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Edited and Published by Robert W. McDowell

May 5, 2022 Issue
PART 7 (May 6, 2022)

A FREE Weekly E-mail Newsletter Covering Theater, Dance, Music, and Film in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill/Carrboro Area of North Carolina Since April 2001.


PlayMakers Rep's Production of August Wilson's How I Learned What I
, Starring Samuel Ray Gates, Is a Gift to Triangle Theatergoers

August Wilson's How I Learned What I Learned, directed for PlayMakers by Tia James, stars Samuel Ray Gates as Wilson (HuthPhoto)

I would listen for two hours to someone reading August Wilson (1945-2005) aloud while sitting in a chair. But to see his writings performed in a one-person play, as if the actor were August Wilson himself? That is a real gift.

You, too, can receive this gift, by attending PlayMakers Repertory Company's last show of this season, August Wilson's How I Learned What I Learned, directed by Tia James, with co-director Jamar Jones (through Sunday, May 15th). To entice you, I've recounted my truly fulfilling experience below:

I was entranced by the stage the moment that I saw it. It was all wood, like a voluptuous backyard patio or the soundstage for an orchestra performance in the woods. The back of the stage was a breathtaking wall of wooden panels that curved as they reached the ceiling, which held the same panels in smaller lengths in suspension above the stage. In the middle of this backdrop was a red door marked with years of weathering.

The stage, itself, was a beautiful three-level terrace of identical wood. The only things on stage were two large, blocky, sheet-covered items on each rear side, and a bunch of file, shipping, and luggage boxes on each side in front. The paucity of props wonderfully emphasized the grandeur of the wooden structure that held them. Super kudos to set designer Lawrence E. Moten III and lighting designer Abigail Hoke-Brady.

Samuel Ray Gates plays Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson in PlayMakers Repertory
Company's April 29-May 15 presentation of Wilson's How I Learned What I Learned (HuthPhoto)

August Wilson, played impeccably by Samuel Ray Gates (who somewhat eerily looked like his character), came through the door and began walking aimlessly around, talking as if to himself. He lifted the sheet off the right-stage item, revealing a desk with a typewriter. Then, talking all the while, he began going through the boxes, as if collecting notes to incorporate into the something that he is about to type.

With comically wise banter, August informed us that he was born in Pittsburgh's Hill District in 1945, and that he was the only black student at Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School. Then he told an anecdote about a Monsignor who was removed from his post by the Vatican, not because he had prohibited blacks from attending his church, but because of the substantial loss of revenue as a result. August was quick to make clear his opinion that "American culture taught racism to the good [white] people who immigrated here.". These people likely had never seen a black person before -- all they knew was what society told them, which was that black people were "lazy ... dirty ... immoral ... and not to be trusted."

August went on to recount delightfully entertaining anecdotes of the things he experienced as a black man. As he moved from one piece to another, their titles were projected in Courier typwriter font on the back wall; and when he talked about his lovers, their images were projected in lovely, crisp shadows.

Samuel Ray Gates' nearly two-hour, nonstop soliloquy as August Wilson was as entertaining as it was enlightening. The more I watched him, the more I thought of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) (one of my favorite writers) and all the wonderful things that he said and wrote. But while it appeared Wilson may have been cut from the same cloth as Wilde when it comes to charm, wit, and expertise with words, it was always clear that the story and style that I was witnessing were his and his alone. I give great credit to Samuel Ray Gates for bringing such depth to this character.

Samuel Ray Gates stars in How I Learned What I Learned, which was originally performed in 2013 by August Wilson himself (HuthPhoto)

In the second half of the play, August removed the sheet from the back-left bulky item and revealed an old-fashioned phonograph. Percussive African ancestral music with incomprehensible words filled our ears, as he danced, tribal-like, in a way that made me want to get up and join him. Then he recounted the story of his first introduction to John Coltrane, which was also his first time in jail and the first time that he felt the freedom of such creative energy. Coltrane played, off and on, in the background, with perfectly balanced quality and volume, thanks to sound designer G. Clausen.

August also recounted less laughable stories, most of which occurred in the projects, where a caring friend who was also a heroine addict lived. He conjured laughter even with these, thanks to his dogged appreciation of "good people," regardless of their circumstances.

As we left the theater, we passed a white board covered with post-it notes. Beside it was a table with a note requesting that we write what we feel has been our most relevant life lesson on a sheet and tape it to the board. It was a worthwhile mental exercise, and reading the things that others wrote brought tears to my eyes.

As August said at the end of the play, "You don't know what you know until you know it." Well, as I left the theater, I knew that it had been a night well spent and one that I wanted to share with others.

August Wilson's How I Learned What I Learned at PlayMakers Repertory Company stars Samuel Ray Gates as Wilson (HuthPhoto)

August Wilson's HOW I LEARNED WHAT I LEARNED (In Person at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, May 6-8 and 10-15), directed by Tia James and starring Samuel Ray Gates as Wilson (PlayMakers Repertory Company in the Paul Green Theatre in UNC-Chapel Hill's Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art). VIDEOS: 2021-22 SEASON: THE PRESENTER:,,,, and PRC BLOG: THE VENUE: DIRECTIONS/PARKING: CAROLINA TOGETHER COVID-19 PAGE: AUGUST WILSON (1945-2005):,,,,,,, and NOTE 1: The 2 p.m. Sunday, May 8th, show will be an open-captioned performance, with a "universal-access" live-caption unit, communicating dialog, stage directions, and sound effects. NOTE 2: The May 10th show will be a socially distanced performance. TICKETS: $20 and up ($10 students and youth), plus taxes and fees. Click here to buy tickets. INFORMATION: 919-962-7529 or [email protected]. PLEASE DONATE TO: PlayMakers Repertory Company.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A Durham, NC resident for 20 years, Melissa Rooney is a scientific editor, freelance writer, and author of several science-based children's picture books. She has published children's stories and verse in Highlights Children's Magazine and Bay Leaves. Rooney earned undergraduate degrees in English and Chemistry from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA; and she earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry in 1998 from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Her stories Eddie the Electron and The Fate of The Frog form the basis of two workshops offered through the Durham Arts Council's Culture and Arts in the Public Schools (CAPS) program, through which Rooney teaches elementary- and middle-school students about electrons and atoms or sustainability and rhyme, respectively. When she isn't writing, editing, reading, teaching, or experiencing theater, Rooney volunteers as an Associate Supervisor on the Durham's Soil and Water Conservation District.


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