It’s taken 12 years, but August Wilson’s first one-man show, “How I Learned What I Learned,” will finally run in the same city where the story takes place.
“How I Learned What I Learned” is one of Wilson’s final plays, which originally debuted in Seattle in 2003. Wilson, one of America’s most esteemed playwrights and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, performed “How I Learned” as a sort of one-man memoir. Wilson passed away in 2005, but the show goes on and runs from March 5 to April 5 at the O’Reilly Theater, located Downtown on Penn Avenue. Tickets start at $23, but for students and anyone under the age of 26, tickets are just $15.75.
The one-man play focuses on Wilson’s life growing up in the Hill District during his early 20s in the 1960s. Wilson paints a comedic picture of renting his first apartment and jumping from job to job, which ranged from mowing lawns to washing dishes at Klein’s and Kroger’s, a now-defunct restaurant downtown.
Director and close friend of Wilson, Todd Kreidler, finds that Wilson’s words give an in-depth look at his thought process.
“It’s the kind of intimacy that delivers how he thinks and how he approaches life and what his process of thinking was through personal insentiences,” Kreidler said.
Given Kreidler and Wilson’s Pittsburgh ties — both grew up in the city, and nine of Wilson’s 10 famous Pittsburgh Cycle plays are based there — local audiences might connect with the play on a different level than audiences from other parts of the country.
“I think we can expect a kindred audience and not a hostile audience,” Eugene Lee, who plays August Wilson, said. “I think they will bring a set of expectations.”
According to Lee, one of Wilson’s main goals was to shed light on the black experience through theater, which has allowed for plenty of strong roles for African-American actors.
“I see so many parallels with my own journey in this, so that’s really comforting to know, and it’s really encouraging to me and inspiring to me in a lot of ways,” Lee said. “We’ve talked about some of the things that are similar moments in my life, like teachers accusing you for not having written this paper.”
When directing the play, Kreidler didn’t want to completely imitate the way Wilson had performed the play in the past.
“I’ve been the recipient of these stories, and I’ve had two challenges — the first being that August did it originally himself 12 years ago. So it was kind of magnifying those experiences that I had out there,” Kreidler said. “And now doing it with Eugene is another layer. So now you have to distill it, and it becomes about another storytelling.”
Lee also found it challenging to avoid imitation.
“This is the highest standard. It’s a higher literary standard in terms of storytelling and the language being so heightened,” Lee said. “And that’s the challenge to bring clarity and truth to this wonderful storytelling.”
Christopher Rawson, a literature professor currently teaching a class on Wilson’s work at Pitt, said that Wilson fans are eager to see “How I Learned” return to his home. Rawson has also extensively reviewed Wilson’s work in the Post-Gazette, and he’s written more about Wilson than any other journalist in the country.
Rawson discussed the literature course with Wilson in 2004, but Rawson told him that he’d been waiting for other departments, like the theater department or Africana studies department, to pick up the course. Because no other department picked it up , Rawson agreed to teach it once Wilson completed writing his 10th and final play. The pair had agreed to go over the Cycle and study it with plans for Wilson to visit Rawson’s class once it began. But doctors suddenly diagnosed Wilson with liver cancer in June 2005, and he passed away before the course began in January 2006.
According to Rawson, Wilson’s works illuminate the history of the black experience to students of all backgrounds.
“They are having the experience of saturating themselves in this extraordinary talent, this extraordinary picture of culture that my white students don’t know much about,” Rawson said. “Even the black students are being taken back 50 years from the world that they live in.”
Sara Williams, a Point Park junior and a student in Rawson’s Wilson class, said that the class provides a revealing history of the neighborhood in which she grew up.
“It is a fantastic opportunity to learn about my heritage — especially being from Pittsburgh and living in the Hill District,” Williams said.
Kreidler finds “How I Learned What I Learned” to be a work that allows people to relate to and reflect on many parts of their life.
“There’s not an aspect of your life that is not touched by his work, whether it be attitudes to sex to money to hate to love,” Kreidler said. “So to get at those layers, he’s taking a wide breadth of American culture and European culture and music and he’s sort of downloading all of these things and performing them through his instrument and you get to experience that.”