Culture Junkie: On being a ‘completist,’ and seeing August Wilson alive again

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I admit it.

I am a completist.

Unfairly assumed to be obsessive, fanatical and a bit odd, sometimes dismissed as being over-preoccupied with the subject of their fixation, a “completist” is commonly defined as a person who compulsively seeks to collect, own or experience all of a particular category of book, record album, movie, play or what-have-you. For example, if you scour the internet to find limited release Beatles’ Christmas recordings, because you want your Fab Four collection to include every single thing the Beatles ever produced, then you are a completist.

And welcome to the club.

In my case, my drive to see every play ever written by William Shakespeare, and to hear every song ever composed by Bruce Springsteen, has never felt like an obsession so much as it just felt … obvious. If you decide you like something, what’s the logic in being choosy? Who binges a season of “Game of Thrones” but randomly skips an episode or two without feeling the need to go back and complete the experience? Who sets out to run a marathon, and then causally skips the last half-mile because the terrain doesn’t seem as interesting as the rest of the race was? Ever since seeing Franco Zefferelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” in 1969, at a drive-in movie on a double feature with “Battle Beneath the Earth,” I knew that whoever this Shakespeare guy was, I liked his style, and wanted more.

The dude wrote 37 plays? Then I guess I’ll see all 37. I might even see some more than once.

For the record, I’ve seen nine different productions of “Hamlet,” and this weekend will make that an even 10 when I attend opening night of director Sheri Lee Miller’s opulent new production at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park.

I’m not alone, of course. There are plenty of other completists out there.

Certainly not when it comes to Shakespeare, where “canon completion” is a definite thing. At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where the company is known for producing even the least popular of the Bards’ canon of works, and least once in a while, the gift shop sells little booklets that completists can use to record the date and time they see a production of a Shakespeare play that is new to them. For the record, I completed the Shakespeare Canon in March of 2017, when I traveled to Ashland to catch a performance of “Timon of Athens.”

As for Springsteen, the guy makes it easy. He routinely releases vast compendiums of his works, from the best to the least, frequently including stuff left off of his previous albums. When Springsteen releases something new, I have to hear it?

Why? Duh.

I like Bruce Springsteen.

I was even amongst the first to pre-order a copy of his recently released “Springsteen on Broadway” album. It’s basically the entire two-and-a-half hour, one-man-show the Boss performed for a year in New York. Not a concert, exactly, “Springsteen on Broadway” is a solo monologue, with music, in which he tells stories from throughout his life, explaining to his fans how he became the artist he is today. If you’re a Springsteen completist, “Springsteen on Broadway” is a must listen.

This brings me to the works of August Wilson.

The acclaimed African American playwright, who passed away in October of 2005, is considered one of all time the most important and influential writers of the 20th century. Born and raised in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Wilson went on to write an interrelated series of ten plays, now commonly called the American Century Cycle. All but one take place somewhere in the Hill District, in diners or backyards or kitchens or garages, one play set in each decade of the 20th century. Though he wrote them out of sequence from 1984 to 2005, the full cycle is, in chronological order, as follows: “Gem of the Ocean” (set in the 1900s); “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (1910s); “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (1920s); “The Piano Lesson” (1930s); “Seven Guitars” (1940s); “Fences” (1950s); “Two Trains Running” (1960s); “Jitney” (1970s); “King Hedley II” (1980s) and “Radio Golf” (1990s).

The first August Wilson play I ever saw was “The Piano Lesson.” Upon learning there were nine others, I set out to see all of them, too. When it comes to my cultural enthusiasms, I am nothing if not consistent. To date, I have seen seven of Wilson’s works at least once, with only “Jitney,” “King Hedley II” and “Radio Golf” still to go.

That’s fine. Even though the plays remaining are among the least often staged of his works, I know that sooner or later, someone will stage those shows. And I will be there. Why? Simple. Because August Wilson set out to tell a century-long story, those plays I’ve seen stand amongst the most beautiful, inspiring, educational, emotional, conscious-raising plays I’ve ever seen, and I am happy to sit in the dark and receive every last scrap of insight and poetry the man had to offer.

Which brings me to “How I Learned What I Learned.”

Must to my surprise, a few years ago I learned that August Wilson actually had an 11th play. Written and performed by Wilson himself just two years before his death, “How I Learned What I Learned” was the playwright’s own version of “Springsteen on Broadway.” It’s a one-man-show in which he told loosely connected vignettes from his life as a boy and young writer in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, along the way giving his own hard-won views of life, art, racism and what it means to be an American in a country that has consistently denied your claim to that label.

Learning of the existence of this play was a bit like what Tolkein completists feel every time his estate releases a new previously unpublished short story or other sequel to “The Silmarillion.” Adding to the drama was the certainty that “How I Learned What I Learned,” its author and prefer having died 14 years ago, is one August Wilson show I’ll never get to see.

Well, last week I saw it.

Marin Theatre Company, in Mill Valley, is currently presenting a remounted staging of the show, with the brilliant actor Steven Anthony Jones as Wilson. Beautifully directed by Bay Area legend Margot Hall, the piece has been drawing rave reviews, proving to be a must see for anyone who’s ever been moved by the works of Wilson.

The show runs at MTC through this Sunday, then moves to other venues in San Francisco, eventually ending in March. Getting to pretend Wilson is still alive, watching him download his view of this complicated world, is easily one of the most satisfying, moving and thought-provoking experiences I’ve had since the last time I saw a Wilson play.

And for the other Wilson completists in the audience, Marin Theatre Company has a display on the wall in the lobby, with 10 illustrations representing all of the American Century Cycle, and little stickers for folks to play at the borders of all the Wilson plays they’ve seen.

On the night I attended, I watched one woman carefully apply stickers to all 10 plays, then turn around, see me watching, and say, “I’m now trying to see all 10 of them twice.”

That’s the thing about us completists. We just never seem to actually complete our task.

When it comes to appreciating the work of great artists, when we’re hooked, we’re hooked for life.

(Culture Junkie runs every-other-week. Feel free to share your thoughts with David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)

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