August Wilson's How I Learned What I Learned

August Wilson, co-conceived with Todd Kreidler
Saints & Poets Theater
Assembly Rooms

August Wilson / Lester Purry

The way this great playwright tells us how he learned what he learned is by telling anecdotes about his early life in Pittsburgh, where he dropped out of school at 15 ("but I didn't drop out of life") and spent the next few years in the library before going out into the world to meet local artists and poets, who influenced him in diverse ways, in some cases when he learned from their mistakes.

He decided he was going to be a poet and moved out of his mother's house into a flat that cost $25 every two weeks—a lot for a poet to find, and this was to get him into trouble. He went for a job looking after the stockroom in a toy store, but the man told him if he caught him stealing he'd shoot him. So he quit. He'd learned that it is important to be respected, and as soon as someone disrespected him, he'd walk away, just as he was to do with his jobs cutting lawns and washing dishes.

When he was seeing a girl that he loved but had had a gun pointed at him twice when he had been with her, he learned that they were trouble together and he was keen to stay alive, so he walked away. When a friend invited him to watch him play saxophone and he was terrible at it, he learned that if he was to be a poet, he needed to learn how to do it properly.

There is another great musical moment when John Coltrane, the great jazz saxophonist, is playing at a club in town, but there is a cover charge and the drinks are expensive so lots of people who can't afford it are gathered outside to listen. He says that Coltrane was really playing for the people outside, the real music fans, because to those who can afford to go in, he was just background to their conversation.

There is so much packed into this hour and a half that the above is only a flavour of it, and it is delivered with great warmth and lots of humour through the riveting performance of Lester Purry as Wilson, who acknowledges the audience and often catches someone's eye when delivering a particularly pointed or funny line.

While there are political points made by the play, it comes across more as a night chatting to a man with a fascinating history in a bar than a lecture. I could have sat listening to him happily for another hour.

Reviewer: David Chadderton