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Ashland Theater Review: "How I Learned What I Learned"

HowILearned1.jpg
Jenny Graham
/
Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Steven Anthony Jones in How I Learned What I Learned

How I Learned what I Learned, August Wilson’s one-man show about his life and work, is now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Wilson, who died in 2005, was one of America’s finest playwrights. Author of Fences, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson and many others, Wilson traced a history of Blacks in Pittsburg with ten plays set in ten different decades.

Wilson co-conceived his one-man show with Todd Kriedler, and he performed it as long as he could. Several other actors took it over after his death, but I doubt that any of them could surpass Steven Anthony Jones, who brings Wilson to vivid life in the Bowmer Theatre.

HowILearned2.jpg
Jenny Graham
/
Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Steven Anthony Jones in How I Learned What I Learned

With his versatile voice, cunning moves and wicked humor, Jones conjures up a barrel full of eccentric characters from Wilson’s life, or perhaps his imagination. As Wilson tells it, he led a rough and tumble, picaresque existence in Pittsburg’s Hill District, along with Blacks from all walks of life.

His storytelling encompasses his dropping out of school in tenth grade, his first bawdy adventures, his desire to write, and a seemingly endless supply of hilarious tales. Underlying all of his stories is a strong sense of what it means to be Black in America.

This play ran two hours without intermission on opening night, probably because there was so much laughter. Ninety minutes would have been satisfying. Two hours is pulverizing. Nevertheless, I’m glad I saw it. One endearing thing we learn from the brilliant Wilson is that he was his mother’s child. Like her, he was unbendingly certain that he deserved, from everyone, R E S P E C T.

Dorothy Velasco has reviewed productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for KLCC since 1985.
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