William T. Newman Jr. in How I Learned What I Learned; photo courtesy of Avant Bard Theatre

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The plays of August Wilson are not a study in critical race theory. That’s true of all 10 dramas in his 20th-century cycle, and his autobiographical one man show, How I Learned What I Learned, which is receiving a well-staged D.C. premiere at Avant Bard Theatre in Arlington. Like his characters, Wilson encountered racism and prejudice while growing up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. But in his plays—including Seven Guitars, now running at Arena Stage—the injustices are more quotidian than systemic, and the flawed characters limited by bad luck and poor life choices.

 “We’re different,” repeats “The Performer,” the Wilson character who delivers a nearly two-hour monologue in How I Learned What a Learned. Those differences between races, he says, include proclaimed “facts” that Black men always flirt with waitresses and keep silent after witnessing crimes, two scenarios that surface frequently in his plays. And so viewers are asked to wrestle not only with an uncomfortable testimony of Black life in America, but whether or not this is the ideal testimony of Black life for theatergoers to hear in 2021. 

From the record seven shows created by Black artists now running on Broadway, to the new musical A Strange Loop now playing at Woolly Mammoth, it’s become easier to find Black stories onstage. That wasn’t the case when Wilson’s Fences opened at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1985, with James Earl Jones in the starring role. Like a theatrical messiah, the playwright was hailed for his realistic depictions of working class Black people navigating Steel City life. For the next two decades, Wilson reigned as America’s leading Black playwright. Before he died from cancer in 2005, he wrote a drama set in each decade of the 20th century, and in 2003, with help from his longtime collaborator Todd Kreidler, he debuted How I Learned

This is the show that separates the diehard Wilson fans from the people who have seen one or two plays and watched Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix. 

Avant Bard’s production ups the loyalty ante even more, because actor William T. Newman Jr. performs the entire monologue while wearing a clear plastic face mask. Presumably, after consulting with HVAC and medical experts, the theater determined this was the safest way to proceed. However, the mask creates both audio and visual barriers for the masked-and-vaxxed audience. Focusing on his voice is like listening to someone talk underwater, and while Newman seems to be an expressive, personable performer, it’s difficult to see his face. 

Setting directions in the script call for the stage to resemble, “The crucible in which many a work of art has been fired.” Set designer Megan Holden, a recent James Madison University graduate, interpreted that directive by laying an expanse of white panels on the floor and hanging stacks of ivory books from the ceiling. It’s a stunning arrangement for the black box at Gunston Performing Arts Center, but unfortunately, with bright lights over Newman’s head and white floors below, intense glares ricochet off the mask and back at the audience. 

All that to say, the stage is not set well for audiences to absorb difficult material. After an affable introduction, Newman launches into “My Ancestors,” the first of more than two-dozen subtitles that appear on cleverly framed screens on the rear wall. He starts by summarizing slavery: “For the first 244 years we never had a problem finding a job,” he says. “But since 1863, it’s been hell.”

Wilson’s own grandmother joined the Great Migration, leaving the Carolinas for western Pennsylvania, where Wilson was born to a Black woman and a White man, a baker, in 1945. He failed to finish high school, but notes, “I dropped out of school, but I didn’t drop out of life.” From there, Newman recounts prejudices, romances, and misadventures, including real life anecdotes that reoccur in his plays.

Wilson scholar Christopher Rawson (also a retired critic for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) has described How I Learned as “both a preamble and a coda to his 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle.” It’s almost eerie seeing Seven Guitars at Arena Stage within days of sitting down at Avant Bard: Those guitars sold at pawn shops? That love of jazz? The celebratory dinners at Oyster House? The homicidal rages of jealous men? All thinly veiled nonfiction. And while knowing Wilson himself faced horrific discrimination inspires empathy—as he describes a housewife hollering slurs while he mowed her lawn and a radio station that wouldn’t award his mother the new washing machine she won—Newman also shares a host of cringe-worthy recollections. Is it really that funny that a young Wilson pursued Snookie, a newly separated waitress, but dumped her for merely speaking with her husband? Or is it admirable that Wilson once watched a man kill another in a bar, and upheld a code of silence because the man murdered someone who insulted his wife? 

While Wilson was still alive, many White male critics and directors championed his work. Admirably, many saw backing Wilson as advocating for greater Black representation on Broadway and beyond. Seven months before Wilson died, I was one of the last journalists granted a one-on-one interview with the playwright. Wilson’s success cleared the way for Lynn Nottage, Katori Hall, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and so many other Black playwrights whose work I’ve since praised. But my admiration for the Bard of Pittsburgh hasn’t kept up with Wilson’s canonical veneration.

In the 16 years since Wilson’s death, American theater has benefited from overdue progress. From watching two Wilson plays this month, what I’ve learned is not to view Wilson as an icon, but as a creator of cultural touchstones. And while we’ll never know for sure, it’s worth hoping that, had Wilson lived beyond age 60, he would have kept learning too.    

August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned, co-conceived by Todd Kriedler and directed by DeMone Seraphin runs through  Dec. 19 at Avant Bard Theatre, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. avantbard.org. $40.