When playwright August Wilson died in 2005, he left behind a body of work that has become a staple of American theater. As much a documentarian as a poet and author, the 10 plays (Jitney, Fences, et al.) of Wilson’s Century (or Pittsburgh) Cycle chronicle the 20th-century African-American experience mostly through the lives of the residents of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where Wilson grew up.
In 2002, Wilson stepped away from the Cycle and turned to himself as his subject with How I Learned What I Learned, running now at Mill Valley’s Marin Theatre Company in partnership with San Francisco’s Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and Oakland’s Ubuntu Theater Project.
Directed with obvious love by Margo Hall and starring Steven Anthony Jones as Wilson, the show is a 110-minute, intermission-less conversation between the author and the audience. It’s not a “greatest hits” review, but a look back at the life experiences that shaped Wilson as a young man and the people he encountered along the way. Those familiar with Wilson’s work will recognize some people as the basis for characters or plot elements in his work.
Set on a simple stage against a backdrop of sheets of paper hanging like laundry drying on a line, each of Wilson’s often humorous reminiscences is announced by a projection of a typewritten title. After a quick review of the African-American experience through 1863, it begins with his decision to move out of his mother’s house and zig-zags through his experiences as a young man seeking work, his neighborhood interactions, his dalliances, his time in jail, his discovery of jazz, and the indignities he suffered because of the color of his skin.
From an early job interview that ended with a warning not to steal, to being asked to stop mowing a lawn because the white homeowner objected to a black man being on her property, to the difficulties in cashing a check, the show’s most powerful moments are those in which Wilson reminds us that the respect of others won’t come without respect of self.
Steven Anthony Jones is a marvelous storyteller who, though he struggled a bit with lines on opening night, completely captured the audience by the time the lights had dimmed. August Wilson may be gone, but Jones brings him roaring back to life with an entertaining, enraging and eye-opening evening of solo theater.
‘How I Learned What I Learned’ runs Tuesday–Sunday through Feb. 3 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. 415.388.5208. $25–$60. marintheatre.org.