Lance E. Nichols as August Wilson in “How I Learned What I Learned” at Portland Stage. Photo by No Umbrella LLC

“Something is not always better than nothing.”

This bit of wisdom, imparted to August Wilson by his mother years before he became one of the greatest American playwrights of all time, is one of the cornerstones of “August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned,” the latest production from Portland Stage.

The intelligent and often moving one-actor show provides autobiographical background as to how Wilson (1945-2005), who dropped out of school at age 15, learned some hard but smart lessons living on the hardscrabble streets of the historically Black neighborhood known as the Hill District in Pittsburgh.

Co-conceived by the playwright and his professional partner and friend Todd Kreidler, the show mixes prose, poetry, comedy and tragedy in a way that emphasizes both Wilson’s humanity and his tenacity in an America he sees as still grudgingly sorting out the aftermath of slavery.

His sense of what kind of man and artist he wanted to become is developed within dramatically described moments of harsh violence and artistic transcendence, each bracketed into episodes with titles projected above the minimally decorated set.

As directed by Jade King Carroll, stage and screen veteran Lance E. Nichols presents a dignified Wilson as the accomplished author recounts events in the early life of the occasionally angry but not bitter young African American man he was. His younger self reads classic literature while finding it difficult to tolerate the racial indignities that often go with menial jobs. He must remind himself that “there’s a way under, around or through any door.”


The people he meets are often troubled, confused, sometimes dangerous, sometimes full of wisdom, but too prone, in his mind, to compromise themselves because of the weight of disrespect for African Americans that is woven into the fabric of the country.

Nichols rewards an attentive audience as he moves about a platform at center stage that the theater’s artistic director and scenic designer for this show, Anita Stewart, informs us in a brief opening video is made up of props used in prior Portland Stage productions of Wilson plays. He booms and he near-whispers, even sings and dances a bit, as flavorful jazz fills in some more reflective moments. The show passes quickly but the actor leaves an impression of a proud man who has learned what can be understood and what must be condemned in a world full of those who are all “victims of our history.”

The costume, lighting and sound design by Loyce Arthur, Betsy Chester, and Germán Martínez, respectively, subtly serve to establish the period and milieu of Wilson’s remembered world.

It would have been great to hear Wilson’s thoughts about events that have unfolded in more recent years. Maybe another Portland Stage production of one of his classic plays would open us up to further insight?

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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