Theater / Film

Review: GableStage’s ‘How I Learned’ may feature only one actor, but collaboration shows

Written By Christine Dolen
October 2, 2023 at 7:58 PM

Actor Melvin Huffnagle is August Wilson in the playwright’s “How I Learned What I Learned” now at GableStage through Sunday, Oct. 22 at the theater in the Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

August Wilson (well, the actor playing him) moves through his autobiographical solo show like a colossus, navigating a scaled-down version of Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

“How I Learned What I Learned” is the story of how a mixed-race kid who dropped out of high school at 15 became one of the country’s greatest playwrights.  It’s the dramatic rendering of the societal, political, cultural and artistic forces that shaped him, particularly during the 1950s and ‘60s.  It grants insight into how a creative giant’s mind works, because of what he learned and how he learned it.

Melvin Huffnagle as August Wilson stands amid the buildings of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, with set design by Frank J Oliva in “How I Learned What I Learned” at GableStage. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

Conceived in 2003 by Wilson and director Todd Kreidler, performed by Wilson at Seattle Repertory Theatre two years before he passed away in 2005, “How I Learned What I Learned” is launching GableStage’s 25th anniversary season at its home in the historic Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.

Just one man, actor Melvin Huffnagle, appears onstage.  But make no mistake:  this “How I Learned What I Learned” is the result of an immensely creative collaboration.

Director/sound designer Carey Brianna Hart, set designer Frank J Oliva, lighting designer Ernesto Pinto, projection designer Joel Zishuk, stage manager/costume coordinator Marialexia Hernandez, dramaturg Karina Batchelor and Huffnagle all played their parts in the end result.  GableStage’s singular take on what is now a theatrical legend’s farewell proves yet again that a solo show is the result of creative alchemy.

Actor Melvin Huffnagle closes out GableStage’s “How I Learned What I Learned” by contemplating August Wilson’s legacy. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

On its surface, Huffnagle’s task is simple:  Playing the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (for “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson”), he explains how an often-angry young man became the acclaimed artist who wrote the Pittsburgh Cycle, 10 deep, rich, poetic plays about Black life in each decade of the 20th century.

Truth be told, “How I Learned What I Learned” isn’t simple. The script is a 47-page mountain beckoning Huffnagle to the top, and though the rehearsal period was abbreviated, he makes the ascent. Sure, on opening night you could feel his focus as he moved from anecdote to connective moment to tonal shift.  But Huffnagle is often a magnetic interpreter of Wilson’s work – and the playwright’s moods.

“How I Learned What I Learned” asks the actor to summon charm, outrage, passion, the dangers that can accompany a younger man’s romantic game.  From the jump, Wilson makes it clear that he’s going to be wry and real.

As playwright August Wilson, actor Melvin Huffnagle speaks of the
difficulties of being ‘African in America.’ (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

“My ancestors have been in America since the early 17th century.  And for the first 244 years we never had trouble finding a job. But since 1863 it’s been hell,” he begins.  “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, the son of a Black mother and a white father, fully embraced his Black identity.  The stories he tells in “How I Learned What I Learned” illustrate that the lessons he absorbed – about creativity, life, strength, values – were taught by his Black friends and family.  The creative spark that drove him to write the Pittsburgh Cycle, conveying the reality and complexities of being Black in America, was fashioned in the Hill District.

With Hart as his guide, Huffnagle uses the impressive tools in his actor’s arsenal – vocal and physical – to vary the segments in a piece that has him talking for almost two hours straight.

He becomes Wilson’s poet-junkie friend Chawley Williams, transforms into the troubled Cy Morocco, carries on both sides of a conversation between his mother Daisy and her friend Julie, who urged her to accept a used washing machine instead of the new Speed Queen she won in a radio station contest (the station, discovering Daisy was Black, wanted to give her a Salvation Army coupon for a used washer).

As August Wilson, Melvin Huffnagle listens to the beauty and power of music in “How I Learned What I Learned” at GableStage. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

The actor is especially fierce when he relates the stories of Wilson walking away from different jobs – in a toy store, mowing suburban lawns, washing dishes.  Sure, the young writer who aspired to be a poet needed the money for the $25 rent he had to pay for his basement apartment every other week.

But principle – not accepting the implication that he might be a thief, that he shouldn’t be mowing a white person’s lawn, that he spent too much time poring over books at the Carnegie Library – mattered more.

Thanks in large part to Huffnagle’s creative collaborators, “How I Learned What I Learned” at GableStage becomes an other-worldly memory play, one grounded in clarity yet infused with delight.

Gablestage’s “How I Learned What I Learned” is mined by creative collaborators. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

Oliva’s sprawling set features scale models of Pittsburgh buildings, bridges, the Hill District.  Crafted mostly via laser printer, the buildings light up in different ways thanks to Pinto, whose work also varies the color of the plain horizontal backdrop.

Zishuk’s projections of words and imagery add immeasurably to the storytelling, particularly in the moment where the clearly brilliant Wilson is excitedly explaining how one fascinating book leads to another and another and so on.

Hart’s sound design varies from the subtle “tink” of a dime falling into a Mason jar to an effect that helps to convey an overarching theme:  During some of the projections, you hear a crackling fire as you watch subtle floating embers move over the images.  The message? Wilson’s creative spark was forged in the Hill District.

Melvin Huffnagle as August Wilson explains the playwright’s early influences in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

A new Wilson biography – “August Wilson: A Life” by former Boston Globe critic Patti Hartigan (531 pages, Simon & Schuster) – was published recently, painting a lengthy and detailed portrait of a great artist.

But “How I Learned What I Learned” makes you feel Wilson’s presence, his drive, his humor, his rage, his passion. That’s the power of theater.

WHAT: “How I Learned What I Learned” by August Wilson

WHERE: GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables

WHEN: 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (no performance Oct. 14, additional matinee Oct. 21), through Oct. 22; understudy Robert Strain will play Wilson Oct. 4, Oct. 11 and Oct. 18 at 2 p.m. and Oct. 12 at 10:30 a.m.

COST: $35-$65 (plus $10 in fees per ticket)

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com.

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