August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned is a heartfelt theatrical memoir that charts the eminent playwright’s self-discovery as an artist. Wilson himself performed it in 2003, just two years before he unexpectedly died at 60. By then, he was a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning legend who had just completed his landmark Century Cycle, which includes Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Director Jade King Carroll* and actor Lance E. Nichols* (Treme, HBO) joined a conversation one week into rehearsal for the one act show.

*Member, Actors’ Equity Association

How do you describe this play to someone who hasn’t seen it?

CARROLL: There are 25 distinct lessons in the play and they fold on each other in a nonlinear way. We go up to him producing what have become his last plays and back to picking up pop bottles as a kid. There are interviews about his plans after he finished the Century Cycle, and this is what he needed to get out then. Also, he had gotten to a point where he needed to rip the band-aid off the myth of the man, which I think gets you back into the truth of the plays we are familiar with.

Lance, tell me a little bit more about August Wilson’s education. I know he dropped out of high school.

NICHOLS: Yes, he was experiencing such discrimination and bigotry. He told a story in an interview about how a white student turned around to him in class, used the n-word, and then the next thing he knew, the white student was on the floor, because Wilson had clocked him. And he quit school, unbeknownst to his mother. So, every morning he would get up and go to the library. And it was there he began to read poetry and books by people of color, and for the longest time, his mother thought he was going to school but that was the education that he was getting.

How do you build Wilson as a character? Are you doing an impression?

NICHOLS: I’ve watched many videos of August and I’ve had the honor of doing two of his plays before, so he’s not totally new to me. But I’m not trying to do an impersonation of August. The words are there. Just be truthful to what the man has written. The words will tell the story.

What are some of the most memorable moments in the play for you?

NICHOLS: There are many moments I relate to as an African American man. My father grew up in Mississippi and was born in 1914. What August talks about early on in Pittsburgh reminded me of his stories. Then there’s a passage where August is seeing an older, married woman and I can kinda relate to that from my younger days. [Carroll laughs.] I shared stories with Jade about that. I mean, they’re human stories.

CARROLL: I know it’s a universal story. [Playwright and author Lorraine] Hansberry said through specifics you get the universal, so it’s specific to Pittsburgh, the people around him, the experiences August had in the theater. But how he discovers himself and the value of his own song is a universal value we are in search of.

What is getting you most excited as opening night approaches?

NICHOLS: The excitement started the moment I agreed to do this show. I’ve never done a one person show. And I better get this right, because I can’t turn to anybody else on stage and go, “help me out here!” [Laughs] But I’m so fortunate to have a director who has been collaborating on everything.

CARROLL: This play makes Wilson human. I’m excited for everyone to see it, but especially young people because it shows us all of our stories, all of our lessons have worth, and we all should be singing our own song, no matter who said, “That’s not a song, that’s noise!” I think this allows people to trust themselves.

See How I Learned What I Learned live on stage from Wednesday, Mar. 1 through Sunday, Mar. 19. For tickets, visit or call 207-774-0465.

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