It must have been a thrill to see August Wilson in How I Learned What I Learned, his patchwork-quilt-style collection of tales of growing up — and finding his voice — in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. (The playwright originally performed the piece at Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2003, two years before he died.) But as stand-ins go, you can’t do much better than Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who’s starring in the autobiographical show at Off Broadway’s Signature Theatre through Dec. 29. The actor won a Tony Award for Wilson’s Seven Guitars; he starred on Broadway in Gem of the Ocean. He’s directed still more of Wilson’s work, including last season’s luminous revival of The Piano Lesson at the Signature. Now, thanks to Santiago-Hudson and director Todd Kreidler (who co-conceived the piece a decade ago), we have been gifted what seems like a new Wilson drama. How I Learned… plays like an epilogue to the Century Cycle, Wilson’s 10-play, decade-by-decade chronicle of black American life.
Hardcore Wilson fans will love this new set of stories. But you needn’t be familiar with his writing in order to enjoy How I Learned? This isn’t a backstage drama or a behind-the-scenes look at his Broadway career; there’s no juicy gossip about celebs such as James Earl Jones or Angela Bassett (who starred in the original Fences and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, respectively). Rather, we hear about Wilson’s struggles with seventh-grade math; what landed him in jail (”as a twenty year-old Black man in the Hill District in Pittsburgh in 1965 you going to jail”); how he found himself staring into the wrong end of a double-barrel shotgun (the incident involved a girl named Snookie); his artist friends Chawley Williams and Barbara Peterson; and the night he discovered jazz, on the corner of Wylie and Kirkpatrick: ”It remains one of the most remarkable moments of my life. To see two hundred n—–s stunned into silence by the power of art and the soaring music of John Coltrane and his exploration of man’s connection to the divinity. And the power of possibility of human life.”
Don’t be surprised if you find yourself stunned into silence as well. Wilson’s words have a way of doing that. A?
(Tickets: SignatureTheatre.org or 212-244-7529)