By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Lance E. Nichols has played many roles in his stellar movie and TV career, but the opportunity to emulate playwright August Wilson in the autobiographical work How I Learned What I Learned may be his most rewarding and meaningful stage effort to date.
Wilson co-conceived and developed this memoir play with fellow playwright Todd Kreidler (Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner), who directed its premiere in 2003 at the Seattle Rep. It starred Wilson in his only solo outing as an actor.
Told with eloquence in the language of the street, the story is firmly centered about Wilson and his life up to that juncture, which was quite remarkable. After completing seven Broadway openings and receiving two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, Wilson was preparing to open Gem of the Ocean on Broadway and was two years away from finishing Radio Golf, his tenth and final play in what scholars refer to variously as the “Pittsburgh Cycle” or “American Century Cycle.” Kreidler served as the dramaturg for both those works.
With his documentation of the American Black experience, Wilson was already considered America’s greatest Black playwright and, indeed, had established himself as a member of the pantheon of America’s most important playwrights. Like Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams before him, Wilson was also a poet. But his agility with expression was more gritty and guttural than those of mere love sonnets or romantic poetry and reflected his urban upbringing, tempered by his experience:
Is burning. The cauldron boiling –
Come to add to the brute
Spectacle of thing on the heart.
Things hidden over. Covered
with the visage of the city:
Rivers, hills with houses,
Bridges stretched from point
To Point. Old bridges that
Creak and shake in the sun
Sadly, Wilson never lived to see his final installment open at the Cort Theatre on Broadway in 2007, because he succumbed to liver cancer in October of 2005, a few months after Radio Golf had its world premiere at the Yale Repertory.
But at that juncture, Wilson was still very healthy and he used How I Learned What I Learned, to reflect back on his life growing up in the Pittsburgh Hill District as Freddie Kittel, Jr. and to provide commentary on the Black experience.
There is tremendous conflict within Wilson’s voice and it’s complicated. He recalls meeting Fred Rogers one day at a local TV station. Rogers shook his hand and said “You’re always welcome in my neighborhood.”
Nichols acknowledges how good that made Wilson feel, but then notes:
“They weren’t saying that when we moved into Hazelwood on Flowers Avenue when they threw bricks into the window with a note tied around it that said “Stay out n***s!”
Wilson, who never really knew his father, a German Sudetenland immigrant, took his middle name August for his first name and took his mother’s maiden name of Wilson for his surname when beginning his writing career.
The 90-minute play utilizes projections with typewriter sound effects that spell out various topics or names of significant people who had an impact on Wilson’s life.
What is important to learn from this play is that all of these personal interactions, aggressions and discriminatory behavior he experienced found life in the characters of his 10-play cycle. Indeed, Nichols emoting as Wilson. speaks directly to the point that he is in a very good space, despite it all. He may have endured hardships and fought hard to be accepted on his own terms, but he is largely satisfied with the outcome that he achieved despite the naysayers and those who put obstacles in his path.
“To arrive at this moment in my life, I have traveled many roads, some circuitous, some brambled and rough, some sharp and straight, and all of them have led as if by some grand design to the one burnished with art and small irrevocable tragedies,” he says near the work’s end.
There is also a reference to music in the work and an almost reverential description about saxophone innovator John Coltrane and his ethic towards learning from others. We are advised that it is possible to say the wrong thing to the wrong person at the right time and be able to get away with it. Conversely, saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time could get you killed. Nichols relates one of Wilson’s stories with bluntness and a philosophical resignation that sometimes killing can be justified.
There is an innate joy with which Nichols assumes the persona of Wilson. Even when he relates the angst or disgust of the playwright, there is an almost imperceptible acknowledgment that he is delighting in sharing his story. Nichols had played feature roles in two of Wilson’s plays including Le Petit’s The Piano Lesson that only played for one week in 2020 before the pandemic shut it down. He understands, as much as any man can, who August Wilson was and how he navigated through White America.
Nichols holds the rapt attention of the audience throughout the play, sometimes singing, sometimes getting angry, sometimes humorously recounting early attempts at finding love. In addition to finding out about Wilson’s first kiss, Nichols treats us to instances where he was put in harm’s way. The scene “Shut Mouth” explains how he ended up on the wrong end of an argument with a drug dealer friend’s wife, who wanted to explain matters at the sharp point of a knife. All of this came about because he opened his mouth to the wrong person, despite having been warned of the dire consequences. He even spends time with the audience in jail. But his ease at channeling the late playwright’s words and recounting all of his stories seem as natural and effortless as when he dons Wilson’s iconic Borsolino.
Very well directed by Jade King Carroll, this is an impressive work by a great actor recalling a talented and tormented genius. Kudos to Don-Scott Cooper, producing executive director, and consulting producer Tommye Myrick Le Petit for this joint production with Portland Stage that played earlier in Maine. Scenic and projection designs by Anita Stewart are fantastic with wonderful sound design by Germán Martinez. Betsy Chester handles the lighting designs, while the costuming by Loyce L. Arthur helps transform Nichols’ sterling performance. This play gives audiences a deep dive into the psyche of Austin Wilson like they’ve never seen before.
Lance Nichols is August Wilson in How I Learned What I Learned (80 minutes, no intermission) at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré, 616 St. Peter Street, in New Orleans. For tickets click here.