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A PILLAR TO THE MODERN THEATRE CANON: ‘How I Learned What I Learned’ breathes life into magical storytelling

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Audiences must pay attention when watching “How I Learned What I Learned.”

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“I don’t understand how you can have an anthology of African-American plays and not have a single play by August Wilson,” Joel commented as we were shelving at the bookstore one afternoon. He hefted an inch-thick tome and shook his head.

BRILLIANT STORYTELLER: Fracaswell Hyman as August Wilson is a stunning portrayal of nuance and storytelling. Courtesy of Big Dawg

BRILLIANT STORYTELLER: Fracaswell Hyman as August Wilson is a stunning portrayal of nuance and storytelling. Courtesy of Big Dawg

“Maybe they couldn’t get the rights to his work,” I offered lamely. It was the only excuse I could think of, and we both knew it was absurd. Wilson has a Broadway theater named in his honor. His Pittsburgh or Century Cycle of plays created a body of work that is a central pillar to the modern theatre cannon. In short, Joel’s observation was beyond response: August Wilson’s work is essential to any conversation or collection of African-American playwriting.

Big Dawg Productions brings August Wilson’s one-man show, “How I Learned What I Learned,” by Todd Kreidler, to the Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street. Starring Fracaswell Hyman, it is a powerful evening that explores the intersection of art and performance. Hyman’s portrayal of Troy Maxson in Big Dawg’s production of “Fences” last year was, quite simply, transcendent. I am but one of many audience members who have been looking forward with great curiosity to “How I  Learned What I Learned.”

One-person shows are, by definition, heavy lifting for the performer tasked with keeping an audience engaged for the show’s length. The additional challenge and responsibility of performing a real person’s life story (as opposed to a fictional character) adds to the enormity of this undertaking. Does Hyman rise to the occasion? Absolutely. Does he make each and every single moment believable? Beyond question.

The script itself is a bit of a surprise. There are a variety of ways Wilson could have structured the piece: looking at each play in the Century Cycle, or introducing the audience to the real-life people who inspired the characters. It has taken me a few days to realize that, like his scripts which talk around ideas (instead of like Arthur Miller’s which give long didactic pronouncements about themes), this show introduces us to his real-life inspirations. Audiences must pay attention carefully; it opens with an attention-grabbing jab and joke and takes your breath away in the same moment.

There is no question Wilson is going to talk about race and he’s going to talk about it very personally. What does being born black mean in America? He gives a handful of examples, from the monstrous, to the oblivious, to the absurdly rude, all to pepper his daily life.

He introduces us to The Hill District, the neighborhood he grew up in and writes about frequently. He briefly references the move to Hazelwood, but it’s the life in The Hill District that he shows us the most. As Hyman’s hands shape the street map of the world that molded Wilson, his eyes trace the internal map and mural in his head. The audience can see as clearly as he does—memories welling up of street-corner serenades, missed connections, wisdom imparted, lessons learned and scrapes narrowly averted. It’s the secret to his successful performance: Hyman can see so clearly the people he’s portraying that the audience knows them, too.

I remain in awe of the elasticity of Hyman’s face. With each character, it is not just his posture and gait that change, but he really manages to give at least the impression of a different visage for each character. So we slowly meet the people who comprised Wilson’s teachers and fine-tuned his ear to the poetry around him—the poetry of life. The beautiful songs of people living life and sorting out the path through the labyrinth. Wilson talks about himself as a poet in this show; he only obliquely references theatre. When he talks about writing, it is about poetry. What he and Hyman both communicate with subtle beauty is a love of language—nuanced, accentuated, phrased and blended in speech and dialogue to tell a story of their own.

To some extent the structure of the evening feels a little like we are all gathered in August Wilson’s living room, and he’s just holding court about whatever he feels like. That is fine. Pretty much anyone who attends the show is coming with curiosity and appreciation for Wilson and his work. Hearing his innermost thoughts are why we are there—but, again, this is deceptive.

Audiences must pay attention. He shows us how to build a story; he shows us a person, then slowly adds elements to their surroundings, builds events, then lets us watch them explore and develop.  It is so subtle, at first it seemed like a series of unconnected stories—like the Century Cycle which appear to lean on each other but not necessarily follow the same saga. It takes a while to realize all 10 plays make up a very large tapestry. “How I Learned What I Learned” is that in miniature. All stories weave together to make one beautiful picture.

In addition, Hyman understands how to step back to show the big picture and take audiences on a journey. He is the perfect choice, whose performance will sit with audiences long after the curtain closes. I know I’ll be thinking on it for days, if not weeks. He shows beauty, anger, pain, joy, shock, disbelief and divinity, frequently, and in the same character. “How I Learned What I Learned” is a magical evening at the intersection of art and experience.

How I Learned What I Learned
May 30-June 2, & 6-9, 8 p.m. or 3 p.m. matinees on Sundays
Tickets: $18-$25
Cape Fear Playhouse
613 Castle Street

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