But as you leave the theater at the end of the 150-minute performance, marveling at Wilson’s memories of his years as an aspiring writer in the African American-dominated Hill District of Pittsburgh, Penn., the play’s format, and its main character – make that only character – shine brightest.
Directed by Margot Hall, “How I Learned What I Learned” is an autobiographical one-man show making its Bay Area premiere at MTC, with subsequent performances at Buriel Clay Theater in San Francisco in February and the Ubuntu Theater Project in Oakland in March. It revolves entirely around actor Steven Anthony Jones’ portrayal of Wilson, who performed the one-man show himself in Seattle in 2003, two years before his death.
Jones is front and center for the play’s entirety, delivering thousands of words built around Wilson’s memories, adages and anecdotes about his experiences, with only the occasional typeset cues, projected onto a backdrop of hanging sheets of paper of different sizes, to lean on for transition.
Those anecdotes spanned the many jobs Wilson quit after racist mistreatment by bosses who assumed the worst about him. “Something is not always better than nothing,” he says, later lamenting “a job that required you to accept the fact that your boss didn’t respect your humanity.”
In a commanding performance, Jones not only captures Wilson’s physical appearance and gravity of thought, he also evokes his potent mix of righteous anger and riotous humor, delivering an engaging, often hilarious portrait of a man whose life, and work, was so directly impacted by the racism he recounts as “an inheritance unworthy of our grandchildren.”
A longtime company member of the American Conservatory Theater and the former artistic director at the Lorraine Hansberry, Jones’ showcased a deft ability to deliver across an array of non-linear topics, from Wilson’s romantic involvement with a married woman named Snookie to his pal Cy Morocco’s determination to perform like his jazz hero John Coltrane, despite lacking the ability to play the horn.
Jones remained deeply engaging throughout, never moreso than when he removed his jacket to reveal a t-shirt that proclaims, ”I am supposed to be white,” drawing uproarious laughter, only to follow that with virtuous indignation: ”We are an African people. We have our own history and we are not black by the accident of our birth.”