August Wilson's '11th play' needs to come home

Pittsburgh has gained another masterful self-portrait, to take its place with (among others) the famous Lewis Hines and W. Eugene Smith photos, Henry Koerner paintings, Romare Bearden collages and the 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle of August Wilson.

More important, the American theater has gained an 11th August Wilson play. When Wilson died in 2005, at only 60 years old, he had just finished the final installment of his cycle, one play set in each decade of the 20th century. But he also left what we can now call a coda, a self-portrait of the artist as a young man, written in 2003 with the collaboration of his assistant, dramaturg and friend, Todd Kreidler.

Wilson called this one-man monologue play "How I Learned What I Learned" and performed it himself in 2003 in Seattle, where he then lived, directed by Mr. Kreidler. His plan to act it himself at New York's Signature Theatre in 2005 was canceled by his illness and death. But last fall it was reborn in a full production at that same theater, performed by one of the leading Wilsonian actors, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, whom, as he lay dying, Wilson specifically designated as the play's first performer. The director again was Mr. Kreidler, Wilson's original collaborator.

The result, which ended its two-month run Dec. 29, makes it clear that "How I Learned," although a coda to the Pittsburgh Cycle in one sense, is biographically a prequel. In it, Wilson portrays himself, just 20 and still 15 years from beginning to think himself a playwright, as having left his mother's house and going out to live on his own in the Hill and learn about life.

Or as he famously put it in speeches and talks, "I grew up without a father. When I was 20, I went down onto Centre Avenue to learn from the community how to be a man."

The result is 90 minutes of reminiscence, life lessons and especially story after wonderful story -- and some anger. He once told an interviewer, "Pittsburgh is a very hard city, especially if you're black," and another, "when I was 22 years old, each day had to be continually negotiated. It was rough."

Appropriately, then, the set design by David Gallo (designer of Wilson's last Broadway plays) featured a raised platform, perhaps a dock where slave ships arrived, perhaps a slave auction platform. But with corner posts, it seemed most of all a boxing ring, the setting for a turbulent youth.

Above it soared a rear cyclorama of paper, seemingly thousands of pages of manuscript, a sky full of creation made colorful (or from behind, luminous) by lights, creating dramatic effects appropriate to the stories being told. Around and beneath the raised platform was apparent debris: fence slats, chains, a trumpet and so on. They were obvious references, to those who know them, to the 10 cycle plays; but covered in dust and barely visible to the audience, they stood for the unspoken history felt by playwright and performer.

Mr. Santiago-Hudson arrived on stage in an "I am supposed to be white" T-shirt, referring to the supposed "standard" against which black Americans have been regularly measured. But amid a truculent opening about the slave trade was a touch of the Mr. Rogers theme song and a proud memory of the accepting message of that other great Pittsburgher.

The text uses first person: Wilson talking. Initially, perhaps because I knew him and talked with him often, I puzzled over whether Mr. Santiago-Hudson was trying to play Wilson. But quickly this fine actor turned into the rich voice of the words and the knowing interpreter of the variously raucous, thoughtful, funny memories. He was Wilson's instrument, tackling the text knowingly, wittily and above all briskly, asking us to lean forward and take it in. Ninety minutes flew by.

Wilson biographers will find much of value in this landscape of memory, and Wilson was famous for his encyclopedic memory. But what we learn is also particular to time, place, personality and even exaggeration for effect. The Hill did have a population of 55,000 at its peak, but it only seemed to the young August that 54,000 were black. He talks of the shops, bars, the gatherings of 300 people on street corners and especially the people he knew, teachers, friends and some artists who went on to significant careers, but some who will live mainly in these stories.

Mainly, we hear about (mis)adventures with various women and their other male friends, the time he went to jail (it was a misunderstanding) and the night he discovered the poetry of jazz, standing outside the Crawford Grill while John Coltrane played.

We know perfectly well he could have written more such plays, using his many other memories. This is a sketch of a personal history of the Hill as it gave birth to a great American artist. Would he had lived to give us more chapters.

In New York, in addition to Mr. Gallo's stage design and projections, "How I Learned" was distinguished by Thom Weaver's, Dan Moses Schreier's and Constanza Romero's evocative lights, sound and costumes. We deserve to have "How I Learned" staged in Pittsburgh at a similarly high professional level.

The Pittsburgh Public Theater and Pittsburgh Playwrights and just a half-dozen or so more American companies have completed the 10 plays of the Pittsburgh Cycle. But now there's one more lap to run.

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.

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