Encountering a work by August Wilson for the first time is like the start of a new romance. There is an awakening, a full-body flutter, and a curiosity that can’t be sated—at least this was true for me, and the Arden’s How I Learned What I Learned, Wilson’s autobiographical monologue play, does justice to that feeling.
When I was introduced to my first Wilson play in college, The Piano Lesson, the fourth installment in his American Century cycle, I knew that I was in the presence of something that begged further exploration and eventual devotion. But like many theater students, I was taught the legend of August Wilson rather than the writer himself.
I knew Wilson as a (multiple) award winner, a titan of American playwriting, and a writer who could stride racial gaps and connect us in a theater through his language. He was more a myth than a man to me. The great irony of cultural luminaries is that they peel us open to reveal our natures, while their own humanity and the finer details of their lives are forgotten or left to Wikipedia. I finally got the gift of seeing the man behind it all in the Arden’s latest production.
Before he became a colossus in the theater world, Wilson was an aspiring poet working (and quitting) menial jobs, struggling to pay his rent, and chasing after love that sometimes got him into hot water. Co-conceived with original director Todd Kreidler and first performed by Wilson himself, How I Learned What I Learned chronicles Wilson’s life as young man amongst the “amalgam of the unwanted” in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where he grew up and where most of his cycle plays take place. Wilson (a compelling Kesserack at the Arden) walks us through his beloved Hill District, introducing us to the individuals and artists who proffered life lessons he could pair with his own observations on race, art, and just plain getting by. Wilson was a scamp in his younger days and eager to drink in as much knowledge as possible, so his tales are wild and humorous but ripe with wisdom.
A natural respect
Wilson’s writing is always rich, and he swings nimbly from naked simplicity to heightened lyricism. He tends toward leaner language in How I Learned What I Learned, but his words still have a way of sliding into the mind and coaxing the heart up into the throat. The description of meeting his wife, Constanza Romero, is particularly arresting.
August Wilson’s spirit finds a vibrant home in Arden favorite Kesserack, who steps away from playing roles in cycle plays (Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson and Sterling in Two Trains Running) to take on the playwright himself. Kesserack’s presence is striking, but he moves easily between warm command and impish charisma. What is most impressive is that he never overextends to earn our favor; this is a man to whom audiences come—he doesn’t come to us. It is the perfect way to pay homage to Wilson, who never accepted anything less than full respect.
Malika Oyetimein’s direction is thrilling and transgressive. Escaping the tradition of maintaining distance between audience and performer in monologue plays, Oyetimein brings Kesserack out of the confines of the stage and into the audience. It broadens our expectations of what is possible in this performance genre while making Wilson’s humanity broad and inescapable.
Informative wall projections (video and lights by Matt Webb) and a jazz-infused soundscape (Larry D. Fowler Jr.) ground us with context. This is a solo show, but the design bends playfully, as if Kesserack were the conductor and the design elements were his jazz musicians.
After How I Learned What I Learned concluded and the figurative curtain closed on Wilson’s inner life, I stepped out of the theater and into the crisp air. August Wilson started metamorphosing back into an epic, mysterious figure in my mind. For a while, though, he was right in front of my eyes.
What, When, Where
How I Learned What I Learned. By August Wilson, directed by Malika Oyetimein. Through April 14, 2019, at the Bob and Selma Horan Studio Theatre at the Arden’s Hamilton Family Arts Center, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.
The Arden is an ADA-compliant venue. For specific questions about accessibility, call the box office or email [email protected].