The Piano Lesson is poetic, powerful, and haunting. But the Circle Players production that opens Jan. 18 also gives important lessons about family heritage and social change during the economic and cultural upheaval of the Depression in a way that still resonates today.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 drama by renowned playwright August Wilson tells the story of a brother and sister who fight to claim the family piano — an heirloom with images carved by their great-grandfather while he was a slave. The sister, Berniece, insists on keeping the piano as a piece of art, a reminder of the family’s past and a testament of survival. Her brother, Boy Willie, wants to sell it and buy the farm his ancestors worked as slaves. Their bickering stirs up the ghost of a former slave owner.
Director J.P. Schuffman says The Piano Lesson is classically structured, but speaks to modern audiences. “The play itself is about what we do with our heritage — do we keep it? What do we do with what our forefathers have given us?” says Schuffman. “It seems very simple, but the depth and complexity behind the characters is what makes [the play] so great.”
Besides Boy Willie and Berniece, the characters include six other family members and friends that are portrayed in Circle’s production by a top-notch cast of experienced and noted local actors: Adarian Lherisson (Lymon), Joel Diggs (Doaker), Shawn Whitsell (Avery), Elliott Robinson (Wining Boy), Fiona (Grace) and Jordynne Tucker (Maretha). “They are talented in any regard; but they come to this work because it’s August Wilson, with a level of enthusiasm, commitment and willingness to study and understand the text that I haven’t really encountered before,” the director says. “We have powerful discussions during rehearsals about greater social meanings and metaphors in the play related to American culture today. They’re not just a cast of actors; they’re a group of socially-conscious citizens coming together for this art.”
Rashad “thaPoet” Rayford plays Boy Willie, who bursts onto the stage early and immediately begins stirring up trouble with his plan to sell the family heirloom. “He doesn’t have a regard for authority figures or people who will try to keep him from trying to do what he wants to do in life. He’s very hard-headed, like his sister, and so when they get together it’s kind of always friction,” says Rayford. “But throughout the piece, you can see that he’s just a man just trying to do what he feels is the right thing. That’s the overall theme for me throughout the whole piece — I wrote in my script “I’m just trying to do the right thing.”
Rayford is also a popular spoken word artist, and he draws on those skills for this role — something Schuffman needed for Wilson’s poetic dialogue. “Rashad came into the auditions with a command of language that is second to none — along with his physicality, the way he moves naturally,” explains Schuffman. “August Wilson’s words have a cadence and musicality to them. It doesn’t require a person to have a literary background or be a poet. But having someone who can hear the rhythm helps a lot — because Boy Willie talks a lot!”
Much of that talk is aimed at Berniece, who speaks little, but is often on stage. Tamiko Robinson plays that role — which draws on her versatility and confidence as an actor. “The way that Wilson writes his characters, his pauses — there’s some intent behind that,” according to Robinson. ”As an actor, there’s added work, and [Wilson] has all of these curves and twists and hidden meanings — little things, gems in his work. It’s just been a pleasure to have some of that unfold as I’m getting to be this character.”
Robinson’s character, Berniece, is a single mother and widow who stands firm as guardian of the family’s keepsake and ancestry. “She has a wall up and that’s a weakness of hers that she has to overcome in order to move on,” says Robinson. “Most of the characters in the play are searching for something, are trying to control a piece of what they feel they’ve lost in the past — and my character is no different. She is in search of control and identity that is not just tied to her being a woman from the South in the ’30s.”
The Piano Lesson is part of August Wilson’s “Century Cycle” about African-American life in the 20th century. Audience members familiar with the play will be eager to learn how Circle’s production deals with “the piano” (a character in its own right, carved with images of the family’s ancestors and history), and the ghost. Schuffman offers a tease: “The set work with the intricate piano carvings and other things we’re doing to represent the ghost — it will be a treat for people to see how we pull that off,” he says. “This is certainly a play that anyone, especially here in the south, who is interested in where we come from as an American culture, will be interested in because it’s such a large part of our history.”
The Piano Lesson marks the mid-point of Circle Players’ 63rd season, and is the only non-musical production in the lineup. Given the themes of family, history, and survival, The Piano Lesson is perfectly timed to coincide with MLK Day and to herald Black History Month in February. “This play is going to be enlightening for a lot of people; it’s going to be spiritual for a lot of people,” says Rayford. “Many are going to be able to relate to it regardless of their ethnicity. You’re going to be able to say ‘Wow, I have people in my family that are just like that!’
The Piano Lesson runs Friday, Jan. 18 through Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013, at Shamblin Theater on the campus of Lipscomb University (3901 Granny White Pk.). Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; matinees at 3:00 p.m. on Sundays (Jan. 20 and 27) and Saturday, Jan. 26. Tickets ($18 for adults, $15 for students and seniors ages 60 and up) are available at www.circleplayers.net. For reservations and group discounts for 10 or more in any category email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (615) 332-7529. Individual tickets will also be on sale at the box office at Shamblin Theater one hour before each performance.
*Photos by Mandy Whitley Photography courtesy Circle Players.