August Wilson Center aims for high note with ‘Piano Lesson’ |
Theater & Arts

August Wilson Center aims for high note with ‘Piano Lesson’

Pittsburgh Cultural Trust
Wali Jamal, Nia Woodson and Karla Payne in 'The Piano Lesson'

Locally produced theater returns Nov. 13 to the August Wilson Center, Downtown, with a production of “The Piano Lesson.”

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Hill District native August Wilson, “The Piano Lesson” is one of the 10 plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, a decade-by-decade chronicle of the African-American experience in the 20th century.

A joint presentation by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, it is the first live theatrical event offered at the center since it was rescued from bankruptcy last spring.

Set in Pittsburgh in 1936, the play’s action revolves around Berniece and her brother, Boy Willie, who differ about the best use for a prized asset that is part of their ancestral history.

“These are rich characters with stories, and August is a great storyteller,” says Mark Clayton Southers, founder and producing artistic director of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company and director of “The Piano Lesson.”

The production marks Southers’ return to directing after being hospitalized for months following a car accident last spring.

“It feels good to be here,” Southers says. “I might be in a wheelchair, but it’s a great feeling to be back in that (rehearsal) space. I have my up days and down days. But when I get to rehearsal, I feel great.”

The object at the center of the dispute is an upright piano adorned with carvings of African mask-like figures that sits in Berniece Charles’ Pittsburgh parlor. Boy Willie comes north with a plan to sell the piano so he can buy farmland that his ancestors worked as slaves.

“He can go from sharecropper to farm owner,” says Wali Jamal, who plays Boy Willie. “The play is basically about a man’s desire to be his own man, to walk through life with his head held high.”

But Berniece and Boy Willie’s great-grandfather, who was a slave, carved the figures of his wife and son into the piano, which makes it a treasured part of their family’s story.

“Money can’t buy what that piano cost,” Berniece tells him, and their battle begins.

“The back-and-forth is the essential action that helps people engage,” Jamal says.

Surrounding them are six other characters who also weigh in with stories, opinions and agendas of their own.

Avery, an aspiring minister who has been courting the widowed Berniece, would like to use proceeds from a piano sale to help him buy a church for his congregation.

Avery and Boy Willie’s differences also illustrate the mindsets of African-Americans who chose to stay in the rural South and those who migrated to cities in the North. They also hold contrasting beliefs about African spirituality and Christianity.

Avery, says Edwin Lee Gibson who plays him, “is someone from the South who came to Pittsburgh and sees the means for changing lives. It’s not that he rejects Africanism, but he sees another world. … Avery is a character that Wilson puts in all of his plays (to) show us where we are in the circumstances of the decade.”

Alice T. Carter is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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