Early in How I Learned What I Learned, August Wilson’s one-man autobiography, Wilson (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) turns away from the audience and removes a shirt, revealing another under it which reads I AM AN ACCIDENT THIS DID NOT TURN OUT RIGHT. When he pivots to face the audience, we see printed on the front: I AM SUPPOSED TO BE WHITE. “Like my T-shirt?” he asks. “I got this on eBay. Got it from a man named Clarence Thomas.” This moment is typical of How I Learned What I Learned, a pleasing work that is funnier than it needs to be but lighter than it should be.
Mostly, Wilson’s monologue covers the years before he was a successful playwright, back when he was a poet living in the Hill District of Pittsburgh—an area that was “a third-world country” located four minutes away from the affluent downtown. His monologue meanders through unsuccessful relationships, war stories from the streets, and reflections on race in America; a common refrain is “Something Is Not Always Better than Nothing,” a mantra he inherited from his mother who would always choose dignity over comfort when confronting racism. Occasionally, Wilson’s writing shows its age, particularly when discussing women. Mr. Santiago-Hudson consistently uses an awkward, condescending, high-pitched voice when impersonating Wilson’s lovers, and at one point he says that a white person observing a Black man asking a waitress, “Look here, mama, what’s your phone number?” mistakenly assumes this cultural difference is “harassment”—in this case, I think, that white person would be right.
Otherwise, Mr. Santiago-Hudson is perfectly charming, a good actor and a great storyteller who holds our attention for ninety minutes that admittedly should have been eighty. Mr. Rogers even makes an appearance: in 1957 he told Wilson, “You’re always welcome in this neighborhood,” one of the more heartening moments in a story dominated by heroin, prison, and emasculation. Ultimately, How I Learned What I Learned does not contain any powerful insights or memorable theatrical moments; it is a modest but amiable reflection on a youth spent in artistic aspiration or, as Wilson puts it, searching for “the limitation of the instrument.”
How I Learned What I Learned runs through December 29th at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre. 480 W. 42nd Street New York, NY. 1 hour 30 minutes. No intermission.