This is really special. Originally conceived and performed by August Wilson himself, How I Learned What I Learned is a wonderfully evocative journey through the playwright’s early life, conjuring the vibrancy of the Pittsburgh Hill District he grew up in and later immortalised in his Century Cycle plays.
A dynamic and devastating ‘Must See’ performance
Wilson’s voice is of the African American experience but for everyone. The humanity which bleeds from every syllable has such an unpretentious complexity that his love for the power of words is tangible in every utterance. That this Tony, Drama Desk and Pulitzer Prize winner has never achieved the wider recognition of white American greats of the stage such as O’Neill, Miller, Albee, Williams is gradually being put right; with that elder theatre statesman Denzel Washington claiming his later life’s work will be to ensure that ‘August is taken care of’ with films of each of his works in the eventual pipeline. In the years following Wilson’s death, Washington helped mastermind major releases such as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Fences, bringing Wilson’s work to a new audience and developing the respect for the work of the African American actors who breathe new life into his iconic characters.
Wilson writes with such aching beauty and poetic realisation of the mundane that it is as if he has crawled into our very souls and articulated what we cannot. He is honest, self-aware and warm: critical, proud, fierce. And always relentlessly improving. His indefatigable spirit and demand for dignity against the petty spoils of both casual and deliberate racism cannot be bowed; and his capacity for love is tremendous.
It is this tenderness which drives the piece forwards: an overpowering ability to care for his mother, his first kiss, his eclectic friends, his lovers, his neighbourhood, the cost of a fish sandwich, and most of all, perhaps, that young kid grappling with what is means to be black, be a man, be a poet in 1960s America.
Wilson is quite beautifully brought to life by Lester Purry, who delicately chronicles Wilson’s early memories with a deftness of touch and profundity of feeling. There is such a gamut of emotions here, but they are relived with a domesticity and ease which draws the audience as though we are chatting to a friend. One is more than happy to laugh along; but all too frequently, will want to step in to right some of the wrongs which Wilson generously uses as part of his odyssey towards finding wisdom.
A dynamic and in parts devastating performance, this should absolutely be on the ‘Must See’ list of any self-respecting theatre lover this Fringe.