A rocky start dims but can’t douse the brightness of ‘How I Learned What I Learned’

How I Learned What I Learned

Riverside Theatre — through March 10

Aaron Smith in ‘How I Learned What I Learned.’ — S. Benjamin Farrar/Riverside Theatre

Riverside Theatre and Des Moines’ Pyramid Theatre joined forces this winter to bring us How I Learned What I Learned, by August Wilson. Wilson’s autobiographical one man show has everything in it — accidental hilarity, familial pride, romantic love, stalwart friendship, betrayal and the tragedy of growing up and understanding things more than we’d like. Wilson’s language is laced with deep honesty and charm. It is an incredible thing, to be able to see him as a character on the stage, brought to life in Aaron Smith’s performance.

Toward the beginning, Smith’s Wilson quotes a dictionary from the recent past — black was “wicked”; white was “pure and unblemished.” He recounts some advice from a friend: “When you go to jail …” Not “if” you go to jail. Through Wilson’s beautiful words, ranging from colloquial to prose verging on sacred, he tells us his own story, traversing a society filled with traps, left and maintained by the legacy of slavery. His life stories are filled with optimism, pride and truths.

He tells us about his mother — she taught him that “something is not always better than nothing.” He explains to us the hell-worthy actions of those who would use seemingly innocuous things to shame someone for being black. Wilson’s words are inviting and poetic, and getting to know this important playwright in such an intimate way was a unique and lovely experience.

Chris Rich’s scenic design was one of the best I’ve seen. It evokes moments from many of Wilson’s shows, making it palpable how those stories came directly/indirectly from the source material we are able to witness performed live by Smith. It was wonderful to be able to “see” Wilson tell us about his reality, while simultaneously living within the worlds of his creation.

‘How I Learned What I Learned’ runs through March 10. — S. Benjamin Farrar/Riverside Theatre

Gabriel Clausen’s very strong, detailed and clean sound design created a wonderful soundscape and worked well with John Pomeroy’s lighting to help further illustrate the past scenarios recounted and present realizations observed. Director Tiffany Johnson did well consolidating the talents of technical and actor into the final product. However, it was difficult to see some of the directorial choices made due to some sporadic, but very pregnant pauses from the actor — searching for the words of a script he wasn’t quite familiar enough with.

A whole show played by a single human being is a daunting task to say the least. Actors can depend on each other to push a story forward, to help each other out of sudden technical or scriptural jams — but when it’s just you, you have to figure out every moment of “Hey! It’s live theater, folks!” on your own (not to mention retaining a novella of words inside your mind and heart — a feat in itself). The pressure is thick.

Due to some long, searching moments, the beginning started off rocky. It picked up in pace as the show went on, the breaks lessened, and Smith found his groove. The audience could begin to see Smith really shine — to see his potential become more and more fulfilled in his performance of the playwright. However, the pauses gave me pause. I began to feel anxious for him, trying to siphon the anxiety I assumed he must be feeling with every audience’s eye upon him. It pulled me out of the world several times.

Aaron Smith as playwright August Wilson in ‘How I Learned What I Learned.’ — S. Benjamin Farrar/Riverside Theatre

Winningly, Smith stayed confident throughout, and he began to use his sporadic moments of breaking character in a way that normalized them within the show as a whole. Over time, the anxiety slid off my shoulders, allowing me to relax and enjoy the lessons of Wilson’s script. Though I wished to have seen the show imparted closer to the pages Wilson wrote, it was honestly an incredible moment of skill to witness. Watching him surf the more turbulent waves with confidence and humility was a lesson in itself. Smith’s performance will easily grow from wonderful to truly exceptional after spending more time with this touching script.

I am grateful that Riverside and Pyramid joined forces to bring this wonderful remembrance — told in the words of one of America’s most treasured theatrical artists and displayed by some incredible talent — to our neck of the woods.

And I hope this is the beginning of more diversity on our stages, of race and of perspective and story, so that we may see more — Hansberry, Deavere Smith, Gurira and many others, both classic and vanguard, who seem to have been absent from eastern Iowa for far too long. These artists are telling stories that should be shared, that must be told — and in 2019, I’d like to think that we are ready to absorb.

This play, this artistic collaboration and Wilson are nothing if not splendid. And wow, what an incredible man he must have been.

Thank you to the producing companies and artists involved in bringing August Wilson to us. I’ll treasure what I learned at Riverside Theatre that night.

Go. You’ll treasure it too.

How I Learned What I Learned runs through March 10 at Riverside Theatre. Tickets are $30.

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