In recent years, Ruben Santiago-Hudson has emerged at the fore of a circle that has been dubbed the “Wilsonian Warriors,” a group of artists committed to preserving and honoring the legacy of August Wilson. Since the playwright’s 2005 death at the age of 60, Santiago-Hudson and other Warriors like Stephen McKinley Henderson, Marion McClinton, Kenny Leon, and Phylicia Rashaad have been working tirelessly to sustain and invigorate Wilson’s oeuvre.
In just the past two years, Santiago-Hudson has directed productions of Wilson’s Jitney and Two Trains Running at the Two River Theater, and an extremely successful production of The Piano Lesson at the Signature Theater, as well as helming, as co-artistic director, a historic recording series that captured staged readings of all ten of Wilson’s Century Cycle plays. Who better, then, to embody August Wilson himself in the playwright’s autobiographical one-man show, How I Learned What I Learned? The play shows us an artist in his formative years engaging in a frank assessment, a task Santiago-Hudson takes on with the warmth and confidence we might expect from somebody who knew Wilson so well. The result is a performance full of tenderness without romance and respect untainted by idolatry.
As Wilson looked to his past with critical introspection in writing this play, Santiago-Hudson takes on a welcome forthrightness in performance, showing us Wilson treating his own life with the same scrutiny he applied to his characters’ trials and experiences.
Receiving its New York premiere at the Signature Theater, How I Learned What I Learned opens and closes with flourishes of Wilson’s lyrical prose style. As the show begins, Santiago-Hudson as Wilson sits on a downstage stool and delivers a rhythmically poetic speech, telling us how black Americans first arrived on this continent in the early seventeenth century and—in a line prototypical of Wilson’s blues humor instincts to laugh just to keep from crying—for 250 years or so had no trouble finding a job. Of course matters got more difficult after Emancipation and the broken promises of Reconstruction, and this period at the dawning of the twentieth century has always been where Wilson’s interests lie most directly. His plays explore the experiences not of “African-Americans,” but of “Africans in America,” a culture displaced and dispersed, struggling for identity and community.
To anybody familiar with Wilson’s cycle plays, all of this sounds very familiar: the opening speech of How I Learned could very well have been delivered by Bynum or Toledo or Holloway or any number of Wilson’s other griot characters. But what makes How I Learned remarkable and fascinating for the student of Wilson is how the playwright casts himself as both the storyteller and the audience. For although Santiago-Hudson consistently engages with the audience of the Signature’s intimate Griffin performance space, telling the story directly to the people with whom he is sharing space, the play’s Wilson character seems like an explorer or examiner of his own life rather than somebody who is delivering his story from a place of clear understanding. As a result, we are invited to explore along with him, to examine together the implications and resonances of his many experiences.
As it turns out, the notion of How in this play’s title becomes more precisely From Whom, as the body of the play moves us from interpersonal experience to interpersonal experience, chronicling many of the important people that gave shape and direction to a young artist. Notably absent are artistic influences like Amiri Baraka, Romare Bearden, and Lloyd Richards, and in their place are Wilson’s mother, an ex-girlfriend or two, former bosses at menial jobs, and the junkies, fledgling artists, and wise elders of Pittsburg’s Hill District. This is not the story of a successful playwright navigating the world of theater, but rather of a young poet, struggling to reconcile his profound senses of dignity and purpose with the challenges of being black and poor in twentieth-century America. Eschewing bitterness and anger, though, How I Learned examines precisely how each of the playwright’s many experiences the people in his life left their mark.
The play leaves to us the job of extrapolating how those marks made their way into Wilson’s cycle plays, as How I Learned only broaches the specifics of Wilson’s cycle. It is a play outside of and distinct from the cycle plays, but as we might expect from a playwright so invested in the interweaving matrix of themes, How I Learned exists just on the periphery of the Century Cycle, giving shading and context to the many tensions of that series.
Deftly directed by Todd Kreidler, Wilson’s collaborator on the play’s conception, and staged on a gorgeous set by David Gallo, How I Learned What I Learned invites its audience on an enlightening journey of introspection and frank self-assessment. Ruben Santiago-Hudson invokes all of his familiarity and warmth for August Wilson in what proves to be a deeply personal performance, nimbly negotiating the demands of honesty, enthusiasm, and great respect.