August Wilson’s ‘How I Learned What I Learned’ closes Sunday

Stephen Anthony Jones stars as August Wilson in “How I Learned What I Learned.” – Photo: Kevin Berne

All performances are pay-what-you-can: Friday at 7, Sunday 2 and 7, Mills College Rothwell Theatre Center, 5000 MacArthur Blvd., in Oakland – Wanda says: Steven Anthony Jones needs more Black people in the house. You will not be disappointed. Take a youth with you.”

Review by Wanda Sabir

August Wilson, playwright, was very much at home in the SF Bay. I will never forget his workshop production of “Jitney” at Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, where he encouraged a woman who criticized the absence of substantive women characters in his plays to write her own. Wilson said his journey was personal, yet there was room on the stage for multiple voices and perspectives.

His relationship with Stanley F. Williams and Quentin Easter at LHT, his support of Black theatre and its playwrights, formalized in a legendary speech June 26, 1996, at the 11th Biennial Theatre Communication Groups International Conference at Princeton, might have slowed, if not saved the few independent centers across the country, legendary houses like the Negro Ensemble Theatre, where Steven Anthony Jones cut his teeth.

It is amazing that Wilson had no formal theatre training, yet was called to write the story of an American people with dignity and respect. He mentions in “How I Learned What I Learned” that an artist reaches an arch where the medium is exhausted and it’s time to move on. He tells a story of John Coltrane coming out of a club after a concert and asking a young artist to teach him something new. The young musician said he was still practicing scales, to which Coltrane encouraged him to keep practicing and moved on.

Jones is the consummate storyteller too. If you saw his “Thurgood,” also directed by Margo Hall, then you know that his timing is impeccable and cues tight. With a minimized set – desk, coat rack, easel for scene cues – we are carried away by characters and incidents as captivating as any created in Wilson’s imagination. “How I Learned” is insight into the birthplace of some of the familiar terrain covered in Wilson’s Century Cycle.

Through all the personal and professional slights, Wilson speaks of human dignity, a principle learned from his mother, who, he shares, wins a washing machine in a game show. When the hosts learn she is a Black woman, they refuse her the prize. Instead they want to give her a certificate for a used washer from the Salvation Army. She refuses, saves up her money and buys her own.

Young Wilson hangs out with a drug dealer, dates a married woman, loses his poetry … is in way over his head most of the time, yet has a guardian angel on his shoulder and comes to no harm. His rite of passage is jail; however, he calls an attorney friend to ask for advice before he inadvertently breaks the law – the lawyer leaves out an important detail.

This play, a multiple theatre production – Marin Theatre Company, Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and now Ubuntu Theatre Project, closes Sunday, May 5, at Mills College Rothwell Theatre Center, 5000 MacArthur Blvd., in Oakland. Shows are 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday with two shows Sunday, 2 and 7. For tickets and information call Ubuntu Theatre at 510-646-1126 or visit ubuntutheaterproject.com. Tickets are pay-what-you-can at all shows.

Steven Anthony Jones needs more Black people in the house. You will not be disappointed. Take a youth with you. In Jones’s capable and skilled hands, the show is funny, surprising and compelling. “How I Learned” is an important American history.

Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at wanda@wandaspicks.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.