Playwright August Wilson’s life takes center stage in Riverside Theatre’s latest production

How I Learned What I Learned

Riverside Theatre — Opens Friday, Feb. 22 at 7:30 p.m.

Aaron Smith rehearses for ‘How I Learned What I Learned.’ — photos by Adam Knight, illustration by Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

When we think about American playwrights, August Wilson’s name is often near the top of the list. His plays usually reflect work and life in Pittsburgh through the iconic characters of his Pittsburgh Cycle, such as Troy Maxson in Fences and Boy Willie and Bernice in The Piano Lesson. With How I Learned What I Learned, Wilson’s 2002 dramatic memoir, Riverside Theatre has partnered with Pyramid Theatre Company of Des Moines to bring Wilson’s own life to the stage.

How I Learned What I Learned is a one-man show, originally performed by Wilson himself, and takes the audience on a tour through his life as a poet and young writer in Pittsburgh, as well as his friendships, experience of racism and more. Wilson offers himself up with a stark vulnerability in the play. Directed by Pyramid’s artistic director Tiffany Johnson, the show stars Aaron Smith, a Des Moines actor who has played Wilson roles before, along with other heavy-hitting parts. But this show posed a particular challenge.

Writing character was a strong suit for Wilson. Adam Knight, Riverside’s artistic director, had the pleasure of sitting down with the legend, and gain some insight into Wilson the man, who Knight said was warm and inviting.

“I actually spent a few weeks with August in 2002 at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference. I was of course daunted by the idea of him, but as a person he was surprisingly approachable,” Knight said. “He and I shared a few beers and talked about blues music. He even burned me some CDs of musicians I should know. He was a great listener — he had an infectious curiosity of others’ stories. This play really captures the man that was August — the man that was also the great artist.”

Fluent in the universal language of feeling and adept at writing deep, fully realized characters, Wilson connects the black experience to the overall human experience, flaws and all. And the opportunity to connect with characters that are somehow like us or someone we know, those moments of realization within art — that’s the stuff of magic.

“Riverside is constantly aiming to expand the stories we tell on our stage. When looking at past seasons, August Wilson’s name was curiously absent,” Knight said. “This play provided a great entrance to his canon — and also an opportunity to collaborate with Pyramid Theatre Company in Des Moines. I’m a big fan of their work and mission, and am so pleased that this production is forging a bridge between our organizations.”

How, then, does that magic come to life on stage? For Johnson, it takes vision, passion and poetry.

“My vision is comprised of how the dialogue speaks to me from the words on the page, and how I visualize it in my head as I absorb it,” she said. “August Wilson was first a poet, so I look for the poetic moments he places in his characters and the aura they carry in the story, and work with the production designers to create the world in which the story can find its life.”

When Wilson died of liver cancer in 2005, he left behind a body of work that covers 100 years of African American history and experience. The themes in this show can and do still reflect today’s issues, Johnson said.

“That’s the profound thing about August. His plays are timeless because more than mirroring issues, he mirrored feelings which, although being told through the lenses of black culture, are completely universal based off the feeling. It allows you to tap into the human in a person as opposed to the color of them, however it also shows the complete resiliency in black people and our ability to find pieces of our authentic selves with the absence of the continuity of our authentic culture.”

So, who is the man playing August Wilson? Smith answered some questions for Little Village via email. Originally from Texas, the actor moved to Cedar Rapids as a child with his family. He joined a band in Des Moines in 1985 and has been there ever since. Smith got into theater pretty early in life, but it wasn’t until his role in Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the Des Moines Playhouse that his acting really took off. He lists some of his favorite roles (not an easy question to answer, he said) as Troy Maxson in Fences, Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Mountaintop.

Why choose to stay in the Midwest and pursue acting?

I choose to stay in Iowa because it has been home practically my entire life. Not only for me, but for my wife Jennifer of 24 years, my two youngest daughters Jada and Aja, and my eldest Marques, his wife and my grandchildren. My daughter Sasha works in theater in Chicago, and my oldest daughter Sarah lives in Denver with her husband and her children.

In the spirit of the show How I Learned What I Learned, we wonder, would you say it’s important to go to school specifically for acting or learn through doing theater and having overall life experience?

I don’t think that there is a one-size-fits all answer to going to school for acting or learning by experience. I think it depends on the individual. I personally learned more from being on stage than being in class, but both are valuable tools to have.

Do you feel like the spirit of August Wilson has been with you in this process?

I absolutely feel that the presence of August Wilson is with me. His words, his life and experiences have literally taken over my life for the last two months. Practically every waking moment has been spent living/reliving his life in my mind and body. Even when I am doing other everyday tasks, he is not very far away. August Wilson has a lot to say in this play, and every word deserves to be heard!

If people are not familiar with Mr. Wilson’s work, there is a lot of reading to be done. How did you get into character for one of the best playwrights of all time? What are a few new discoveries that you have made both about yourself as an artist and about August Wilson during this process?

Preparing for this production has been an enormous challenge and I would have to say that I have made [more] discoveries about August Wilson than of myself. The really cool thing though has been the discoveries of the things we have in common. August has the deepest love and respect for his mother. She is responsible for most, if not all of the principles he carries through life. This is the biggest similarity. I was also brought up by my mother, and even though she has been gone for 13 years now, her teaching still guides my way through life.

What do you hope the audience takes away from your performance?

There are so many profound and touching moments in How I Learned What I Learned. August Wilson packed them all in. Several of them are cloaked in humor, but they are still very powerful. I hope the audience laughs heartily, but also catches the sometimes subtle lessons that are underneath.

One of the main things that I have taken away from this is his brilliant way of pointing out our flaws, weaknesses, strengths and triumphs as a society, black, white and otherwise. How our choices today are our children and grandchildren’s history. What we do today shapes the lives of those that come after us. We don’t know what we know until we know it!

Diviin Huff is an actress, radio host and clothing store co-manager in Iowa City. She supports local art and local artists, and encourages positive energy. She can be found on Instagram and Twitter @Diviin. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 258.