August Wilson’s own biography and his plays chronicling life in Pittsburgh’s Hill District during the 20th century are well suited for an actor who fits the bill for How I Learned What I Learned. His life and works comprise big stories worthy of fine storytellers.
Pittsburgh actor Wali Jamal is the one American actor who has performed in all 10 plays of Wilson’s American Century Cycle, so the playwright’s legacy is in very capable hands. Jamal now adds to his own credentials as a Wilson expert by acting solo as the writer in How I Learned What I Learned, on stage for only three more performances through Saturday at the New Hazlett Theater, Northside. It’s an intimate production, as solo shows should be, that takes the audience through Wilson’s early years and many formative experiences for a young Black man of promise growing up in Pittsburgh.
In Thursday’s preview, Jamal proved his stamina and reverence during the 90 minute performance that captures the essence of Wilson’s life journey. Told primarily in the playwright’s own words with some help from Todd Kreidler, billed as co-conceiver of the play, How I Learned provides that intimate conversation for which solo shows are known. As Wilson, Jamal walks on stage, plays the harmonica, then shares many thoughts and tales with the audience seated conveniently in a three-quarter thrust configuration. The simple set evokes elements of the writer’s life–a desk, telescope, a bust of a Black man, a wood sculpture of an African work. The back walls are covered with pages from Wilson’s works, as they traditionally have been for productions of this play (even when Wilson first presented it himself in 2003, two years before his passing.)
Here, Jamal handily pulls sheets from the wall at times and hands them to audience members for some nice interaction when he’s read them. It’s characteristic not to ignore but truly engage the audience during one-person shows, and Jamal works his charm throughout. The diverse audience of young and old, black and white, are quickly in the palm of his hand. Enrapt and attentive, the audience plays its part audibly and respectfully. You get a sense they would not have missed this–and that some might return with some friends for another performance.
As Wilson started writing poetry as a young man, fueled by his voracious reading via the free Carnegie Library, the piece features flavors of that early writing and the script is itself both moving and poetic. We travel emotions with Wilson from the realities, apprehension, and fear of those who don’t happen to be white to the exhilaration of love won, jazz music discovered and surviving several nights in jail. Jamal moves with Wilson’s shifting moods, peaking with incidents that thoroughly entertain and light up the audience with shared humanity. Through Wilson’s script, Jamal navigates through milestones in Black American history. The ironies include that, you know, African Americans only had more trouble getting work after they were no longer slaves after some 242 years. The audience laughs with Jamal, but we get it. He also describes the Hill’s burgeoning growth and diversity and tallies the many multicultural businesses that once thrived there. Hearing those prior counts reminds us that the Hill slid way down before its more recent climb upwards.
Thing is, the writer reveals that many things have not changed for the better. The piece is more timely than we’d like to be as the script delves through the linguistics of racism and incidents that echo American now. American then wasn’t a safe a place for people of color and it was profound to realize Wilson’s America only foreshadowed more of the same.
Memories of the Hill District abound and much of the audience enjoyed Jamal’s winking references to spots like Klein’s where Wilson washed dishes downtown and the venerable Oyster House. Jamal is superb evoking the jazz clubs where live performances by the likes of John Coltrane wafting into the street where those who couldn’t afford cover charges gathered and could still be changed by jazz.
And you can’t tell Wilson’s story without recounting the role of his mother Daisy. Her warning that “something is not always better than nothing” applies at many key moments here.
Jamal’s warmth mingles with street smarts. At the bows, he couldn’t resist hugging friends and fans in the front row. A self-produced event, the show was indeed a labor of love that hopefully leads to more productions featuring Jamal who is indeed the man for this play in Pittsburgh and beyond.
So, now, before you cook on the grill, mow the lawn, or celebrate the fruits of your labor this weekend, get to meet August Wilson. Pittsburgh has the Hill’s poet-playwright back with us for a few days. Do see this funny, moving and relevant solo show starring the charming and amazing Wali Jamal Abdullah as Wilson.
A story we need to hear. Now. Take a friend. As I often write here when I must tell you, just go.
The American Century Cycle play titles are projected at the show’s end, reminding us of August Wilson’s amazing body of work that not only a tribute to the human spirit in Black America but Pittsburgh’s Hill District. The plays and the dates in which they take place over all the decades of the last century are as follows. In Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre and Pittsburgh Public Theatre have collectively brought these works to life. Next up in town is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the only Cycle play not set on Pittsburgh’s “Hill”. It stars Vanessa German at Playwrights Theatre, Sept. 14-Oct. 1.
Here are the Cycle titles with the years Wilson wrote them as the year in which they take place.
Gem of the Ocean (2003) – 1900s
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1988) – the 1910s
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984) – 1920s
The Piano Lesson (1990) – 1930s
Seven Guitars (1995) – 1940s
Fences (1987) – 1950s
Two Trains Running (1991) – 1960s
Jitney (1982) – 1970s
King Hedley II (1999) – 1980s
Radio Golf (2005) – 1990s
Remaining performances of How I Learned What I Learned are Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Saturday at 3 pm. Garage parking: $7 (cash only). Tickets: https://www.showclix.com/event/how-i-learned-what-i-learned
Note that the temperature in the Hazlett is unusually cold, so bring a wrap and dress for cold AC indoors, not the summer temperature outdoors. For details on accessible seating or assistive listening devices, contact Emma at 412-320-4610 ext. 16 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Categories: Archived Reviews