By Melonnie Walker, with Michael Downing
The authorized text of August Wilson’s autobiographical one-man show, How I Learned What I Learned, was released by Theatre Communications Group on June 12, 2018 and is selling on Amazon (with a stock delay) and Books-A-Million.
The book will be available on Jan. 1, 2019 on other outlets, including Barnes & Noble.
This play joins TCG’s other August Wilson American Century Cycle plays, which have been published previously.
Written by Wilson in 2003, the playwright originally performed the play himself. It has gone on to be performed across the country by other actors, including Eugene Lee.
The play is the autobiographical story of August’s journey through the challenges of growing up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, and eventually leading to his emergence as one of the top playwrights of the 20th Century.
We asked August Wilson Society members to share their thoughts about the significance of this release and offer insights about the inspiration for the play.
Dr. Vivian Spencer of Anne Arundel Community College (retired) measures the play’s content against current movements of our time, such as Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and the marches for Racial Justice, Natives, National Pride, Women and Immigrants, in her essay, “Lessons Learned”:
“In this volatile time period of racial, political, sexual, and ethical problems, playwright August Wilson provides the answer to many of our daily challenges in his soon-to-be released manuscript, How I Learned What I Learned. Throughout the work, Wilson provides possible solutions to the complications of society by providing a series vignettes from his own life similar to those that many of us face today.
“In How I Learned, Wilson clearly illustrates ways in which ‘living life with dignity’ is made relatively impossible for many in the United States due to attitudes passed from generation to generation. Due to these opposing perspectives, there arise confrontations that hinge on respect. Wilson pointedly explains, ‘It’s about R-E-S-P-E-C-T. . . . Demand Respect from everyone. The government, your schools, your church, your parents, your lover, yourself… If it cost you your life then you have lived a good life and die an honorable death… It’s about P-R-I-N-C-I-P-L-E-S. Principles by which I have lived my entire life.’”
Dr. Larry Glasco of the University of Pittsburgh summarizes the play and gives us some perspective about creative license, in his essay “How I Learned What I Learned: Theatre Versus Life”:
“How I Learned What I Learned is an outstanding, autobiographical play about August Wilson’s experiences on and around Centre Avenue when he was in his early twenties. The play is autobiographical, but should not be read literally. As theater, it is free to embellish for dramatic effect.
“One humorous example of this is the treatment of Snookie, a tall, thin, dark, attractive waitress in Pope’s Restaurant, where August spent hours hanging out, drinking coffee, and writing. August fell in love with, and began dating Snookie, who unfortunately was married. In the play, August says that his time with Snookie taught him the dangers of dating a married woman.
“In the play, August and Snookie went to the 88 Bar on a date. Unfortunately, Snookie’s husband Billy happened to be there. Billy placed a gun on the bar and told August he had planned to shoot him until Snookie talked him out of it. Frozen with fear, August was relieved when the bartender walked up and told Billy to put the gun back in his pocket. Billy did so, and then, surprisingly, bought August a beer. He told August how much he loved Snookie, and asked him to take good care of her. Then, to August’s consternation, Billy began crying! Alarmed by the sight of a crying Nigger with a loaded gun, August eased out of the bar and ran as far and fast as he could. And he broke up with Snookie.
“That is the account in the play. But an interview with Snookie, whose real name was Willa Mae Montague, shows how the play mixes life and theater. Willa Mae remembers the meeting, but was separated from her husband, who never brandished a gun or said he planned to kill August. In fact, she says laughing, the two men got along and used to come by together to see her. Ultimately, she decided she didn’t want either one of them because she was too young. As for her husband crying and telling August to take care of his wife, she says ‘That didn’t happen. That’s theater versus real life.’”