Can you believe it has been less than one hundred years since the Civil Rights Movement? The hardships African Americans had to endure to gain equal rights in America is gut-wrenching. Imagine not being able to be who you want to be in life simply because of the color of your skin. As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. and his accomplishments this month, we should remember him as a hero who was determined to fight against racism and for social justice.
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Department of Theatre presented the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson’s “How I Learned What I Learned.” It was performed by one actor, Wali Jamal, who portrays August Wilson sharing stories of his life in Pittsburgh. The performance took place on Jan. 17 and Jan. 18 at Robinson Hall.
August Wilson was born on Apr. 27, 1945 and died on Oct. 2, 2005. He was raised in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania but eventually settled in Seattle, Washington. He is an American playwright and known for his series of ten plays, “The Pittsburgh Cycle.” Each play in the series is set in a different decade and depicts the hardships African Americans faced in the 20th century. His work has received prestigious awards such as Pulitzer Prizes and a Tony award for “Fences” (1987), an Emmy nomination for “The Piano Lesson” (1990), a 1999 National Humanities Medal and many more.
Wali Jamal is a Pittsburgh-based performer and playwright. He happens to be the only actor to have performed in all ten of August Wilson’s “American Century Cycle.” Jamal has also been awarded a citation from the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and named the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2018 Performer of the Year. A mentee of Wilson, Jamal participates in productions that represent Pittsburgh’s African American history and culture.
When asked what he wanted the audience to learn from August Wilson, his response was simply, “Family, justice and literacy.” These were reoccurring themes that I saw throughout the play. August Wilson expressed the importance of family, especially in the African American community. Family became the safe haven for many African Americans living in segregated America. Justice represented the agonizing desire for equal rights by African Americans. There were scenes from the play that depicted the unfair treatment August Wilson went through growing up in Pittsburgh. One that stood out to me was August Wilson struggling to find a decent job. He had to travel far from where he actually lived and was still underpaid. Literacy was also a common theme that I saw. It was normal that most of the African American community did not have the ability to read or write.
As I reflect, I will say that I am proud to be an African American. I am proud of my ancestors and acknowledge their hardships in order to give me a better life. One line from the script stood out to me, “[…] we are not black by the accidents of our births.” August Wilson made it clear that we are what we are. He brought up the economic conflict that African Americans faced during his time, the idea that they have to be white in order to be successful in life, and even though today is much different from the 1960s, there is still work to be done. Issues such as racism, sexism and the injustice system still exist today. Let Martin Luther King Jr. Day be a reminder for us to come together as one and become the change we want to see.