Last week, a federal appeals court ruled that it is legal to discriminate against job candidates with dreadlocks. The court ruled that dreadlocks, along with effectively any other natural black hair style, are not "immutable physical characteristics."
That phrase, "immutable physical characteristics" rings in your ears as Victor Mack stands on stage wearing a shirt that reads "I am supposed to be white" in Portland Playhouse's production of August Wilson's How I Learned What I Learned. Directed by Kevin Jones, this production is the first time How I Learned has been put on by both a black director and a black actor, according to the Playhouse. As Wilson, Mack tells a story of a white man who once told him that he didn't see color. When Wilson asked why he only chose to share that he doesn't "see color" with a black man, the man responded that Wilson was being "sensitive."
"He was willing to accept me as long as I was wearing this T-shirt," says Mack.
The autobiographical monologue strings together scenes from Wilson's life: people that inspired him growing up in Pittsburgh's Hill District as well as moments when he refused to be complicit in the face of discrimination. It's a marathon: the actor who plays Wilson has to monologue for a full 90 minutes. Moreover, he has to pretend to be a man recalling his past, while at the same time not acting exactly like a man recalling his past for a full hour and a half (because frankly, that would be a little boring).
But Mack, who's now acted in all but one of Wilson's 10-play Century Cycle, solves the problem by switching between channeling Wilson and inhabiting the scenes he recalls, like when he uses a stool to mime fending off a friend's wife who came at him with a knife. But there are also moments when he speaks with a dreamy distance, or searchingly pauses after a particularly powerful line and looks as if he's surprised at the poetry that just came out of his mouth.
The lighting and music are just about the only external aid Mack gets in telling his story, and they're hugely effective. At one point, the stage lights turn a warm orange as a scratchy, old New Orleans record starts to play, and Mack dances along as if in a trance. When the song stops, he looks for a moment like he's just woken up from a good dream and realized it was only in his head. A later scene—where Mack inhabits the time Wilson stood in a large crowd outside a Pittsburgh club to listen to John Coltrane play through the walls—is perhaps even more remarkable in its ability to create a vivid setting with nothing more than Mack, a Coltrane song, and relatively simple lighting.
At the end of it all, after recounting time and again how he refused to make even seemly small concessions to not-so-subtle racism, Mack as Wilson gets to stand with his back to the audience, and watch the titles of his esteemed plays projected in typewriter font across a myriad of hanging blank pages that make up the stage's backdrop. Though it's a triumphant ending to a play full of hope, it doesn't leave you feeling that everything's OK, but that difficult things are often what are most worth attaining.
See it: How I Learned What I Learned plays at Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St., portlandplayhouse.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday. Through Oct. 23. $5-$34.