Renowned playwright’s life is a story in itself; Steven Anthony Jones brings it to life
By Lee Juillerat for Ashland.news
Playwright August Wilson died in 2005. But he seems very much alive as portrayed by Steven Anthony Jones in “How I Learned What I Learned” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.
In an incredibly involving performance, Jones makes it easy to forget that it’s not Wilson on the stage of the Angus Bowmer Theatre. During the one-act, hour and 45-minute performance, Jones has the stage to himself, creating a persona that feels genuinely real and convincing, one where audiences have to remind themselves that, no, it’s not Wilson, it’s Jones.
Wilson was the award-winning author of several celebrated plays, including some — “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Fences,” “Gem of the Ocean,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” and “Seven Guitars” — that were performed at OSF over the decades. Wilson won Pulitzer Prizes, a Tony Award, and New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, along with other honors for his plays, which are mostly set in Pittsburgh. Born Frederick August Kittel, he wrote under his mother’s surname, Daisy Wilson.
“How I Learned,” a play that Wilson performed until his death, chronicles his upbringing in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a predominantly Black area. Based on Wilson’s telling, it was a life well lived, with its share of ups and downs and, as he relates, incidents of racism.
Wilson’s stories — his battles with a nun at a Catholic school, teenage forays with pretty girls, short-term jobs, his early flirtations with writing — animate, enliven and create a persona of the author. Although often filled with laughs, the vignettes more significantly provide a sense of growing up Black in America.
Jones truly brings Wilson alive in his performance, changing from laughingly telling light-hearted recollections to anger-spewed denunciations of racist-tinged comments. Because he seamlessly shifts gears, Jones creates a performance that never feels like “acting,” but one that seems genuinely and thoroughly Wilson. As one audience member said after the play, several times it was necessary to pause and remember, no, it’s not August Wilson telling his story, it’s Steven Anthony Jones.
Wilson’s reminiscences are many, sharing and revealing his pride in being Black. They range from an affair with a married woman and, later, meeting her and her gun-carrying husband in a bar to spending four nights in jail for not paying his rent. He tells of quitting a job because a woman didn’t want a Black mowing her lawn, staying silent because of possible repercussions after witnessing a murder, and learning how people could be “stunned into silence by the power of art” while hearing jazz saxophonist John Coltrane perform.
The often genial but focused tone is actually established moments into the play when Wilson/Jones, smiling brightly and directly to the audience, talks about his history of slavery in America then draws laughs after brightly declaring, “My ancestors have been in America since the early 17th Century and for the first 244 years we never had a problem finding a job.”
In one the most impacting stories, Wilson tells of being at a social gathering where a white person approaches him and confidently says, “I’m colorblind.” An agitated Wilson then asks the man why he doesn’t make the same comment to white people.
Directed by Tim Bond, the play’s impacting words and performance are enhanced by the production, including staging, subtle mood shifts and, even more, its literally electric lighting design.
But it’s Jones’ performance that makes “How I Learned What I Learned” real.
August Wilson is alive and well in Ashland.
Email freelance writer Lee Juillerat at firstname.lastname@example.org.