Avant Bard Theatre kicks off it’s 2021-2022 in-person theatre season with a meditation on what it means to be Black in America through the life experiences of August Wilson in “How I Learned What I Learned,” performed at the black box at Gunston Arts Center.
Avant Bard’s production is smooth, supple, and a life lesson in grace under pressure—and so is Newman’s portrayal.
It’s an interesting play, full of touches from 60 plus years ago and still so terribly relevant (I know—relevant is an overused word but it’s fitting for this show) as to how the Black community is treated—from micro-aggressions and stereotypical bias spewed about to policing. Evidently Mr. Wilson was not a man to easily tolerate being treated as less than. In his portrayal of Wilson, William T. Newman Jr. makes clear his anger and disgust in a most civilized way. He rarely raises his voice, but when he becomes emphatic, you feel the volcano underneath in your bones that Wilson so brilliantly channeled into his written work.
The play starts with Wilson leaving school at 15 and continuing his education through the public library system in Pittsburgh. He needed to work to bring in money to the family. His early days as an aspiring poet are chronicled as well as some of his influences as he was testing his fledgling artist’s muscles. He tries for a number of jobs, but politely and determinedly either refuses to take them or quits when his race is thrown in his face, even before he officially starts. Somehow he cobbles together a series of jobs that at least keep him in his apartment—for a few months (at $25 a week and this is not easy, even in 1965). He ends up spending about three days in jail but remembers the name of the lawyer that a friend gave him for “when he was arrested.” That is the reality in 1965 of a young Black man—sooner or later you will be arrested because you are black. That is still too often that case in 2021.
We learn about his first long-term relationship with a woman who had left her husband. In the end, not only did Wilson lose the woman (she went back to her husband) but her husband pulled a gun on him. (Then they drank a beer together; it has to be a “man” thing.) Along the way we get glimpses of the friends he made—artists, musicians, poets, and writers—all Black and all striving in spite of soul-killing menial labor and Jim Crow attitudes, even up north. We learn what he learned from his mother—to never allow yourself to be treated as less than human. It’s a lesson he took to heart and held true to.
For all its underlying racial tension, the play is often funny. Wilson was an observer and even as he was shaking his head at the absurdities all around, he was storing them up and using them in pointed and comical commentary through his writing. Newman does a masterful job of channeling Wilson’s anger, frustration, and humor—and the hope that just shines through these life lessons. He does it in a warm and intimate manner that feels more like a conversation than a lecture.
DeMone Seraphim (Helen Hayes nominee for the direction of “Topdog/Underdog” at Avant Bard a couple of seasons ago) directs this play with a light touch. Wilson’s words are given the space to come alive. That space is also included in the set designed by Megan Holden—a series of “columns” made from hanging frames and stacks of paper and a beautiful, traditional desk anchoring the back of the stage. All the materials are real—wood and paper—underscoring the reality of Wilson’s life experiences. Paris Francesca designed the costume(s) that Wilson wears from the initial sweatshirt that reads on the front “I Am Supposed To Be White” to the creased trousers and overcoat and brimmed hat. David Lamont Wilson is the sound designer and composer and the music evokes the different moods of the lessons. Lighting designer John D. Alexander keeps the lighting intimate and soft, befitting a conversation, even one about hard things.
Avant Bard’s production is smooth, supple, and a life lesson in grace under pressure—and so is Newman’s portrayal. It makes for a provocative, thoughtful, and yet relaxing evening. You leave the theatre feeling the warmth of truth and hope.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.
Show Advisory: Some mildly adult language; some references to alcohol and drugs.
August Wilson’s “How I Learned What I Learned” runs through December 19, 2021 at Avant Bard Theatre at Gunston Arts Center 2, Arlington, VA 22206. For more information, please click here.