Famed Pulitzer Prize playwright August Wilson (1945-2005) shared his experiences growing up as a young Black poet in his native Pittsburgh in the one man play “How I Learned What I Learned”, running now through October 22 in the South Florida premiere of the play at GableStage in Coral Gables.
Veteran actor Melvin Huffnagle channels Wilson in the 110 minute mostly dramatic monologue that takes the audience through emotional encounters Wilson had with significant people in his formative years residing in the Hill District of Pittsburgh.
The play is broken up into different segments that illustrate Wilson’s interactions with people he worked with, became friends with and fell in and out of love with, shaping his life on his journey to becoming a playwright.
Growing up in the 1960s and 70s in Pittsburgh, prior to Wilson’s fame as a playwright beginning with his play “Jitney” in 1982, Wilson shares anecdotes on being a high school dropout, an autodidact, a dishwasher, a grass cutter and a poet.
What stands out in the play is not a lighthearted look at funny anecdotes in Wilson’s journey that touched his youth, but rather some bitter and heartfelt experiences that made him feel as if he was a second class person because he is Black and not a White person in Pittsburgh.
For example, Wilson talks about when he was hired to cut the grass with a lawn mower for a white homeowner that, upon meeting the homeowner, was asked to leave the premises immediately because he is Black.
Wilson also notes that a well-meaning white man approached him saying that “he doesn’t see color” and Wilson replied “why he made this observation to the only black man in the room”.
Actor Melivin Huffnagle stars in August Wilson’s “How I Learned What I Learned” in capturing the segment “African In America”, running now though October 22 at GableStage in Coral Gables.
To reinforce the prejudice Wilson experienced in the Hill District, he recalls the story of a toy store owner who thought Wilson stole a missing toy on his first day on the job as well as a bank teller who could not give Wilson an envelope for his money.
“These incidents are not little things,” said Huffnagle on stage. “It’s about respect”.
However, the play is more than just a recollection of painful memories of Wilson experiencing prejudice. Wilson also fondly recalls how the strength of his mother’s convictions and her faith in August inspired him as a source of strength in enduring both the overt and subtle prejudice and racism in the Hill District of Pittsburgh.
Wilson also fondly recalls meeting the woman who became his wife as “a treasured moment that changed his life forever”.
Huffnagle performed in several of Wilson’s plays throughout his career. He effectively conveyed a wide range of emotions through both his voice and facial expressions to allow the audience to see Wilson at times as angry and frustrated, but also as diplomatic and humorous to cope with growing up in the Hill District.
Although Huffnagle portrays Wilson for the majority of performances, actor Robert L. Strain portrays Wilson in the GableStage matinee performances on October 4, 11 and 18 at 2 P.M.
Director Carey Brianna Hart had Huffnagle move briskly through the many segments, making the audience feel intrigued with the presentation, a difficult task in a one person play.
Along with the contributions by Hart and Huffnagle, another highlight of the play is the set design of recreating the city of Pittsburgh and the Hill District on stage. Set designer Frank Olivia and Projection Designer Joel Zishuk made it easy for the audience to follow Huffnagle’s many steps in the Hill District.
Playwright August Wilson’s “How I Learned What I Learned” starring Melvin Huffnagle as Wilson, is running now through October 22 at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave.In Coral Gables. To buy tickets and for more information, call the box office at 305-445-1119 or go to gablestage.org