Welcome to the church of August Wilson. The playwright himself is in the pulpit, telling colorful and often funny tales about coming of age in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. He thunders righteously at injustice, and you can trust every anecdote to finish with a life lesson or a fervent moral.
Wilson died in 2005, but not before performing the memoir “How I Learned What I Learned” himself. The 80-minute show, now at the Round House Theatre and acted with Wilsonian authority by Eugene Lee, will please Wilson fans detecting in these character-rich stories the roots of his great plays — “Fences,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and “Jitney” among them.
David Gallo’s lovely design puts Wilson on a rough platform in front of hundreds of manuscript pages that seem to float magically. Names and subjects are sometimes projected (to the hard sound of a typewriter) onto those sheets, organizing the show’s memories. The stories portray the artist as a combative young man — for instance, Wilson gets a job and quits before he even starts, because the boss insultingly says he’d better not steal anything. The young man’s salty goodbye is delicious.
Lee plays Wilson with gruff take-it-or-leave-it integrity; like Troy Maxson in “Fences,” he doesn’t seem worried about whether you like him. You do like him, though. He’s a rascal, as he says late enough in the play that you know exactly what he means, having messed with another man’s wife and reasoned his way out of a potentially violent end. He has such a great eye for people that his proud mother and an addict friend — to take only two examples — become utterly vivid.
Again, much of it sounds like a Wilson play, and if you want evidence you can turn to the 1st Stage production of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” It’s the 1920s entry in Wilson’s “Decades” cycle, dealing with the legendary blues singer Rainey during a testy recording session organized by stingy, slippery white producers.
The rehearsal room is where Wilson’s richest characters idle and collide, telling stories about how they learned what they learned. Clayton Pelham Jr. is the fiery horn player Levee, and Michael Anthony Williams is his philosophical opposite, the pianist Toledo. The tales they tell cut deep: They’re drawing different lessons while being pressured by the producers, which leads to one of the most shocking endings in the Wilson canon.
Deidra LaWan Starnes directs, and Starnes, an accomplished actor herself, has a keen ear for the counterpunching voices of the four men in Rainey’s band (William T. Newman Jr. is the wise trombonist Cutler, and Jason B. McIntosh is the easygoing bassist Slow Drag). Thomascena Nelson is reasonably imperious as Rainey, while Tracey Farrar slinks around like trouble in a silk dress as Rainey’s disloyal girlfriend, Dussie Mae. It’s an early Wilson play, but at the opening performance you could see it scorching young ears getting a first taste of the earthy language and outsize characters.
“How I Learned” is co-conceived and directed by Todd Kreidler, who helped Wilson shape the material and directed the playwright in the premiere. Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, is a creative consultant, and she designed the costumes. Lee, a longtime Wilson actor, channels Wilson’s fearlessness, thirst for knowledge and poet’s eye for his surroundings — as the sagas unfold, you believe Lee saw and did it all.
That’s a lot of firsthand August Wilson experience putting together this tribute (which has appeared at other theaters around the country). So Wilson buffs, take note. It won’t feel this immediate forever.
How I Learned What I Learned , adapted and directed by Todd Kreidler. Lights, Thom Weaver; sound design, Dan Moses Schreier. Through July 3 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. Tickets $36-$65. Call 240-644-1100 or visit roundhousetheatre.org.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom , by August Wilson. Directed by Deidra LaWan Starnes. Set, Kathryn Kawecki; costumes, Debra Kim Sevigny; lights, John D. Alexander; sound design, Reid May. With William Aitken, Tendo Nsubuga, Joe Palka and Joshua Witt. About two hours and 40 minutes. Through June 25 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd., McLean. Tickets $30. Call 703-854-1856 or visit 1ststagetysons.org