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Review: ‘How I Learned What I Learned’ by Congo Square is about the life and work of August Wilson

It’s always a challenge for a biographical play to strike the right balance between illuminating its subject, entertaining its audience and exploring broader themes through the lens of one person’s life story. This balance is especially tricky for one-person autobiographical shows — even when that playwright is two-time Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson. His 2003 play, “How I Learned What I Learned,” published two years before he died at the age of 60, struggles to maintain momentum in its Chicago premiere, despite an engaging solo performance by accomplished Chicago-born actor Harry Lennix.

Ken-Matt Martin, the former artistic director of Victory Gardens Theater, directs this production by Congo Square Theatre, presented at Broadway in Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse and produced in association with the Goodman Theatre. Before the performance begins, the play’s lengthy full title is projected on the set: “How I Learned What I Learned: And How What I Learned Has Led Me to Places I’ve Wanted to Go. That I Have Sometimes Gone Unwillingly Is the Crucible in Which Many a Work of Art Has Been Fired.”

As the title suggests, the play explores elements of Wilson’s life that informed his writing — primarily his experiences living in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where he sets most of the plays in his Century Cycle. “How I Learned” allows Wilson to offer his perspective, unfiltered through the dialogue of fictional characters, on what it means to be a Black American in the second half of the 20th century. Although full of vignettes that range from bitingly funny to deeply insightful, the play doesn’t convey a cohesive sense of Wilson’s development as an artist. Without a certain level of prior knowledge, the overall trajectory of his biography would still be hazy after seeing this show.

Nevertheless, the velvet-voiced Lennix excels in the play’s storytelling style. Casually moving around a homey set designed by Sydney Lynne Thomas, Lennix fosters a conversational rapport with the audience while maintaining the sharp wit and self-described rascally temper of his character. What makes this one-man performance even more impressive is the fact that the two-week run of “How I Learned” comes in the middle of Lennix’s demanding role as the patriarch in Steppenwolf Theatre’s Lennix will rejoin the cast of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ fiery new family drama just two days after his Congo Square engagement ends.

In “How I Learned,” Wilson describes his native Hill District, mostly populated by African Americans and European immigrants, as “an amalgam of the unwanted,” with socioeconomic statistics on par with those of developing countries. Raised by his Black mother, the biracial Wilson recalls having bricks inscribed with racist slurs thrown through the window of the family home when they moved to a predominantly white neighborhood.

Although the play recounts many instances of racism, Wilson also shares how his mother taught him to stand up for himself and never settle for less than he deserves. “Something is not always better than nothing,” she tells her son when a radio station tries to shortchange her after she wins a contest for a new washing machine. Rather than accept a voucher to buy a secondhand machine, she saves her spare change for more than a year to buy the new model she had been promised before the contest organizers learned she was Black.


We also learn a bit about Wilson’s education, which was largely self-guided as he devoured library books after dropping out of school at 15. Recalling his early forays into poetry, he mischievously admits to splitting his poems into twice the number of lines before submitting them to a magazine that paid by the line. In the final scene, Rasean Davonté Johnson’s projections scroll through the 10 play titles of Wilson’s Century Cycle, but we don’t see how he gets to that point in his career. I wish the play delved more deeply into his beginnings and growth as a writer.

Although it’s not everything I’d hope for in an autobiographical play, “How I Learned” provides fascinating glimpses into the life of a beloved American playwright. His nuanced reflections on race hearken back to earlier generations of trailblazing Black American writers while still speaking to the present. And one final note: the short run of “How I Learned” coincides with the Goodman Theatre’s current revival of Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” so for those who want to be immersed in Wilson’s world, it’s a good time to be in Chicago.