Most of us have to invent our own personal mythologies to feel liberated from the humdrum reality of our origins. But Margo Hall grew up without any need to embellish her early years. Her stepfather, Teddy Harris, Jr., wrote songs for Aretha Franklin and worked as a composer and arranger for Motown Records. When she was a little girl, she danced on stage with The Supremes. Growing up around that kind of talent and glamour made an impression on her. She knew back then that she wanted to spend her life on stage.
Hall was one of the founding members of the San Francisco theater company Campo Santo. More recently, she’s been cast in a series of complex roles by contemporary playwrights like Marcus Gardley (Black Odyssey), Robert O’Hara (Barbecue) and Dominique Morisseau (Skeleton Crew). And she also had a cameo as Daveed Diggs’ mother in the film Blindspotting. For her next project, Hall is directing, and not acting, in August Wilson’s play How I Learned What I Learned.
In 2011, Hall first performed in one of Wilson’s play in Seven Guitars, produced at Marin Theatre Company (MTC). After that, she appeared in two more of his plays there. Those productions led Jasson Minadakis, MTC’s artistic director, to ask her if she’d be interested in directing How I Learned. Hall hesitated at first because she didn’t know much about it. How I Learned is an autobiographical play that Wilson (1945–2005) originally performed himself. He references his other work in the piece but it stands outside of his Pittsburgh or Century Cycle, 10 plays that dramatize the way African-Americans experienced the 20th century, one decade at a time.
“I was really interested in who the actor was going to be, because it’s just you and that actor in the room,” she explained. “We talked about Steven Anthony Jones. Steven and I have known each other for years. We starred in Fences together, and I directed him in Thurgood, which was a one man show about Thurgood Marshall. I thought, ‘That’s the perfect match,’ because we worked really well together.” It certainly helps that Jones had met Wilson, and that, according to Hall, he “knows everything about him.”
Hall believes that the play is a beautiful one man show. “it’s not like August Wilson saying, ‘When I wrote Radio Golf…’ It’s not that at all. He’s a master storyteller, talking about his life, and with these little lessons, and moments,” she says. “It’s very revealing about how the same issues that were happening then are happening now. You start to see the seeds that were planted for his plays and his philosophy around being Black in America.” She adds that it’s funny and full of Wilson’s humor but there might be some uncomfortable moments for a white audience. But she’s confident that Jones “will find a way to connect with them.”
She is also quick to make the connection between Wilson and the current Renaissance of African-American playwrights — including writers like Lynn Nottage, Tarell McCraney, Suzan-Lori Parks, Jackie Sibblies Drury, James Ijames — whose works are extending his legacy. “I was just listening to an interview with August Wilson from the 1980s, and he was talking about holding a summit called ‘On Golden Pond’ in New York, where he was going to talk about Black theater. How it was time for us to start committing, as Black people, to producing our own Black theater, because we weren’t getting funding. That we had to strike out, because there are all these young artists that nobody knows about.” Hall felt for many years that theaters perpetuated the myth that they couldn’t “make money off of Black plays.”
Then, in one theater after another, it slowly started to change. She recalled that MTC did a season of almost all-Black plays. Cal Shakes did Spunk by Zora Neale Hurston, the first Black play produced there in 35 years, followed by an all-Black version of A Winter’s Tale. Despite the myth, the plays did make money and, she says, audiences went crazy for the work. Hall, who also teaches drama, tells her students that plays by people of color give depth to the work “because we are always fighting.” And that she’s excited for them. “There’s just such a wealth of material, and they’re coming, and coming, and coming, because people are investing in them, they’re being financially supported. There are so many stories.”
How I Learned What I Learned, Jan. 10-Feb. 3, at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, $25-$70; 415-388-5208 or marintheatre.org. (How I Learned is a co-production that will travel to the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in February and on to the Ubuntu Theater Project in March.)