A sea of blank pages looms behind Eugene Lee at the BU Theatre as he enacts early chapters in the life of a singular literary figure, the late August Wilson, who made it his business to fill up as many pages as he could with extraordinary dramas that illuminated the African-American experience in the 20th century.
Wilson’s pride, humor, eloquence, anger, storytelling gifts, and general eagerness to soak up experience: It’s all there in Lee’s portrayal of the playwright in a Huntington Theatre Company production of “August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned,’’ an autobiographical solo show.
Co-conceived and directed by Todd Kreidler, “How I Learned’’ is aptly titled. Although Wilson dropped out of school at 15, he repaired immediately to the library, and the discipline of learning remained at the center of his being.
Lee sketches an impressionistic portrait of the young writer as he finds his voice — and his voices — while knocking around the rugged yet vital streets of the Hill District in Pittsburgh, deftly evoked by David Gallo’s set. Better than any MFA program when it came to furnishing inspiration and material for a dramatist, the neighborhood would be the setting for all but one of the 10 plays in Wilson’s Century Cycle (also known as the Pittsburgh Cycle), each of which takes place in a different decade.
Only intermittently does anything momentous happen in this 100-minute monologue. But among the friends, lovers, acquaintances, and co-workers with whom Wilson interacts, we can glimpse outlines of the freewheeling, outsize characters who populate his plays. We can see, too, the habits of observation, fierce will, and intensity of focus, along with the poetic sensibility, that helped make him one of America’s greatest playwrights. Lee captures Wilson’s seriousness of purpose but also his capacity for joy and wonder.
Wilson was soft-spoken in person, but he never lowered the volume on his opinions, especially when it came to racism, which he describes in “How We Learned’’ as “an inheritance unworthy of our grandchildren, because it puts an encumbrance on their lives. Yet, these attitudes are still alive today.’’
What separates artists from the rest of us is what they make of the things that happen to them. Nearly 40 when he broke through as a playwright with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,’’ Wilson was only 60 when he died of liver cancer in 2005. Yet he packed immense achievement into those two decades, and “How I Learned’’ makes clear how many stories and characters he was gathering before then, whether consciously or not.
Born Frederick August Kittel, Wilson was the son of a white German immigrant father and an African-American mother. His father is mentioned fleetingly in “How I Learned,’’ and even then only as an aside while talking about someone else. You could say that Wilson’s silence on the subject of his father speaks volumes in and of itself, but it still feels like a significant missed opportunity.
However, his mother, Daisy Wilson, is a frequent and vivid presence in the monologue. Her influence can be traced in Wilson’s lifelong, non-negotiable insistence on respect, which led him to quit several jobs rather than accept the kind of slights to which black people were routinely subjected. The bigotry and the need to push back against it is a constant theme in “How I Learned’’; Wilson’s renown gave him no immunity from racism, as Lee makes clear in an anecdote about a bank teller who tried to demean the playwright when he went to cash a check from the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
But most of the monologue focuses on Wilson in his 20s, two decades before the 1984 production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’’ at Yale Repertory Theatre heralded the emergence of a major new playwright. Lee’s Wilson describes the poets and painters he hung out with as a young man — “People who became my lifelong friends and, ultimately, sanctioned my life and provided it with its meaning.’’ He tells of his affair with a married woman, and of listening to the old men at Pat’s Place in Pittsburgh, “trying to learn something about life,’’ and the times that violence brushed right up against him. There was a period when he could not afford his rent even though it was only $25 every two weeks (for a 20-year-old poet, he says, “you have no idea how much money that was’’).
His inability to pay led to several days in jail, but Wilson found something lyrical in even that ordeal: The memory of being in his cell listening to another inmate with a strong voice, singing a song popularized by Charlie Parker. The scene makes one think of those occasions in Wilson’s plays that are touched with sudden grace. For a writer like August Wilson, no moment was wasted.
AUGUST WILSON’S HOW I LEARNED WHAT I LEARNED
By August Wilson. Co-conceived and directed by Todd Kreidler. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At BU Theatre, Boston, through April 3. Tickets: 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.