Keeping an audience’s attention all on your own for over an hour takes a skill and focus that many actors don’t possess. Especially when it comes to sharing ideas as well as stories. Thank the stars that Ruben Santiago-Hudson is one of that rare breed who not only possess this skill – he makes it look easy. And considering that the author of the text, August Wilson, is no lightweight, it makes for an evening that is layered and memorable.
Santiago-Hudson enters from the audience and glides onto the extraordinary set by David Gallo that is part office and part platform – akin to a place from which slave might have been auctioned – and tells us
My ancestors have been in America since the early seventeenth century. And for the first two hundred and forty-four years we never had a problem finding a job. But since 1863 it’s been hell. It’s been hell because the ideas and attitudes that America had toward slaves followed them out of slavery and became entrenched in the nation’s psyche.
Wilson’s story is a travelogue not only through time, but through the racism that followed him throughout his life and the poetry that he made of it. There was the Catholic Church where Monsignor Connare announced in 1965 that blacks would be welcomed. The next Sunday there were three people left in the congregation.
Monsignor Connare got fired. That’s when I knew that the Catholic Church was immoral. Because if they had an morality he would’ve got a promotion.
We are introduced to “The Set.” These are the four parallel streets where life was played out in Pittsburgh. At 15 Wilson dropped out of high school and went directly to the library. Five years later he left the library for “The Set.” He fell into a crowd of artists, one of whom advised Wilson what to do when, not if, he went to jail. In 1965 jail was a forgone conclusion for a black man in Pittsburgh.
Mentors taught him there was always a way around or through an obstacle surrounded him. Wilson watched, listened and learned. He set about to do whatever he had to do to survive and be a writer. Part of that journey was learning not to sell out. When someone advised him against stealing before he began his first shift, Wilson quit. Ditto when the man who hired him to cut lawns would not stand up to the woman who didn’t want a black man on her property.
Back at the library he was chewing his way through one book after another. Science led him to table manners that led him to Guy De Maupassant that led him on, and on, and onward. From his mother he learned that Something is not always better than nothing. The Hill was a never-ending course in l-i-f-e.
And the racism followed him everywhere he went. When he received his first check from the Mark Taper Forum, the teller had to have the money pulled out of her cold white fingers. Years later in Boston he confronted a man who professed that he sis not see color. The confrontation caused the man to label Wilson as too sensitive.
The show concludes abruptly with the chapter called How Do You Know What You Know where suddenly Wilson is tying up his story with philosophy. It is such a swift change that I later had to look at the script to see if I missed something. I didn’t. Both Wilson and Santiago-Hudson are born raconteurs, and the stories tumble one into another with ease and specificity. But the sharp right turn we take into a conclusion is costly. It feels as though Wilson suddenly remembered that he wanted to make a point that is outside of the many points he makes in his story. You can almost hear the tires screech as they take the corner.
There is more than enough to create a longer piece that would land squarely on target. Here is hoping this team goes for the gusto someday. In the mean time, you can rely on Wilson and Santiago-Hudson to gift you with a fine, very fine evening.
August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned – In collaboration with Ruben Santiago-Hudson; performed by Mr. Santiago-Hudson; co-conceived and directed by Todd Kreidler; sets and projections by David Gallo; costumes by/associate artist, Constanza Romero; lighting by Thom Weaver; sound by Dan Moses Schreier; production stage manager, Winnie Y. Lok; associate artistic director, Beth Whitaker; general manager, Adam Bernstein; director of production, Paul Ziemer. Presented by Signature Theater, James Houghton, artistic director; Erika Mallin, executive director. At the Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, Clinton, 212-244-7529, signaturetheatre.org. Through Dec. 29. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.