By Oline H. Cogdill
August Wilson was one of the most insightful—if not THE most insightful—chronicler of Black life in America. He found the music in the language of ordinary people, the poetry in the minutiae of daily life. That statement about Wilson has been referenced, in one way or another, in numerous profiles, stories and reviews about the late playwright; I am merely echoing these opinions.
Wilson turned his lyrical lens on himself in the one-man play How I Learned What I Learned, now enjoying a resplendent production through Oct. 22 at GableStage. Superbly directed by Carey Brianna Hart with a powerful performance by Melvin Huffnagle, How I Learned What I Learned opens GableStage’s 25th season anniversary.
Wilson’s 10 plays that each cover a decade of the 20th century exploring the social and personal history of the Black residents of Pittsburgh’s Hill District continue to be produced on Broadway, in regional theaters and in films. South Floridia’s M Ensemble has mounted several Wilson plays.
How I Learned What I Learned illustrates how Wilson became a much-lauded playwright, whose plays would be honored with two Pulitzer Prizes (Fences, 1987; The Piano Lesson, 1990); Tony Awards, an Oscar for best adapted screenplay (Fences, 2017), among other awards.
Wilson’s heartfelt autobiographical play, written two years before he died in 2005, takes audiences from his coming-of-age beginnings as a young poet in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Audiences learn about his friendship with a junkie poet, his three days in jail, his first crush, his encounter with a jealous husband, dead-end jobs, his love of music, his involvement with the Hill Arts Society, his long hours spent at libraries, encounters with racism, and his strong relationship with his mother—all of which were transformative.
How I Learned What I Learned delves into Wilson’s self-discovery and what it means to be Black and a Black artist in America, which is imprinted on a T-shirt Huffnagle wears in the first scene.
At its heart, How I Learned What I Learned is an homage to the need for respect and the power of art and possibility—which Huffnagle boldly explores.
Under Hart’s direction, Huffnagle is constantly in motion as he describes Wilson’s journey. Huffnagle is never still, drawing in the audience so completely that the play never lags, despite being just under two hours with no intermission. Huffnagle is a physical actor and this serves him and the part well.
Huffnagle, assistant professor of Acting in FIU’s Theatre Department, persuasively shows the audience how racism affected him, as well as us all. He recites a horrible definition of Black and white people that had the audience gasping. He remembers aggressive racism, that caused him to quit many jobs, as well as the seemingly innocuous incidents. A white man, who wants to prove that he is not a racist, tells Wilson “I don’t see color,” which has Wilson asking why he is telling this to the only Black man in the room.
He recounts a lesson about racism and the need for respect he learned from his mother. She had won a new washing machine in a game show but when it was learned she was Black, they refused to give her the new appliance. Instead, she was offered a gift certificate for a used washing machine at a charity store. She refused, saying “Something is not always better than nothing.”
This isn’t Huffnagle’s first foray into Wilson’s work as he also played Memphis in M Ensemble’s production of Two Trains Running last May. (Florida Theater on Stage review here.)
Huffnagle originally was to understudy the role that Robert Strain was to perform. Strain is scheduled to perform the role at 2 p.m. Oct. 4, 11 and 18 and at 10:30 a.m. Oct. 12.
The innovative set design further enhances How I Learned What I Learned. Designer Frank J. Oliva, lighting designer Ernesto Pinto and projection designer Joel Zishuk have created a city scape comprised of 130 scale-model buildings and bridges, all handcrafted, that light up as Huffnagle describes the various landmarks in the Hill District and nimbly moves among the buildings. Photographs of the neighborhood alternate, superimposed on a Pittsburgh map.
How I Learned What I Learned is a wonderful way to start GableStage’s 25th season.
How I Learned What I Learned runs through Oct. 22 at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. Call 305-445-1119 or visit gablestage.org for tickets. Running time just under two hours; without intermission.