In the Moment: A Report on ‘How I Learned What I Learned’ at Round House Theatre

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Reflections of a hard-headed son on the Round House Theatre production of August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned.

As a theatrical production, August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned, co-conceived and directed by Todd Kreidler, left me in wonderment. Eugene Lee’s performance as the now deceased Wilson left much to ponder to better appreciate the rough terrain that Wilson traversed. Lee’s strong, unflinching performance of a man who believed in himself, then beat the odds to become the playwright August Wilson we know, jumped off the stage.

Eugene Lee. Photo by Grace Toulotte.

Wilson’s words and Lee performance were like the firing of ganglia in the brain. Little was straight from point A to point B. Much was curvy and meandering as particular memories sparked up in no particular order, ultimately connecting to paint a vast landscape of a man and his early life.

My DC Metro Theater Arts colleague Ramona Harper’s wise review of How I Learned, What I Learned has this penetrating paragraph which I took into me:

August Wilson had a profound understanding of the African American experience. He breathed in its culture and exhaled the life he observed life through the cheap bars, juke joints and smack-talk cafes in the Black community he frequented. But he wrote with compassion and authenticity that conspire and compel everyone to see the unity of our humanity. August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned will touch and inspire you.

So, what can I add of value to Ramona’s review? Taking in How I Learned What I Learned just a few days before Father’s Day, Wilson’s reflections on his life connected me with my own Dad, who passed away nearly forty years ago. It was a connection I could never have expected.

Over a few days, How I Learned What I Learned became a universal tale of an older man explaining himself to a son or a younger man he has taken under his wing. The younger man or son is not yet ready to listen to an old man’s tales about life and how to survive and thrive while being true to yourself. It is the effort of an older man, knowing he may not be around much longer, to finally get his insights about life out in one sitting, before it is too late. It’s about the long-ago-lived life of a 20-year-old; about his first jobs, about his community, about his mother, about his first loves, and his experiences with racism (Wilson performed How I Learned What I Learned not long before he passed away).

So, thank you Mr. Wilson, for this unexpected connection to my own Dad.

David Gallo’s set design for How I Learned What I Learned matches the notion of a man’s tales to others who will listen. Gallo’s scenic design was as life is, seemingly messy and without forethought. Yet, as I paid closer attention, things became more fully realized. The terrain of soil and detritus and half-buried objects were a treasure trove of Wilson’s life and plays and the deeper past of life in America for African-Americans.

Eugene Lee. Photo by Grace Toulotte.

Yes, it was a dirt lot with lots of bits and pieces of hard and soft objects. They could have been and represented anything. As I took all of it in, as Lee gave us August Wilson’s words, I didn’t see discarded trash, but a life lived. The set helped make what could have been a static monologue into something more.

As Lee spoke of Wilson’s 1960’s Pittsburgh neighborhoods – The Hill, Squire Hill, Downtown – they came alive to me. The set became the geography of Pittsburgh with its many rivers, many hills, and a difficult geography that limited easy mobility. Perhaps because I lived in Pittsburgh during the later ‘60’s, the un-flatness of Pittsburgh came quickly back to me; a place that used “inclines” to get around for a long time. A city that, when I was there, still had smoke stacks near the famous three rivers.

So with utter respect, and with Father’s Day approaching, How I Learned What I Learned had me think of my own Dad, so often trying to tell me about his life. When I was young, when I was 20 or so, I would not listen. I could not hear. When I was finally was ready, it was almost too late. Thankfully, Wilson put pen to paper before he passed away to give us How I Learned What I Learned. Sure, it’s a big stretch to find my own Dad in August Wilson, but I did. I hope Mr. Wilson will not mind.

Running Time: Approximaely 90 minutes, with no intermission.

 How I Learned What I Learned plays through July 2, 2017 at Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online.

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