On May 22, 2003, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson (1945-2005) premieres his autobiographical solo show, How I Learned What I Learned, at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. It is Wilson's one and only foray into acting and a complete departure from the plays that made him famous -- searing dramas about black culture in America. This play is a rambling monologue about growing up in Pittsburgh and his budding ambitions to be a poet and writer. Prior to the opening, Wilson confesses to being very nervous about appearing on stage. On opening night "he puffs on the odd cigarette and jokes disarmingly about his first-time acting jitters" (Berson, "Solo"). Wilson, who has made Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood his home since 1990, performs the show for two weeks.Not Spalding Gray
Just before the premiere, August Wilson joked that the whole project came about as a lark. "I don't know how it happened! Really, it was a joke. Sharon Ott (artistic director of the Seattle Rep) asked me to do something for the Rep's 40th anniversary. I thought, an hour, eight performances -- why not? Now I don't know what to make of the whole thing" (Berson, "Leap").
According to The Seattle Times, Wilson had done it as a "kind of gift to the Seattle Repertory Theatre" to kick off its new series of original plays, Hot Type: New Works. Wilson said that, until a few weeks before the premiere, he hadn't progressed beyond sketching out a few ideas. In fact, a week before opening the show didn't even have an official title. It was still going by its working name, The August Wilson Project, or the jokier earlier name, I'm Not Spalding Gray. "I'm thinking of calling my show How I Learned What I Learned -- like, one section could be How I Learned to Keep My Mouth Shut," he told The Seattle Times (Berson, "Leap").
However, it wasn't the writing that had him the most nervous. Wilson admitted, "I never wanted to be an actor. I don't like getting up on stage. I don't like people staring at me" (Berson, "Leap"). He consulted with Whoopi Goldberg (b. 1955), a veteran solo performer. She told him that as long as he didn't look at the audience, he'd be fine. When asked if he planned to "bare his soul" in public, in the manner of monologist Spalding Gray (1941-2004), he said, "I'm not gonna do it like that" (Berson, "Leap").
On opening night, Wilson's nervousness was under control as he paced the stage and took "his cues from a hand-printed outline on an easel" (Berson, "Solo"). He opened the show wearing a T-shirt with the printed slogan, "I Am Supposed to Be White" and delivered a "stern" passage about bigotry (Berson, "Solo").
Yet most of the evening was devoted to his stories of growing up in Pittsburgh and his coming of age as an artist. Seattle Times critic Misha Berson wrote:
"He describes the multiethnic, working-class Hill district of Pittsburgh where he grew up (and where most of his plays are set) street by street, store by store. It's when Wilson starts spinning witty tales about coming of age there that the show drops the shrill ring of a diatribe and gains specificity, humor, keen portraiture" (Berson, "Solo").
Berson described the entire evening as "by turns, prickly, generous, defensive, expansive" (Berson. "Solo").
After the two-week run at the Rep, Wilson expressed a desire to perform the show in New York and other cities. In an interview several months later with the editors of the scholarly collection August Wilson and Black Aesthetics, he said he would like to revive it someday, laughing that, "I may have stumbled into something because I only did the first two years of my life in the first show. So I can foresee How I Learned What I Learned ... Reloaded" (Shannon and Williams).
He never got the chance. August Wilson died of liver cancer at Swedish Hospital in Seattle on October 2, 2005, shortly after finishing his 10-play cycle of dramas covering each decade of African American life in the twentieth century.