail,” asserted Dale, “keeps the evening intriguing” as the performance “provides audiences with a living portrait” of the playwright.  [A]bsorbing, if predictable” but also “speedy, satiating” was the way Matthew Murray described the memoir on Talkin’ Broadway.  The anecdotes, said Murray, are “all briskly composed and awash in the sense of music.”  Nonetheless, “[d]espite Santiago-Hudson’s unflagging energy,” the cyber reviewer asserted, “the actor can’t keep each subsequent scene from feeling like a rewind of what’s come before” because of Kreidler’s “simple and static” staging, with the result, “especially towards the end, [that] you may as well be spinning in the middle of a white-hot hagiography.” 

On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart sounded one of the few sour notes, offering that he’s “not sure what . . . August Wilson learned in his twenties, and judging from the hasty and facile conclusion of How I Learned What I Learned, I'm not sure he did either.”  The production “feels half-baked,” wrote Stewart of the “well-acted, beautifully designed, but ultimately unsatisfying” presentation that he characterized as “a loose collection of anecdotes told in no particular order.”  Santiago-Hudson, however, “is a captivating storyteller.  He draws you in and you quickly forget that you're listening to an actor.”  Stewart continued, “My BS detector pinged more than a few times while listening” to the “flimsily constructed” anecdotes “presented without reflection.”   The TM reviewer concluded, “How I Learned What I Learned is a museum display of an unfinished work, an echo of a man and his words frozen in amber for all eternity. . . .  [D]on't expect any prescient insights on race in modern America.”

I can’t agree with any of Stewart’s complaints, but I acknowledge that How I Learned What I Learned isn’t a perfect theater piece.  I presume that the pleasure in seeing Wilson perform the monodrama would have been in listening to the playwright tell his own stories, and seeing Santiago-Hudson do it creates a critical distance the material may not be able to support.  Nonetheless, I wouldn’t have missed this production for anything.  I wanted to see it since it was announced in 2005 and have had it in my mind ever since, and I couldn’t have been more pleased with Signature’s presentation all around.

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