Black history is American history. And no playwright captures that history better than August Wilson, best known for his “Century Cycle,” a 10-play collection that depicts each decade of the 20th century, nearly all of them set in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh.
In Wilson’s plays, hard-working Black Americans navigate family dust-ups, romantic entanglements, social and economic injustices, and a whole host of day-to-day victories and defeats as they look for ways to move forward — or at least find a little peace where they stand.
After a distinguished career telling other peoples’ stories in plays like “The Piano Lesson,” “Fences” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (picking up a pair of Pulitzers, a couple of Tonys and numerous other awards along the way), Wilson made his stage debut in 2003 to tell his own story in the autobiographical one-man show “How I Learned What I Learned.” Wilson died two years later in 2005, but “What I Learned” lives on, as actors at regional theaters across the country slip into Wilson’s iconic black turtleneck and wide-brimmed hat.
At Le Petit Theatre, New Orleans actor Lance Nichols, known for his work on stage and screen (“Treme,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), channels Wilson’s wisdom and wit to deliver a show that gives audiences a glimpse into the events and encounters that shaped the man behind plays.
A great play starts with a great writer, and this month New Orleans stages feature the work of two of America’s best: August Wilson and Tennes…
“What I Learned” is a patchwork of stories from Wilson’s younger days growing up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a vibrant midcentury hub of Black arts and culture. The tales include Wilson’s early experiences with deep-rooted racism in the form of shopkeepers and churchgoers, alongside a wild cast of pistol-packing ex-husbands, knife-wielding wives, drugged-out artists and a cellmate who sings the blues.
Nichols, as Wilson, deftly guides audiences on a tour of Wilson’s colorful Pittsburgh neighborhood. Nichols is a skilled storyteller with a smooth, put-together delivery that evidences the distance traveled by the street-wise dropout turned decorated author. He successfully captures Wilson’s romantic view of city life but also embodies the hard-headed refusal to accept any kind of second-class status, even if it means quitting a much-needed job or staring down the barrel of a shotgun.
Directed by visiting artist Jade King Carroll, “What I Learned” is a sharp-looking production that clocks in at a tidy 85 minutes. But too often, Wilson’s autobiographical stylings lack the thing that makes his plays so cherished and memorable: drama.
There’s no real narrative arc to “What I Learned,” which is mostly a collection of entertaining anecdotes. And while there are some good ones here, ultimately the show is a bit even-keeled and limited in its emotional range as it drives home the primary tenets of Wilson’s perseverance and tenacity, at times veering into TED Talk territory.
It’s probably fair to assume that early audiences for Wilson’s “How I Learned What I Learned” showed up for the man himself, as much — if not more — than the script. It was a chance to see a true living legend of American theater reflect on his life and espouse the wisdom picked up along the way. Any production of the play since Wilson’s death will lack that essential element of the playwright’s literal presence, but Nichols and director Carroll still offer up a poignant document of slice-of-life America that will likely resonate with audiences regardless of their familiarity with Wilson’s work, and hopefully inspire discoveries and rediscoveries of the plays that made him famous.
HOW I LEARNED WHAT I LEARNED
WHEN: Through May 7
WHERE: Le Petit Theatre, 616 St. Peter St.
TICKETS: $35-$65, students $15