An Accomplished Actor Portrays August Wilson in ‘How I Learned What I Learned’
Wali Jamal brings unique insight into Wilson’s semi-autobiographical one-man show.
Wali Jamal first met August Wilson in 1999 during an impromptu reading of his play “Jitney” at a mutual friend’s house. As the only smokers, the two stepped out onto the back porch for a cigarette.
“Mr. Wilson, do you have any advice for someone who might be interested in writing a play?” Jamal recalls asking him nervously.
“Write what you know,” Wilson told him.
Since then, Jamal has become a prize-winning actor, comedian and playwright who built his name upon Wilson’s body of work. He is the only actor to have performed in all 10 of Wilson’s century cycle plays — each work set in a different decade of the 20th century — in addition to the autobiographical monologue, “How I Learned What I Learned,” which he’ll perform March 3 at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center as part of a colloquium held from March 2-4 in partnership with the August Wilson Society at Howard University. His work won him the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Performer of the Year award in 2018.
Wilson, Jamal says, used his personal history to bring Pittsburgh and its people to life.
“When I hear [Wilson’s characters], I hear my uncle, I hear my aunt,” Jamal says. “It’s like being Russian or Ukrainian and hearing Chekhov. It speaks to home. It speaks to the comfort of your childhood, your upbringing, and it’s reminiscent of the people who molded your life. And those are the people that August writes because he doesn’t write caricatures. He writes real people talking the way real people talk.”
“Wali is an actor’s actor,” says Janis Burley Wilson (unrelated to the playwright), president and CEO of the August Wilson Center. To those who know Wilson’s works, she says, it’s clear that Jamal has studied him for decades.
Jamal decided to become an actor in 1988, performing in dive bars and nightclubs as a comedian to work his way up. His first casting as an actor was as the lead in Eileen Morris’ “Lifting” in 1998.
Wilson himself performed “How I Learned What I Learned” for the first time in 2003, just two years before his death. In it, he recounts his formative years in the Hill District, bridging the gap between his life as a bohemian poet and his completion of the 10-play century cycle.
“Another thing that he accomplished [with this play] is a window into the inspirations of all his characters,” Jamal says. “His approach was observing people, observing his people. Not always putting them in their best light but never without their dignity.”
Jamal, 61, grew up in Homestead and spent summers in the Hill District with his grandmother. He says the fruit stands, department stores and grocers Wilson described in “How I Learned What I Learned” were the same fixtures of his own skyline. In the play, Wilson calls the Hill District “an amalgam of the unwanted,” but Jamal says this is hardly an insult.
Mark Clayton Southers, the founder and artistic director of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company in the Hill District, stakes Wilson’s legacy on “history through drama.” It was in Southers’ house that Wilson and Jamal met more than 20 years ago. Speaking from his car on the way back from a rehearsal of Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” which he produced in Phoenix earlier this month, the mutual friend maintains that Jamal is “the ultimate Wilsonian actor.”
Like Wilson, Jamal has a deep fascination for history and is a voracious reader of historical dramas, Southers says. He credits those mutual interests for Jamal’s lifelong gravitational pull to Wilson’s work — though he notes the fact they’re both Pittsburgh natives facilitated the initial connection.
Jamal “went from the bottom to the top,” Southers says. “He’s untrained and he grasped the work. He’s probably the hardest-working actor I know. He not only knows his lines, he knows everybody else’s lines as well.”
“How I Learned What I Learned” provides a glimpse into Wilson’s personal life and “what shaped him as a man,” Southers says, noting the play is especially “beautiful” for Pittsburghers because they can relate to the setting.
“Nobody loves August more than Pittsburgh,” Jamal says. “And when you really want the August experience, you’ve got to come here. Come here to Pittsburgh. We’re here waiting to give it to you.”
‘HOW I LEARNED WHAT I LEARNED’
August Wilson African American
Cultural Center, Downtown