Anyone who knew August Wilson will tell you that he was a gifted raconteur — and that’s an understatement. The man could talk. And talk. And talk. He would spend hours regaling eager listeners at “The Spot,” the name he gave to his cafe of choice in many a town. The late playwright, who is celebrated for his cycle of 10 plays that chronicle the black experience in America, spun tales extemporaneously.
He told stories about his mother, Daisy Wilson, about the street folks and poets he knew while growing up in Pittsburgh, about junkies he bailed out of jail, about life lived and lessons learned. He could even turn a subject as innocuous as a remote control into an entertaining saga.
Time would pass quickly when Wilson talked, and suddenly you would look up and realize that you missed the last train. The playwright’s long-time collaborator Todd Kreidler refers to this as “August Wilson Time.” He explains, “You would fall under the spell of his storytelling and minutes would turn into hours and hours would turn into days.”
Kreidler wants to capture that experience in “How I Learned What I Learned,’’ the autobiographical one-person show that he co-conceived with Wilson before the writer’s death in 2005. The play, which begins previews Saturday and runs through April 3 at the Huntington Theatre Company’s Boston University Theatre, is a portrait of the artist as a young man. The mature Wilson looks back on his adventures as a 20-year-old poet wandering the streets of the Hill District, the scrappy neighborhood in Pittsburgh where he grew up and the setting for most of his plays. He weaves yarns about characters like the poet Chawley Williams and Cy Morocco, an “ugly dude” with a generous soul. He recalls standing outside a bar listening to the music of John Coltrane and being “stunned into silence by the power of art.”
The play takes place in “August Wilson Time.” One minute he’ll be telling a story about his mother and a washing machine, and the next he’ll be recounting a yarn about being jailed for three days for failing to pay the rent. He recalls the innocence of youth — a first kiss, stolen while his seventh-grade math teacher Sister Mary Eldephonse was looking the other way — as well as coming-of-age encounters with racism and violence. The playwright, who died of cancer at 60, was never short on stories. And those stories resonate with Eugene Lee, who takes on the role at the Huntington.
“There are so many common denominators that I have discovered,” says Lee, who has performed in many a Wilson play. “I learned some very similar lessons along my journey. I grew up in Texas, but I come from the same America that August comes from. So it is a joy. It is an honor and a pleasure.”
The story of how the play was conceived has all the elements of a Wilson tale. The playwright, who lived his last years in Seattle with his wife, costume designer Constanza Romero, and their daughter, Azula, agreed to perform at a 2003 benefit for the Seattle Repertory Theatre, but he didn’t have anything prepared. He was busy working on his other plays, and time passed. Shortly before the event, he called Kreidler, his dramaturg, and asked him to help shape the piece and to direct it. Kreidler, who began working with Wilson in 1999, had spent several years gathering Wilson’s stories, writing them down on napkins at coffee shops, storing them away in the corners of his brain. The two had often discussed penning a one-man show: They batted around titles like “I Am Not Spalding Gray” and “Move Over, Chris Rock.” But when it came down to the deadline, they didn’t have a single word on paper.
Kreidler told Wilson he had a plan, but the night he agreed to direct and co-conceive the piece was ridden with anxiety. “I did not sleep that night out of excitement and abject terror,” he recalls.
Kreidler flew out to Seattle. Wilson worked out of an office in the basement of his stately Seattle home. It was, in Romero’s description, a “man cave in a dark and icky space,” and few were allowed in the spot where the characters spoke to the playwright. Kreidler showed up and really wanted to eat breakfast first, but Wilson made him go down to the basement, where he had set up a desk for Kreidler in his private writer’s lair. “I don’t think you could put an Academy Award in my hand and it would have felt any better,” Kreidler says.
Kreidler, now 41, was just in his 20s at the time. “August thought of Todd as the son he never had,” Romero says. She recalls going down to the basement one morning while the two were working on the one-man show. They were zonked out at their desks, sound asleep in their chairs.
The two men put together the play in a process akin to a jazz session, trying out one story next to another and working into the wee hours. “August was a blues man with a jazz mind,” Kreidler says.
Ultimately, Wilson performed the show at Seattle Rep in 2003, but the production was not without hiccups. Wilson expected the theater to advertise the show with a poster, but the Rep failed to produce one. Wilson, who once had refused to allow a white director to film his play “Fences,” was irate. Kreidler had to talk him down. The lack of a poster became a signifier for lack of respect. “He had a passion for demanding what is owed to you as a human being,” Romero says. “He had a way of being a warrior.” She told set designer David Gallo that she always imagined her husband as if he were in a boxing ring, and Gallo’s set for the Huntington production, which features a raised platform, reflects that fighting spirit.
The Seattle Rep performance was a one-time gig, and when Wilson was dying, he gave the play to Kreidler and asked him to direct it with another actor. The grief-stricken Kreidler couldn’t look at it, though, and years passed. Finally, Romero told him he had to direct it. “I told Todd he had to get out of the shroud of grief he had wrapped himself in and let that beautiful work they did together shine.” Ruben Santiago-Hudson, an alum of many Wilson plays, performed the play in 2013, and Lee performed it last year at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, where many in the audience were familiar with the characters and places mentioned in the play. “You could feel that recognition,” Lee says. “It was palpable.”
Lee says his task is not to imitate Wilson, but conjure his essence. “You don’t act it,’’ he says. “You sing it.” Kreidler, who is directing, is adamant that this is not a Daniel Day-Lewis exercise in morphing into a character, but rather an attempt to bring Wilson to life through his storytelling
And the production is a homecoming for the Huntington, where Wilson tried out many of his plays. “How I Learned What I Learned” introduces us to the people who shaped the artist and his plays. There are echoes of Gabriel in “Fences” and Hambone in “Two Trains Running” in the characters Wilson recalls from his youth in Pittsburgh. The play was originally subtitled “How I Learned What I Learned, and How What I Learned Has Led Me to the Places I Wanted to Go, Sometimes Unwillingly, It Is the Crucible in Which Many a Work of Art Has Been Fired.” That’s a bit rambling, in a Wilson way. But the crucible is vital, and the goal is to shed light on how the young artist was forged. And the play is on “August Wilson Time,” which was a rare and beautiful thing.
HOW I LEARNED WHAT I LEARNED
By August Wilson. Co-conceived and directed by Todd Kreidler. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Boston University Theatre, March 5 to April 3. Tickets: $25-$99, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org
Patti Hartigan can be reached at email@example.com.