IOWA CITY — If you don’t know much about the late black playwright and poet August Wilson before stepping into his world at Riverside Theatre, you will walk away breathless after seeing his life unfold in “How I Learned What I Learned.”
Wilson’s autobiographical coming-of-age journey begins at a time when the high school dropout could have ended up at best in jail or at worst dead from feeding crime-riddled addictions.
Instead, it serves as a testament to the power of the human spirit to soar when the right mentors step inside your world, enabling you to emerge victorious into a whole other world of beauty, lined with occasional missteps.
To embody this journey alone onstage for nearly two hours, without an intermission, is a feat of monumental proportions, conveyed with honesty and sincerity by Aaron Smith. His musical and artistic talents have earned him at least a couple of generations of fans in his hometown of Cedar Rapids, but he’s lived in Des Moines for a long time, earning new fans there, as well. How lovely to have him share this important story in Iowa City, so close to home.
It’s the first co-production between Riverside Theatre and Pyramid Theatre Company in Des Moines, a troupe formed in 2014 and realized in 2015. Its mission is to bring leading African-American voices to the stage, breaking away from the stereotypical roles too often in the background, director Tiffany Johnson said in a talkback after Friday’s opening night performance.
“Seven of us got together and decided that we were going to do our best and tell stories from the black perspective and from a black platform,” Johnson said. “So that’s how we came into being. We’re the gateway to the arts in the Des Moines community for black artists in the theater canon. ...
“What we like to do is to go back and find classic works from the past, and we like to use them to try to propel our communities forward and to propel the understanding of our culture forward to make it easier for us to live, grow and understand each other from different perspectives.”
The co-production came by accident, but is anything really accidental?
As Adam Knight, Riverside’s new artistic director, was preparing to fly to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival to conduct a writers’ workshop last October, Riverside actress Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers urged Knight to look up Jireh Holder, one of the Pyramid founders, who also would be there. Knight met him and asked if he could suggest some artists to consider for the Wilson play slated for Riverside’s season. Holder pointed to Smith and Johnson, and a phone call later, the wheels were in motion.
Smith is nothing short of astonishing as the teller of Wilson’s story. But he’s the first to swing the spotlight around to acknowledge Johnson’s directorial vision, as well as scenic and projection designer Chris Rich, lighting designer John Pomeroy, costume designer Susanna Douthit and sound designer Gabriel Clausen, whose soundscape pulses beneath the action, creating what Johnson deems another character in the show.
All have given Smith a rich environment in which to move through the chapters and settings of Wilson’s life growing up in Pittsburgh’s Hill district. It wasn’t an easy life, but he had mentors who recognized his writing ability early on and kept him looking upward, not spiraling downward.
Wilson, who was born in Pittsburgh in 1945, would go on to be the leading theatrical voice for black life in America. He created a cycle of plays set in various decades of the 20th century, winning Pulitzer Prizes for “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson.” Shortly after his death in Seattle in 2005, a Broadway theater was renamed in his honor, and a cultural center in his hometown bearing his name opened in 2009.
In the play — which premiered in Seattle in 2003 with Wilson taking the stage — we meet the people who shaped him, from his mother and the comfort of her front stoop, to the library where he educated himself after dropping out of high school, and on through the many female loves of his life. Smith tells each story with the raw power he evokes from Wilson’s words — sometimes joyous, other times frustrating, but always sparkling with a glimmer of hope.
Let’s hope this is just the beginning of a cultural and artistic partnership between these two theatrical organizations, whose commitment to excellence can teach us so much.
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If you go
• What: August Wilson’s “How I Learned What I Learned,” starring Aaron Smith
• Where: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City
• When: To March 10; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
• Tickets: $10 to $30, Riverside Theatre Box Office, (319) 338-7672, or Riversidetheatre.org