AT THE BEGINNING of Portland Playhouse’s How I Learned What I Learned, Victor Mack, in the role of playwright August Wilson, takes off a long-sleeved shirt to reveal a black t-shirt underneath, emblazoned with the text: “I AM SUPPOSED TO BE WHITE.”
It’s a sequence that pays homage to Mr. Rogers’ coming-home routine, and a jarring convergence of humor, political commentary, and subtle camp, a dislocating call to attention that signals what’s to come over the next 90 minutes.
How I Learned What I Learned is an odd play: A biographical one-man show written by the man himself late in his career, it’s more stream-of-consciousness than plot-focused, a meandering conversation with one of the giants of American theater. Like Wilson’s other plays, it’s a provocative examination of identity and a condemnation of racism. But it has a rougher, more associative feel than the wholly realized fictional worlds in productions like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Cycling through disparate episodes in Wilson’s life, How I Learned What I Learned oscillates with deceptive ease between a self-effacing portrait of the artist as a young, bumbling poet, and a damning account of his experiences with racism (try not to be implicated by Wilson’s discussion of so-called “colorblindness”).
That’s a huge range for an actor to take on—as if portraying a big-deal artist like Wilson weren’t a heavy enough ask on its own—but under the direction of August Wilson Red Door Project Co-Founder and Artistic Director Kevin Jones, Victor Mack absolutely sells you on his Wilson. Instead of attempting a flawless impersonation, he taps into Wilson’s humor and warmth: He’s not an icon, he’s a character, and a charming, wholly convincing one at that. The night I attended, an audience member’s cell phone went off during the play (HERE IS A REMINDER TO SILENCE YOUR FUCKING PHONE IN THE THEATER) and with only a stern, knowing look and the repetition of an earlier line, Mack turned it into a funny, incisive commentary on privilege, all without missing a beat. Though it was certainly a high point of the performance, it wasn’t an anomaly.
If you’ve seen Wilson’s plays, you’ll enjoy this look into the playwright himself. If you haven’t, it may make for a more challenging watch, but I’d urge you to see it anyway. It’s a brave, freewheeling meditation on race and art, and it’s also a funny, warmhearted account of one man’s roundabout ascension into the American canon of theater.